By Phil Hall | January 19, 2007

Cherien Dabis’ short “Make a Wish” takes place in Ramallah, yet on the surface it seems like the rare Palestinian film without a political message. Eleven-year-old Mariam is determined to get a birthday cake, but despite her savings and the bit of change her mother can dig from an empty purse, she comes up short of the cash needed to buy the cake she desires.

Desperate to obtain the cake and ignoring her mother’s demand not to stay out too long, Mariam panhandles – first by trying to sell chewing gum and then by using her sister under the fib that her sibling is blind and needs money for an operation.

“Make a Wish” is literally a beat-the-clock scenario, given its 12-minute running time. It is difficult to imagine the purchase of a birthday cake could create such excitement, yet Dabis creates a genuinely tense environment with the plucky and stubborn young heroine refusing to concede the hopelessness of her situation.

Mayar Rantisse is the young Mariam and she is a sparkling, natural presence. Her performance could’ve easily veered into bratty behavior, particularly when Mariam passes up a less expensive cake for the grander pastry of her choice. However, the film’s devastating denouement (which brings the curiously absent political message into the mix) beautifully explains the reason for Mariam’s stubborn behavior.

“Make a Wish” is a fine addition to the growing canon of Palestinian cinema. It also reinforces the power of short films and the ability to achieve cinematic greatness within the span of a few minutes.

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