Home Movie | Essay by Filmmaker Zeina Sfeir
Filming privacy, or turning private and family life into a cinematic theme is a phenomenon found in film production in general, and more particularly in documentaries. This genre has lately started to occupy a large portion of Arab documentary cinema, thanks to the technological advancement that made the use of photographic tools relatively easy. This phenomenon is due to several reasons, some production-related, and some other cultural and associated with the nature of our society.
The technical aspect: With the technological development in the second millennium, the small cameras appeared, at relatively reasonable prices. Then the smart mobile phones followed, with high-tech quality images, which made the photography technical process easier and filmmaking in everyone’s reach. All this has, in some instances, freed directors of the burden of high production costs and the need for a big crew.
This has undoubtedly facilitated the production process, but it has of course come as an answer to a need emanating from the culture of our Arab societies and from specific accumulations these societies carry from within. The cultural aspect: Here we begin to ask questions: What are the reasons behind this phenomenon and is there a need for it?
This genre is distinguished by highlighting the character in general. The main characters are often played by parents or relatives who are ordinary people, not celebrities or stars (except, of course, if the filmmaker is the child of a politician, an artist, or a well-known figure). Hence, they are mostly real-life characters that probably constitute the first inspiration for the creator. They are connected to the daily realities and to the rich and diverse narratives of our region that are sometimes too complicated to be captured in a film. In other terms, if these stories were narrated in a film, no one would believe them.
Another reason behind this phenomenon is that Arab peoples are going through the same suffering. When a director films a personal story that touches him/her deeply, he/she finds a wide Arab audience that has gone through the same experience, which makes it capable of deeply empathizing with the story more than other audiences. In this case, if we were to talk about committed cinema, the following description would be valid: it is similar, at times, to the oral memory that Al-Hakawati (the narrator) has always transmitted; it can be used in films to compensate for the Lebanese history book that has not been issued since 1947, or the stolen history of Palestine which some artists attempted to preserve through recordings made with the survivors of Al-Nakba. In addition, our Arab countries have reached a situation where we sometimes recall past events, perhaps because yesterday was a better image than today. Here we dive into nostalgia.
I will not go into the details, since some cinematic theories deny nowadays any boundaries between feature and documentary films. Sometimes, there is a blend of genres. But this cinema, which addresses the individual and the society, while mostly delving into purely personal themes, is a committed cinema that we choose to highlight today because although it gained recognition in festivals, it is still absent or made absent from the Arab viewers who may sympathize with this genre. In general, Arab cinema today, with the exception of Egyptian cinema, namely the commercial side of it, faces huge challenges accessing its audience, despite some timid attempts. However, most of these movies, all genres included, are welcomed by international festivals. Some films focus on Arab faces that are known to the festivals that have become used to them. They address present-day themes of wars and crises and can be classified as direct cinema. The other films are different. They follow an artistic style with which the Arab viewers are not familiar, in addition to empirical films, documentaries, etc.
The films proposed today can also trigger Arab curiosity to learn about home and family. This is closely related to our Arab customs and culture, and may also be one of the reasons behind the emergence of this genre.
This program opted for types of this documentary art from several Arab countries: The start is with the Lebanese film – Home Sweet Home by Nadine Naous. This film embodies Lebanon’s curse on the Lebanese. Watching it, we understand why the country has reached its present economic crisis and social collapse. The choice of this film is more timely than ever, as it addresses the memory and documents the history that has not been and might never be written. The director lives outside Lebanon. Just like many who have been let down by the country, she chose to settle abroad. The dire economic situation had forced her father, a teacher, to sell the school he used to run in the Beirut suburbs. This film thus incorporates the economic crisis that had begun to spread and the degradation it caused in the education sector.
By watching this film, we understand the Lebanese conjuncture and the accumulations that drove the country to collapse. It is a film that stems from a very personal story, to draw the path of the homeland and address topics like memory and history. We can say it is among the films that had a vision of where the country was heading. This is, sometimes, specifically the role of the artist in his/her society and the function of his/her artistic product.
Furthermore, making films of this genre is not easy. Working with people close to us, people from our family, for example, turns out sometimes to be harder than working with strangers. Hence the importance of cinema as a space that enables us to reconcile with an idea or dare confrontation. In this context, director Naous said, in an interview with France 24 channel about the film, that the camera gave her the necessary courage to initiate a dialogue with her father.
Trip Along Exodus film by Hind Shoufani The second film is Palestinian, but the director lives between Beirut, Amman, and Dubai, and holds American citizenship. This time, the father’s character is Palestinian writer and political activist Elias Choufani, a resident of Damascus.
So we are in front of a renowned personality. The father character was chosen from inside the family and precisely by his own daughter Hind, and not by any director dealing with a character “portrait”. The director here is a daughter talking about her renowned father, and this is the “privacy” in the treatment.
Trip Along Exodus is a film by the director and poet Hind Choufani. It treats of a whole generation’s defeat, through the story of a father who was a well-known Palestinian militant in the ‘60s. He rejected the political settlement with Israel because its formula represented a letdown, and a recognition of the supremacy, right, and power of the enemy. Hence he became rejected by the settlement seekers.
Over two hours, the father explains his experience, that of a generation of resistance that got frustrated. However, what the film shows is not only the frustration of a generation but also that of a father, whom we accompany in his house in Damascus, wearing his pajamas; we follow him in his daily life until his last breath. Furthermore, the film summarizes the many cities the Palestinian diaspora moved in between. It is the story and the curse of this region.
Fragments by Hakim Belabbes With the third film we land in Morocco, with somehow a different genre when it comes to the treatment, but within the same theme and context of programming. Over ten years of filming, the director, through a reflective film, accompanies his family members of different ages in different times, and intimate moments.
The director, based between Morocco and the United States of America, questions the developments of life for the individuals of the Moroccan society. He, thus, uses his family as a subject, a Moroccan family with all its customs, traditions, contradictions, and simple life, without any embellishment attempt.
The director’s creative power lies in the spontaneity of the film; it is a film of local and yet universal culture, with its popular, cultural, and historical dimensions. The film is made of scattered pieces, unified by the theme, that is the ordinary, forgotten, and marginalized human being: how this human lives with their reality and gradually vanished into thin air with time. The director’s camera remains close to the human body and the cracks and abysses time inflicted on it. It focuses closely and lengthily on faces full of sadness, reflection, and misery, leaving to them the freedom of speech or silence.
This documentary is interspersed with family events that are all looking for the meaning of life and death, through ordinary questions addressed to simple people, including children, about how they see life and what comes after death. All along these scenes, the father has a strong presence. We see his health gradually deteriorate over time, and how he transforms into a different man than the one we saw in the beginning.
The director also gave his film a human dimension, so that it is not only autobiographical, despite the director’s constant presence in how he sees the character and analyses things. Here the director treats of the life of his family. He has turned its real personalities into a subject for his film, with all their spontaneity and naturalness, since he fell in love with the cinema and emigrated to America. Hence, an invisible overlap emerges, in the film, between self and other.
The film discusses the struggle of the Arab individuals, whatever affiliations they have, their quest for emigration, and the citizen’s new perspective on their reality upon return from abroad.
The last two screenings are of two medium-length films from Lebanon. The first, “Al Hara” by Nicolas Khoury, delves into nostalgia and into the portrait of a woman found in every family of our societies. She is the aunt who abandons herself and her life, driven by her eagerness and sense of giving to her family members. She forgets about herself and her life and ends up alone. But she holds a special place in the children’s hearts.
The film indirectly represents, without explicitly declaring it, women who unconsciously acquiesce to patriarchal society, rejoice in giving, sacrifice, and are convinced of their fate.
It is a documentary of nostalgia, through which the sweet director, in his own way, shows appreciation and recognition to this human. The second film, “Conflict 1949-1979”, relates to Nadine Naous’ film in terms of confrontation with the main character. Using the camera, director Josef Khallouf faces his father who was involved in the Lebanese civil war. The cinema here is again playing a role in approaching memory, especially in connection with reconciliation, which the ruling power in Lebanon has never done.
Josef Khallouf’s documentary treats of the Civil War and its aftermath, the deficiencies of the individuals who participated in its extremism and violence, and how it is passed from one generation to another. Khallouf tackles the themes of killing, sectarianism and carrying weapons, knowing that, forty years after the end of the civil war, arms are still uncontrolled. He also discusses the price his family and himself paid, and the financial situation they reached, because of his father’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war with an extremist militia.