BEIRUT: Not all young men necessarily hate their fathers. Sons do, however, have a way of killing their dads off – metaphorically anyway. You could blame Sophocles for this, or Freud, but the trope has become a useful device for writers pondering the darker side of what it means to grow into your own skin.
Personal stories of this sort have found a place in film as well, fitting naturally within the practice of “creative documentary” – which take up intimate stories and often aspire to the sort of cinematic lyricism once more likely to be found in feature film than classical documentary.
The documentary programmers at Ayam Beirut al-Cinema’iya (Beirut Cinema Days) have a soft spot for this documentary practice, and the festival is screening a couple of works that are interested in the filmmakers’ relationship with their fathers who are both, somehow, absent.
“My Father Looks Like Abdel Nasser,” the film debut of Farah Kassem, is a 30-minute-long work that samples conversations with her father Mostapha and Nana, his domestic, augmented by bits of authorial commentary, in the form of snippets of mobile telephone conversation with her pals in Beirut.
The premise of the film is Mostapha’s sleeping disorder. Part of the treatment he’s taking involves his going to bed with electrodes attached to various parts of his body. The hunk of electronic equipment he must have strapped to his chest inspires Kassem to note – during one of her one-way phone conversations – that it makes him look like a suicide bomber.
A published poet, Mostapha Kassem says he began writing after graduating from school, recalling that his work has tended to ponder “departures.” A septuagenarian nowadays, he came of age in the 1960s, a time when (not unlike today) political change was fomenting great enthusiasm for the future in parts of the Arab world.
The film’s title refers to the fact that people used to say Mostapha looked a lot like Egypt’s first revolutionary leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It’s a carefully chosen historical reference, and point of comparison, since by now the Egyptian leader has undergone multiple transformations in the popular consciousness – from Arab nationalist hero to symbol of lost hope to an effigy of progressive politics.
The director is less interested in politics than in the fact that her father is receding from himself, bound by an ambient sense of loss and nostalgia, particularly since the death of his wife.
“My Father Looks Like Abdel Nasser” is very much a self-made project, with Kassem doing the writing, directing, camerawork and editing herself. The electronic soundtrack – one of the few things she didn’t do herself – complements her camera’s fondness for the textures of and colors of aging skin.
The writing and editing betray promise. When it circles back to the nature of her father’s sleeping disorder, Kassem’s film attains an elegant narrative symmetry.
Formal and narrative elegance are also the hallmarks of “The Man Inside,” French filmmaker Karim Goury’s work about his relationship with his absent father, Amin Hamed Hasan.
The film is located exclusively in a Kuwait City hotel room. It is the last place on earth where the filmmaker can say with confidence that his father stayed before he disappeared and is assumed to have died. An Egyptian businessman and a bit of a scoundrel, Goury’s father spent more than 15 years in France, where he fathered a couple of kids with his French wife before abandoning her in favor of another family, and another life, in Egypt.
It seems that, in the last phase of his life, the old man resettled in Kuwait, where they ran a hotel restaurant with yet another a new wife. Goury has come to Amin Hamed Hasan’s last known residence with his camera and a handful of traces from his father’s life – a broken 45rpm record, a few photos, a handful of French francs and a single cassette tape – all collected from his father’s Egyptian family.
He reads some of the letters his father wrote to his oldest daughter Hiba – translated, as he doesn’t read Arabic himself. Both narratively and filmically, Goury treats these letters as existential traces of a father who he never met, pieces of paper he handled, bearing lines of words that, though incomprehensible to him, represent a regularity quite at odds with his own experience of the man.
Most intriguing for him is the cassette tape on which, in 1982, the old man (then 55) recorded a letter to his Egyptian children. It’s the last trace of his father’s corporality and Goury’s sole opportunity to listen to his voice.
The filmmaker’s object is to place himself in his father’s context – to retrace his steps, to recreate Hasan’s isolation from his seven children by separating himself from his own family – as a means to make the old man’s choices somehow more comprehensible.
Goury has already had a smack at narrating his absent father, with his first feature-length documentary, “Made in Egypt” (2006). Though the subject matter is the same, “The Man Inside” and “Made in Egypt” are quite dissimilar.
The 2006 film basically follows Goury’s efforts to track down traces of the father he never knew and, as such, exudes some of the urgency of that quest. While retaining much of the emotional force of the original film, “The Man Inside” works with material he’s had in his possession for years (and which his Egyptian relatives had held for a decade), and as such is less urgent, more staged and performative.
While looking at his father’s letters, for instance, Goury holds the paper to the light and finds the silhouette of his own hand on the other side. When he hears the sound of music arising from his hotel room’s adjoining suite, his camera follows as – like a schoolboy voyeur – he cautiously approaches, opens the door on his side and listens.
In one vignette, Goury’s camera finds him enjoying a video conference with one of his boys, a representation of the sort of intimacy he tries to maintain with his own family – in contradistinction to his relationship with his father.
Aesthetically more mature than his first work, “The Man Inside” is less a quest for an absent father than an artful distillation of the man’s elusiveness, and the filmmaker’s resignation at being unable to apprehend him.
“My Father Looks Like Abdel Nasser” and “The Man Inside” will screen Wednesday and Friday, respectively, at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. All films are subtitled in English. For more information please see www.beirutdc.org.