BEIRUT: The opening moments of Philippe Aractingi’s “Heritages” resemble a “making-of” video – documentation of the filmmaking process that’s often wrapped into DVD packages for added commercial value.
Aractingi and his family are shown chatting in a green screen studio – a film set where actors’ labors are shot and later superimposed on a different background in postproduction.
In practice this artificial backdrop could be anything from a contemporary exterior location (Jeita Grotto, say) to a computer generated fantasy world (Mordor) or archival footage.
The strongest formal gesture in this 2013 feature-length documentary, the opening sequence informs the audience that, as with all cinema, there is a good deal of fabrication in what’s to come.
As the camera gazes upon wardrobe technicians fitting the filmmaker’s family members with period costumes, Aractingi intervenes to nail the point home for anyone who may have been updating their Facebook status.
“Heritages,” he says, “is an autobiographical novel in pictures.”
Later on, the filmmaker’s voice-over can be heard explaining that, since he was a young man, he has compulsively taken photographs of his surroundings, as if to preserve something that was bound to pass one day.
In 2006 (the year of Israel’s 34-day summertime war on this country), the voice-over continues, he found himself fleeing a conflict in Lebanon for the 20th time. His family’s evacuation marked the third time he traveled with the intention of resettling permanently.
Sometime during this flight, the director recalls, it occurred to him that members of his family have been fleeing one crisis or another for generations. “Heritages” oscillates between the Aractingi family’s move from Lebanon to France in 2006 to the migration tales of the filmmaker’s forebears.
Followers of Lebanese film production may know the filmmaker for his two feature films. “Bosta” (2005) is an ensemble musical-comedy road movie starring a clutch of then-young talent. Another road movie, “Under the Bombs” (2007) is a drama set, and shot, in south Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli bombardment.
The writer-director-producer pitched these films to a popular audience and both works (particularly the lighthearted “Bosta”) attained a degree of commercial success and festival attention. Though “Heritages” is represented as a dramatic departure from his previous work, the “big tent” sensibility of these movies is evident here.
To recount his multilayered family autobiography, the filmmaker uses archival images from the late-Ottoman Empire, family photos and personal footage shot on super 8mm film, augmented with fresh footage of his family shot on location in France and Lebanon, and before the green screen.
In the last instance, the filmmaker casts members of his immediate family to play his ancestors and earlier versions of himself – sometimes in film sets, other times against the background of archived location footage.
The lineal memoir begins in Ottoman Constantinople (i.e. Istanbul). The sultan’s armies have lost to the entente powers. When European armies try to occupy parts of Anatolia in the 1920s, and the Turkish rump of the army resists, his grandparents decide to relocate to the Arab Levant.
Later the filmmaker’s grandmother Wadiaa informs him that her husband had fled Lebanon in 1860 – the year peasant dissent against the mountain’s landlord class was recast as a Christian-Druze civil war, and several massacres of Lebanese Christians ensued.
Returning to 2006, the filmmaker recounts how, while settling his kids into French schools, he himself returned to Lebanon to shoot “Under the Bombs.”
The film then recollects the more recent Lebanese history of Aractingi’s father, Ernest, who as a young man studied with Beirut’s Jesuits – where he got into trouble for speaking Arabic on the school grounds. Aractingi the elder migrated to the coast permanently at the age of 42, his son’s age when he fled to Paris.
“Heritages” alights upon the era of Abdel-Nasser, the filmmaker’s experiences growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War, then veers into the story of his wife Diane – who, though French, is herself of Levantine decent.
It would be silly to imagine the language of “Heritages” is informed by the films of this region more than any other, but autobiographical docs tend to be of a type. Like “Heritages,” Maher Abi Samra’s “We were Communists” (2010) deploys moments from his earlier works as documents of his personal journey.
In “Port of Memory,” Kamal alJafari’s 2010 doc about Israel’s strangling of contemporary Jaffa, the Palestinian filmmaker employs digital techniques to allow a relative to walk through the city streets as they once were.
At one point in “Teta, Alf Marra” (2010), Mahmoud Kaabour’s well-received little doc about his Beiruti grandmother, the filmmaker literally dons the wardrobe of his grandfather, to whom he bears some physical resemblance.
As with the film language, so with its story. As one critic in Beirut’s Arabic-language press remarked after the doc’s press screening, stories of conflict-induced displacement, migration and resettlement are not uncommon in this part of the world – witness the millions of Brazilian “Turcos” who claim descent from Mt. Lebanon, or the million-plus Syrian refugees now subsisting in this country.
Some Lebanese may be impatient with migration tales like this one, yet the commonplace premise of Aractingi’s film may be one of its strengths. At the film’s world premiere at DIFF, some Western critics were charmed by the uniqueness of the family’s stories. If local audiences find charm in “Heritages” it’s probably less for the anecdotes’ details than the overall tone of the thing.
Stories of displacement – whether the Armenian genocide, the Palestinian expulsion or the multiple internal displacements since Lebanese came to rule themselves – are redolent with pain, loss and nostalgia.
While recounting a litany of tragedy that followed his family’s multiple uprootings and resettlings, Aractingi’s decision to deploy his wife and kids to tell the tale gives this film the sheen of G-rated family entertainment.
“Heritages” concludes on an upbeat note.
The camera’s been looking on as they explore Hasbaya’s Chehab Palace, where French mandate authorities briefly detained Lebanon’s fledgling political leadership.
As the voice-over repeats the oft-repeated (always ignored) trope that a country ignorant of its history is bound to keep repeating its mistakes, family members daub bright paint on cloth sacks.
Later, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon with his family, the grinning filmmaker cuts loose the colorful bags of Lebanese soil that’ve been weighing them down. Rising high in the air, the Aractingis are able to gaze down on the Lebanese landscape from a safe distance.
Aractingi’s ‘Heritages’ opens in Beirut cinemas on March 27.