During my recent visit to to the 37th Telluride Film Festival, three films in particular captured my attention with their exploration of the the subject of community, family and religion in the context of war and survival. Each narrates a compelling story told from a different perspective and set in different historical moments, yet the theme of individual conflicts within the social support structure is clear.
The most compelling of these is Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s award-winning play), which tells the story of Nawal Marwan, a woman with a heroic and traumatic past, one so horrible she was tormented by it even unto death, insisting that she be buried face down, naked, in an unmarked grave until her children had fulfilled the promises she made in an earlier life on her behalf.
And thus began her unsuspecting children’s journey into their mother’s painful history that takes them into war torn Lebanon during the Civil war of 1975-1991 nominally between Christian and Muslim forces in the country. The movie places Nawal on a bus attacked by the Phalangists, alluding to an event on 13 April 1975 that killed about 26 PFLP members, and sparked a war that lasted 16 years and is estimated to have killed 7% of the country’s population. Nawal narrowly escapes death by virtue of her Christian background.
Narwal’s life is recounted in fragments and flashbacks, as her history is unraveled and the details of a Greek Tragedy emerge bit by bit. In parallel, Nawal’s Canadian-raised daughter, Jeanne, explores her mother’s background, discovering that the cultural stigma of her mother’s accidental pregnancy persists a lifetime later. She learns piece by piece and ever deeper the horror and trauma of her mother’s early adulthood, first forced into exile in the city, then being swept up in the war, hardened into partisan action on behalf of the Lebanese National Movement after pursuing her missing son to Damour, and ultimately paying a horrible price.
Jeanne’s twin brother, first dismissive of his mother’s past and uninterested in discovering anything more, finally makes the journey to Lebanon himself and continues the investigation into their mother’s past as it leads to the still-living and still powerful leaders of the Lebanese National Movement.
The audience is dragged step by step through the hell of sectarian civil war. Nawal’s tragic life is a metaphor for the tragedy of a war that pits neighbor against neighbor in brutal reprisals, creating wounds that fester to this day, even 20 years after the end of open hostilities.
The cast is very strong, the acting superb. The footage of Lebanon is beautiful and stark. Lubna Azabal as Nawal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne are particularly excellent, though so close in appearance that it is sometimes difficult to keep straight the jumps from wartime Lebanon of the 70s and 80s to the present, especially in the areas outside of Beirut where it seems little, if anything has changed.
A close second in the narrative category is Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, recounting the story of a Cistercian monastery in Algeria. It was an unexpected pleasure from a slow, deliberately paced film that built tension scene by scene, word by word, look by look to the point where one expected and would have entirely forgiven the characters for simply dying in peace from old age before meeting their historical ends.
The movie is a dramatization of the 1996 kidnapping and assassination of the monks of Tibhirine, a French Trappist monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria during the Algerian civil war. The conflict between Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria and more moderate Muslims started to boil over, and foreign corporate entities and remnants of French colonial rule became targets.
News of atrocities committed against foreigners reached the monks and forced them to decide between staying true to their mission and facing likely death or fleeing the country. The government of Algeria, the Algerian military, and people aware of their plight urged them to leave, but the local population they had served for decades urged the to stay. The monks ran a small infirmary, the only medical care in the region, which made them essential to the locals and soon nonjudgmental if not apparently willing allies of the local insurgents — an uneasy alliance that turned the military against them as well.
Historically, we know 6 of 8 monks in the monastery and a visitor from the Trappist order were kidnapped, held for two months, and then beheaded. The movie takes us through the almost unbearable tension that built between 14 December 1993, when 12 Christian Croatian construction workers were murdered near the Monastery and the abduction of the monks on the night of 26 March 1996.
The movie leaves ambiguous the final fate of the monks in deference to the controversy surrounding their actual fates. While it is clear that they were abducted by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and they were beheaded, there is some controversy as to whether the Algerian army may have killed them by mistake in a rescue attempt, and then covered the story up with the beheading.
Each of the actors put in a powerful and compelling performance, but Michael Lonsdale stood out as Luc Dochier, the doctor who had, in real life, lived in the monastery for 50 years, and was 82 at the time of the abduction. Lonsdale and some of the other actors went on retreats to prepare for their roles, learning the routines and liturgies of the order first hand.
Among the documentaries, Shlomi Eldar, a prominent Israeli journalist, follows the story of a Palestinian baby’s treatment for a rare genetic disease in Precious Life (Chaim Yakarim). Since there is no hospital in Gaza that could help, the family brought their baby to the nearest hospital in Israel.
At first the reporter is queasy about the assignment, making it clear that he does not like hospitals. Once engaged, the objective reporter provides thorough coverage of the search for a patron to pay for the surgery, the search for donors for a bone-marrow transplant, and the follow up care. Each phase has its struggles, as one would expect in such volatile territory. As various details emerge, the perspective changes, ranging from sympathy to anger. Questions arise as to the necessity and implications of this surgery, funded by an Anonymous Jewish man, and how this ostracizes the Gaza family from their friends, as well as the ethics of deed when the mother lets slip that she would be proud if her son became a suicide bomber.
These powerful films demonstrate the gamut of human existence, playing on emotion, history, culture and ethics in situations that broaden our understanding of current events and struggles. I would recommend all of them for anyone who wants to gain more perspectives on the conflicts engulfing our world today.