Culture

A film against forgetfulness

BEIRUT: If you run your eyes over a day’s worth of images from April, 2017 – glossy magazine ads, the news feed (and attendant ads) of websites, TV and newspapers, the flotsam circulating through your Instagram account – one thing is obvious. Old age, is less photogenic (perhaps differently photogenic) than youth.

Advancing years may make a career-switch to modeling less likely but some beautiful cinema has come of homo sapiens’ living longer than they used to do. In practice that means scrutinizing the workings of memory – that unbreachable vault of personal history and narrative, whose shortcomings betray themselves with age.

Memory, personal history and narrative are the stuff of Hady Zaccak’s 2017 documentary “Ya Omri” (104 Wrinkles). The feature had its Lebanon premiere during Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya and is now in theatrical release locally.

The subject of the film is the filmmaker’s grandmother Henriette Masaad, a lady with a fascinating personal history, conditioned by having been born into Brazil’s “Turkish” community of Levantine Arabs, who began migrating to South America in the 1870s.

As “Ya Omri” opens, with Zaccak and director of photography Muriel Aboulrouss paying her a birthday visit, Henriette Masaad remains a blank slate. It’s immediately clear, too, that she’s hard of hearing and suffering from Alzheimer’s, or some other species of dementia.

“Do you know me?” the filmmaker asks rather loudly.

“Are you a relative?” she replies.

“I’m Hady!” he says.

“Hady!” she smiles affectionately.

“Yes Hady,” he grins back.”

“Hady who?”

The sequence cuts, resuming with another sequence shot a few years before. The filmmaker opens his laptop and pulls up his gran’s portrait.

“Is it beautiful?” he asks.

“No,” she replies, “but it’s me.”

The film resumes with footage of another visit, when Masaad was 94.

“I look terrible,” she declares, “but at least I’m still alive.”

Her grandson shows her a portrait taken when she was a young woman. She nods approvingly.

“How old are you now?” he asks.

“Guess,” she replies.

“102 years old!”

“Walla,” she says. “I’m 102 and still alive?”

“How old are you?” Zaccak asks a little later.

“You’re not supposed to ask a lady how old she is,” she replies.

“It’s impolite.”

In so far as “Ya Omri” unfolds in this manner, the film resembles a collage of home movie excerpts.

Moments from the lady’s birthdays and holidays aren’t set out in chronological order. Neither does the film move back through its subject’s history. Instead recent and less recent snippets are interspersed in no obvious order.

Scenes from the formal shoot (the most recent sequences) are set apart from Zaccak’s older video and film footage by the intimacy of Aboulrouss’ lensing, in which extreme close-up shots of Masaad’s 104-year-old person leave her image slightly blurred around the edges of the frame.

There’s a good deal of what might be called dementia humor in this film. At the film’s Beirut premiere, Masaad’s struggles to respond to her grandson’s inquiries – and the sly remarks she sometimes utters during flashes of lucidity – had the audience in stitches. That’s not to say Zaccak exploits his grandmother’s condition for cheap laughs. When an adult begins to slide into dementia it’s not unusual to want to remind her of moments from the personal history she’s misplaced.

The sequences the filmmaker chooses from his extensive archive include several staged efforts to prod her into recollection. What she’s told about her family and herself provoke a wide range of emotions in Masaad that make it impossible to see her as anything but a complex character.

After an impish interlude – showing the lady rifling through a voluminous purse in search of a cigarette – the filmmaker produces a copy of the Masaad family tree, dating from the 15th century.

“You’re the oldest member of the member of the family now,” Zaccak informs her.

“No!” she replies with a withering expression. “There are many more that are older.”

“You’re the oldest,” he persists.

“Living or dead?”

“No, living.”

He shows his gran an image of her distant forebear, Boulos Masaad, the first Maronite patriarch to be chosen from outside Lebanon’s clique of feudal families. Producing an early 20th-century portrait of her brother Albert (d. 1935), Zaccak reminds her that he discovered an element that now takes the family name. He also invented a substance that helps prevent film stock from burning.

Later, Zaccak uses vintage family photos to cajole his grandmother to discuss how she left Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s and – after a musical and romantic interlude in Italy – ended up settling in Beirut, in defiance of her father’s wishes.

“Why did I return here?” she asks. “I didn’t speak or write or anything. I used to speak Portuguese and play piano.”

“Why did you return?” the filmmaker asks.

“Because I’m stupid,” she grumbles. “I was stubborn.”

Cinema didn’t invent homo sapiens’ fascination with personal obsolescence. Before the onset of photography, trace elements of mortality were evident in writers’ memoirs and artists’ self-portraiture – though these weren’t necessarily composed with a mind to creating subjective documents of physical and psychological decline.

Filmmakers, on the other hand, have used the limitations of the medium to explore mortality from a distance, framing the character and – as some have argued – turning the subject into an object.

There is no shortage of international cinema – fiction and documentary – that’s taken up the subject of individuals’ aging and mortality, and any number of Lebanese artists has made feature-length docs about their parents and grandparents. Tamara Stepanyan’s 2012 “Embers” and “I Had a Dream, Mom,” Lina Saneh’s 2006 film debut, are only two strong examples of creative engagement with dementia that is at once artful and nonexploitative.

Sweet-tempered and comic, Zaccak’s “Ya Omri” will now be counted among their ranks.

Hady Zaccak’s “Ya Omri” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 06, 2017, on page 16.

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