BEIRUT: Migration stories frequently bob to the surface of this region’s cinema. That said, it’s rare to find a film on deracination with quite the energetic verve of “Zaineb Hates the Snow.”
This feature-length documentary by Tunisian-born Kaouther Ben Hania introduces the audience to 9-year-old Zaineb Khelifi, her mother Widad and younger brother Haythem. Near at hand are Wijdene Hamdi, a little girl of about Zaineb’s age, and her father Maher, a Montreal-based divorcé who regularly visits Tunis and – it’s soon revealed – has been quietly courting Widad.
Over a six-year period, the filmmaker and her camera revisit the Khelifi and Hamdi families for a spell of shooting every 18-to-24 months, documenting the comedy and pathos of loss, hope and ambivalence as Widad and Maher first negotiate the coupling of their families, then relocate Zaineb and Haythem to snowbound Montreal.
“Zaineb” has a candy-coated aesthetic that may be off-putting to skeptical documentary fans – particularly given the tragically parochial turn that the story of refugee and labor migration to Europe and America has taken since 2011.
Ben Hania comes by this aesthetic honestly, inspired by the camera’s proximity to Zaineb, later Zaineb and Wijdene, and the florescent pop-culture hues with which prepubescent girls sometimes surround themselves.
It’s introduced with the opening credits and a montage of decorative hand-scrawled pages from what seem to be young Zaineb’s diary and school workbooks. In Quebecois-accented voiceover, Zaineb introduces herself. “I didn’t always have this accent,” she muses, “but life is full of surprises.”
Personal tragedy isn’t excluded from the frame. From a discreet distance, the camera looks on as the Khelifis visit the grave of Zaineb and Haythem’s father. The knock-on effects of the father’s absence – Zaineb’s upbeat declaration that she takes after her dad in every respect and inherited nothing from Widad, for instance, her unwillingness to share her mother with Maher and reluctance to leave Tunis – is the sober bedrock of the film’s drama.
The story hinges on Zaineb and her growth from a rambunctious little girl and Tunisian patriot to a statuesque young woman invested in a more hybrid identity, but the filmmaker works to make the camera’s glimpses of the individuals in the Khelifi and Hamdi families more than caricature.
In Tunis, Zaineb confides to Ben Hania that she’s aware that her mom takes late-night telephone calls from some man and that she sometimes pretends to be sleeping alongside Widad in order to listen in on their conversations.
The film immediately leaps to one such nocturnal chat, after which a giddy Widad confesses that, despite her best efforts to erect walls against having feelings for another man, Maher had won her over.
Later, in Canada, she compromises on her attachment to the hijab and abandons the headscarf. “Is this exhibitionism?” her reflection says to the camera as she fiddles with her hair in the bathroom mirror. “You bet it is.”
The centerpiece of the film’s comedy and drama, though, is Zaineb and Wijdene’s relationship. In them the film finds a pair of attractive, highly performative youngsters who both love the camera and are accustomed to being doted on by their respective single parents. When the two families come together in Montreal, they suddenly share not only the same house but the same bedroom.
There’s no better recipe for sibling rivalry and Ben Hania deftly documents the theatrical hospitality, the competition and the carving-up of physical and emotional territories between them.
This territoriality expresses itself in unexpected ways. It’s only after Zaineb, Haythem and Widad join the Hamdis in their Montreal home that Wijdene learns that her father has remarried. She immediately asks for permission to ring her mother, who informs her that, yes, she’d been informed.
“So I’m the only one who didn’t know?” says the bereft Wijdene, who then sets about writing a letter of protest to her father.
“I can’t believe you did this to me,” she reads aloud. “Everyone knew.”
“Say, ‘Even Haythem knew,’” Zaineb interjects.
“Even Haythem knew,” Wijdene reads back.
“Zaineb Hates the Snow” had its world premiere at the 2016 Locarno film festival and later that year won the Golden Tanit at the Carthage film festival. The film enjoyed its Lebanon debut this week at Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya, Beirut’s biennial festival of Arab film.
Ben Hania’s work has paired a witty and acerbic eye with a genre-bending desire to mine the wide seam between documentary and fiction film.
Her 2010 feature debut, “Imams go to School,” explores the heart of French laicite. It follows a handful of apprentice imams at Paris’ Grand Mosque as they fulfill the state’s requirement to study French secularism at the only university that offers these classes – the Catholic one.
A fiction disguised as a documentary, Ben Hania’s 2013 “Le Challat de Tunis” sets out to investigate the story of the notorious Tunis Slasher, who, in the days before the revolution, would attack the rear ends of female pedestrians with a razor. When the director (Ben Hania) makes a casting call to find someone to play the slasher, a young man comes forward to say that he is “Le Challat,” commencing a comic journey through the popular culture of the Tunis precariat.
With “Zaineb Hates the Snow” the filmmaker returns to the fly-on-the-wall premise of “Imams,” but with a maturity that makes the filmmaker and her camera integral to the story.
The more striking departure is her use of a longue-durée approach to filmmaking.
The most-celebrated example of this form is Michael Apted’s “Up Series” – following a clutch of British kids from “Seven Up!” 1964, to “49 Up,” 2005. More recently American indie Richard Linklater made use of the form in his fiction “Boyhood,” 2014, which crafts a feature film from an intermittent 12-year-long shoot with the same core cast.
Comparing Ben Hania’s work with that of Linklater is not to deride it as derivative, but to note that this documentary possesses the forward momentum of fiction – despite her decision to sidestep contextual markers like Tunis’ 2011 revolution or the ongoing migrant crisis.
The film that emerges from this six-year-long documentary shoot is a charming and effective blend of banal poignancy and emotional authenticity. Placed alongside the pall of human misery seeping from recent journalistic and cinematic treatments of refugee and economic migration to Europe (and the opportunism of the Trump regime) Ben Hania’s film seems incongruously sunny. The incongruity rests in its characters and stories not conforming to prevailing journalistic and cinematic depictions of abject misery and essential cultural difference between migrants and their host countries.
“Zaineb Hates the Snow” doesn’t claim migration is a comedy. It does suggest that human stories can be autonomous of murderous, parochial politics, that something sweet can still be tasted amid the bitterness.
Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya continues through March 24. See www.metropoliscinema.net.