BEIRUT: The cinemas of the “global south” like women in trouble. Female characters have long been shown struggling to express themselves through various cultural demands - usually framed as hijab and arranged marriage versus university education.
Such stories have flourished in the era of dystopian Islamist militancy, with some filmmakers conjuring up female perpetrators of violence as well as victims. Women in Arab cinema must cope with the minefield of pregnancy too. If unplanned, it’s usually premarital, sometimes resulting from rape.
Planned or not, the reproductive cycle generally proceeds in conditions of imprisonment, poverty and ambient violence - spousal abuse if not war.
Girl-meets-boy tales aren’t so common in southern cinemas, so Abbas Fahdel’s unassuming “Yara” is eccentric.
Set in an isolated and sparsely populated mountain community in summertime, the story centers on the adolescent Yara (Michelle Wehbe), the stone house she shares with her elderly grandmother and assorted farm animals, and the handful of menfolk who pass by.
Fahdel’s camera opens upon (and regularly revisits) the verdant rural location, panning over lush hills above and the densely carpeted valley below, gazing at the donkey lapping from a trough improvised from a garden hose and an old oil barrel, goats grazing the terraces, chickens pecking fiendishly at dirt, a family of orange cats sniffing each other’s rear ends, Gran emptying her nostrils over the edge of the veranda.
Within a room festooned with depictions of Christian saints, beneath a rifle hanging muzzle-down from the wall above her bed, Yara sleeps.
Fondled once or twice by male characters, the rifle lingers throughout the film like a warning, yet the only firearms discharged here are the toy pistols carried by Rami and Charbel, the little boys who accompany their father on his mule as he ferries dairy products to Yara and her Gran (Mary Alkady).
The establishing shots suggest a timeless daily tempo. The story might be set in some indeterminate past, but Fahdel carefully places a flat-screen television in the corner of Gran’s salon.
After amusing herself with a couple of hand mirrors, casting reflected sunlight on the wall, Yara flicks through the channels. The technology lodges the story in the present but otherwise the past prevails, lightly for the most part, imbuing Yara (and the other characters) with an oddly folkloric innocence.
Aside from household chores and the odd visit from Charbel and his boys, the household routine includes visits from an unnamed gent who Yara greets as “the mountain guide.” He leads tourists on walking tours through the hills and at first seems a sort of mystic - imploring Yara to treat animals as pals and showing her how to play a nay flute.
He drops by to help out with the heavier household chores, saying he regards Yara’s gran as his mother, and Yara as his sister - a remark that doesn’t seem threatening at first.
Yara’s routine takes an unexpected turn when a young fellow (Elias Freifer, Fahdel’s assistant camera operator) stomps up to the house asking for directions. He’s taken the wrong path, she informs him, hiding the pair of wet underwear she was about to hang to dry.
He’s a bit forward, first asking for a drink of water, taking some plums from a dish without asking, then telling Yara she should join him when he travels to Australia.
He reappears some time later, correctly guessing her name and says he’s called Elias.
After a bit of childlike play, he gives her a present and leaves, igniting what was surely 2018’s most chaste cinematic romance.
They walk together through the bucolic terrain with its many derelict houses. “The owners abandoned them,” Yara informs him, “or died.”
After they politely break into an uninhabited house, Yara’s eyes fix upon some vintage photos on the wall and she abruptly becomes sad and fearful as they remind her of her departed father.
Yara soon tells Elias the whole valley’s talking about seeing her with a young man they don’t know, acknowledging that her neighbors aren’t accustomed to strangers.
With knowledge comes low-key drama. Yara tells Charbel and Rami’s dad that Elias is a cousin visiting from Australia. Later, when the nay-playing man sees her standing outside after a bath, wrapped in a towel, he warns her that she mustn’t expose herself in public.
“Who’s going to see me,” she smiles, “the animals?”
“Any man could pass by,” he replies, humorless. “I forbid it.”
Fahdel’s fifth film, “Yara” premiered last year at Locarno, and went on to screen at Carthage and the American Film Institute. Ranging from 50-odd minutes to over five hours in length, most of his films are documentaries about Iraq.
His debut fiction “Dawn of the World,” 2008, is a triangulated post-Gulf War love story set in a south Iraq marshland village.
“Yara” is his first work situated outside Iraq. At its Swiss premiere, the Iraqi-born, French-educated writer/director/cinematographer/editor/producer told the press “Yara” was influenced by early films by Luis Bunuel and Robert Bresson, centering on innocent rural girls and their relations with men from outside.
“Yara,” he said, was meant to be shot in rural France. Circumstances forced him to relocate to Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley.
Regardless how accurately its provenance narrative has been recounted, “Yara” is striking both for how similar its premises to past films deliberately located among montagnard Lebanese are, and for how unfamiliar its understated drama is. Fahdel’s concern with the contradictory urges of remaining in the country or finding opportunity in migration isn’t so different from that of Georges Nasser’s 1957 feature “Ila Ayn?” though that narrative is adorned with folkloric segues and conventions of Egyptian melodrama.
Yara’s tearful allusions to an absent father might easily be discreet references to a past civil war. Less nuanced is the nay man’s transformation from a brother figure to something else, though Fahdel leaves his place in the story’s conclusion ill-defined.
“Yara” isn’t the most engaging film. It remains an intriguing study - a light-handed reconciliation of universal story with a unique place.
“Yara” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.