EL GOUNA, Egypt: The feature film debut of Lina Al Abed is an investigative documentary about Ibrahim Al Abed, a member of a secretive Palestinian militant organization who went missing in 1986.
“Ibrahim, A Fate to Define,” which had its regional premiere this week in El Gouna Film Festival’s documentary competition, is largely comprised of interviews outlining the contradictory narratives and political intrigue surrounding the man’s disappearance. The film isn’t classic investigative inquiry, though, the political history being fleshed out by the filmmaker being the subject’s daughter.
The film commences with an excerpt from Yasser Arafat’s 1974 Security Council address, declaring that the PLO would work toward a democratic state in which Palestinians and non-Palestinians - Muslims, Christians and Jews - were equal citizens.
Arafat’s speech is juxtaposed with television footage about a Palestinian intellectual, an Arafat ally, who’d been assassinated by Fatah: The Revolutionary Council (aka the Abu Nidal group), a faction formed in response to the PLO’s expressed willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Because of its dissident relationship to the PLO, Abu Nidal became a player in the regional cold war among Arab states. It acquired a reputation as a tool of various regional and international intelligence agencies, whose assassination campaign against Arafat sympathisers (then hundreds of its own members) made it a tool of Israeli interests.
The filmmaker’s voiceover explains that when she was a child she never knew her father’s occupation (she was 6 when he was disappeared) but people were told he was a salesman, which is why he was frequently traveling.
The senior Abed had been ordered to go to Switzerland when a man showed up at the family house in Damascus to collect his clothes and passport. After that his wife and five children never saw him again. Najat Ali, the filmmaker’s mother, says she stopped waiting for him to return after she authenticated the documents confirming his death.
Later the family was told the party had executed him when they learned he’d been a double agent. As an adult, the filmmaker found that scholar Patrick Seale, in his 1992 book “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire,” characterized her father as a traitor.
“Ibrahim” alternates Abed’s conversations with her father’s militant colleagues and family friends about his disappearance, her own voiceover recollections and her family’s reflections.
The journey begins with excerpts of a conversation with her mother, an Egyptian national who still maintains the family house in Damascus, though her children dispersed overseas long ago.
Later, the camera follows the filmmaker through a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, talking with Abu Wael, onetime security officer for Abu Nidal. He confirms that Abu Nidal was responsible for a mass grave in the Bekaa but that Ibrahim Al Abed’s remains are not in it.
The official story of Abed’s disappearance, that he’d been killed in 1987, was complicated in 1998, when a former neighbor in Damascus told the filmmaker that her father had returned and asked after his family. “He was in a hurry and left immediately,” the neighbor had said, explaining she’d told him she did not have our new address.
One of her father’s contemporaries recounts a story about Ibrahim Al Abed accepting an envelope of money from a foreign security agency that wanted to recruit him. He doesn’t blame him for doing so, because he knew the organization would betray him. There was talk of a Swiss bank account and a man named Tabakh, who was somehow connected with this exchange, and with the disappearance.
Another former militant, who says he left Abu Nidal in 1989 when he realized they were just a bunch of gangsters, says Ibrahim Al Abed was his friend and that he knows he was no traitor.
By the late ’80s, one informant remarks, Abu Nidal was purging any members that still had any principals, which is why Ibrahim Al Abed was killed.
As the filmmaker hints, insecurity inflects the testimonies of those contemporaries who know anything about her father’s disappearance - not least the man Tabakh, who claims he was not in any way involved in his disappearance. The regimes (indeed, some of the individuals) that were involved in the murky commerce of the late ’80s are still in power. A skeptical viewer might also observe that knowledgeable individuals, fearful that they might implicate themselves in Abu Nidal’s dubious activities, might be tempted to edit their recollections.
Ultimately it’s her family’s less-partisan contributions to remembering that are most valuable. Ibrahim, the filmmaker’s brother, reflects that his upbringing has made it impossible for him to imagine sacrificing himself for Palestine. For individuals, for his family, yes, he might give his life, but no political cause could compel him.
Most engaging are the remarks of Abed’s sister Najwa, who breaks her silence on her father for the film. When the filmmaker says she thinks her father must have been stupid to get himself killed by his own party, Najwa disagrees.
“I don’t think he was stupid. He was deceived,” she pauses. “We were all deceived.”
The women reminisce about how, before their father’s disappearance, there had always been talk of leaving Syria.
“The best option,” Najwa recalls, “was Russia.” “So we’d all be speaking Russian now.”
“Excellent,” she agrees, “speaking Russian and helping the Syrian people.” She gazes into her sister’s eyes earnestly. They both snicker, ruefully.
El Gouna Film Festival runs through Sept. 27. For more, see elgounafilmfestival.com