News Column

Dislocation in sharp resolution

June 24, 2013


June 24--BEIRUT -- The destination, as the bromide would have it, is less important than the things you find along the way. This adage frequently comes to mind while deciphering the documentary film of this region, particularly the work that is autobiographically grounded.

Family histories in the Middle East tend to recall a cosmopolitan past when, early in the nation-building process, social and cultural life was marked by a secular mixite still ineffectually confined by national borders.

This gregarious era was truncated by the political upheaval that began in earnest in the late 1950s, and arguably continues to this day. In the midst of this turmoil, internal population movements and migration sundered many families.

A couple of generations on, numerous documentaries have taken up these stories, recounting the variations on a theme of rupture as experienced by families from the Ottoman Empire's several successor states.

Because of the harsh juxtaposition of immense promise with miserable history, some of the most affecting of these films have emerged from Iraq. Perhaps the most notable of these is "Forget Baghdad" (2002), Samir's tale of the unhappy migration of a group of Jewish communists from Iraq to Israel, one that mingles his subjects' nostalgia for the country with his own.

The most recent film to add its voice to this documentary subgenre is "Broken Record," by Beirut-based Iraqi filmmaker Parine Jaddo, which is at once reminiscent to other expatriate films of its type and distinct from them.

Jaddo's tale is made more singular by the fact that the her family is Turkman -- one of Iraq's storied minority communities, a distinction that has taken on more relevance as the politics of nationalism, Arab nationalism and internationalism gave way to one of tribe, sect and neoliberal capitalism.

This history is less parochial than national because the Jaddo family's tradesmen and professionals also happened to be musicians.

Mulla Taha, the filmmaker's great uncle, was a renowned vocalist who, in the 1920s and 30s, sang maqamaat (songs of the classical tradition) in Arabic and Farsi as well as Turkoman.

The next generation, the filmmaker's uncles, formed a successful maqam ensemble called The Turkoman Brothers. Jaddo's mother -- Najiba Sabir Abd al-Qader -- was the group's principal female voice.

In the logic of the film, it is her mother's death that prompted Jaddo to return to Iraq to uncover the remaining documentation of her family's performances and specifically her mother's performance of the much-loved song "Sonamiz Golda Kaldi."

It is this song -- whose verses are a motif running throughout the work -- and the material traces of the circumstances in which it was performed, that give Jaddo's work a sharper resolution than many other films that set out to document dislocation, loss and a sepia-tinted past.

Framed and fabricated as a quest tale, Jaddo's film depicts her journey through the Sabir family's present circumstances to find the broken record that lends the work its title.

There is an inherent interest in watching various members of the Sabir family recollect a period in the history of Iraq, and of Kirkuk in particular, that is far removed from the country's contemporary realities. The film is also aesthetically accomplished.

Though much of the footage frames talking heads, difficult to avoid in even the most artistic of documentaries, this is complemented by a few surprisingly diverting moments -- Jaddo shares camera credits with Sean Harris and Nashwan Ali. After opening with a shot of the filmmaker's mother in a hospital bed (upon which has been superimposed a ghost image of snow billowing into the lens), "Broken Record" actually opens in Iceland.

The camera finds the filmmaker at portside, talking to her father by mobile telephone, then follows her as she treks across the island's spectacular snow-strewn landscapes. These images may seem gratuitous in strictly logical terms, yet the December landscape is poetically appropriate insofar as it captures both the artist's sense of grief and the fragmented quality of the expatriate life.

As is appropriate in any depiction of fragmentation, the work perambulates from the high-definition video used to shoot the body of the film to 8mm vignettes of Canada from the Jaddo family album, videotaped images of vintage performances from Iraq's TV archives, to historic YouTube clips.

There are also occasional fortuitous moments. After a bomb explodes outside an aunt's house in Kirkuk, while the lady peeps out the window to get a sense of what's happening, a kettle sits on the stove in the foreground, its lid rising in falling in time to swells of the boiling water within.

Since the film recounts the Sabir family's musical history, there is obviously no shortage of classic maqamaat from the first half of the 20th century. Yet the film's soundtrack is also laced with a liberal sprinkling of new sounds. This takes the form of discordant experimental music performed by City of Salt. It's a trio comprised of Beirut artists Omar Dewachi, Sam Shalabi and Paed Conca. All are expatriates.


(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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