Abbas Fahdel: “For me, cinema and life are not two separate things”

4 October, 2022

For this month’s column of in-depth interviews with established filmmakers, I chose to talk to a foreign director: French-Iraqi Abbas Fahdel.

There are at least two important reasons for this choice.

The first is, of course, his oeuvre. His latest film, “Tales of the Purple House” (2022), which had its world premiere in competition at the Locarno Film Festival, is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen this year. The filmmaker has filmed his wife, Lebanese painter Nour Ballouk, over the last few years, since the couple has been living in Lebanon, while both in the country and internationally historical events are taking place, which have influenced the artist’s life – she participates in civic anti-corruption protests, helps a Syrian refugee child, continues to paint even though exhibiting is no longer possible due to the pandemic, and follows with concern everything that happens in the world.

I discovered Abbas Fahdel a few years ago when he released the monumental five-and-a-half-hour documentary “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” (2015), which chronicles everyday life in Iraq before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The life of the Iraqi people has interested Abbas Fahdel since his beginnings as a filmmaker when he made the documentaries “Back to Babylon” (2002) and “We Iraqis” (2004). In 2019, the director released a documentary about a refugee camp in Lebanon, “Bitter Bread”. His filmography also includes two fiction features, “Dawn of the World” (2008) and “Yara” (2018), with stories set in Iraq and Lebanon, as well.

The second reason is his work as a film critic. Abbas Fahdel has written and continues to write about films and filmmakers, including on his Facebook page. In fact, he has been a passionate cinephile since childhood, and at the age of 18, he moved from his native Iraq to France to study film at Sorbonne University, where he also completed a PhD. He had Éric Rohmer, Jean Rouch, and Serge Daney among his teachers.

In Tales of the Purple House, you mix an intimate portrait of a woman, Lebanese painter Nour Ballouk, who is your wife, with historical events that take place in Lebanon and also in the world (refugee crisis, pandemic, war). It is as if a person, and especially an artist, can not hide or isolate themselves from the big problems in the world, not even in a small community, and our life is strongly influenced by what happens around us. How can we find the balance between these two opposite forces that we face: the need for inner calm, on the one hand, and the need for civic engagement and political conscience, on the other hand?

Every human, whether they are an artist or not, has the right to isolate themselves, to choose to live on a desert island, in a protective bubble or under an insulating bell. But personally, I cannot live isolated from society. This may be due to the fact that I was born and grew up in a country, Iraq, where the life of each individual was and remains strongly influenced by events (dictatorship, wars, etc.) that condition their life. For three years, my wife Nour Ballouk and I have been living in a small village in southern Lebanon. We grow our own fruits and vegetables in our garden and we can live almost self-sufficiently, without contact with other people. But we need contact with other humans, humans who, in Lebanon, suffer from many problems (impoverishment due to political corruption and the economic crisis, refugee crisis, pandemic, wars, and so on). As my wife and I are less affected by these problems than our Lebanese neighbors and our Syrian refugee friends, it would be easy for us to pretend that these problems do not exist. But on the contrary, the awareness of being relatively privileged compared to others makes us aware of our responsibility as artists, and therefore of the need to expose these problems in our work.

In the film, you hide behind the camera – Nour is in the focus. Nevertheless, there are some moments when I strongly felt your presence – the scenes in which we see fragments from old movies on a TV screen, as if we have access to the diary of a cinephile. 

I have been a cinephile since the age of 5, and I inherited this passion from my father. It would be impossible for me to imagine my life without cinema. From the age of 15, I knew that I would be a filmmaker in the future. This is what pushed me to go to France at the age of 18 to study cinema there. When I became a filmmaker, I didn’t stop watching films, quite the contrary. Every time I start a new film, I spend some time watching films that help me renew my faith in cinema, films like the ones I show excerpts from in Tales of the Purple House, films by Renoir, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman and many other filmmakers. If films have always been essential companions in my life, since childhood, they have been even more so during the two years of confinement that we have experienced. It was therefore natural to integrate them into my film.

In almost all your documentaries, you film the people that are the closest to you: the Iraqi people, the people from your hometown or your bigger family and, as in the case of Tales of the Purple House, even your life partner. Why is this choice important for you?

For me, cinema and life are not two separate things, they interfere with each other, enrich each other and form “a whole”, like two sides of the same coin. This is why living, watching and making films are inseparable things for me. This is why almost all my films draw their subjects and characters from my own life, that of those close to me and from the environment in which I live.

In Back to Babylon, We Iraqis and Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), you filmed both the beauty and the tragedy of your people. How do you feel now about what is happening in Iraq (prolonged political crisis, social upheaval) and how optimistic are you regarding the future of your native country in the next few years?

In the short and medium term, I am very pessimistic about the situation in Iraq – which moreover is very similar to the situation in Lebanon, a country in which I have lived for five years. Political corruption in Iraq and Lebanon has become so endemic that it is impossible to put an end to it without a major popular uprising, greater than those which have already taken place in the two countries.

Both Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) and Tales of the Purple House take their time in developing their subject, so we can better understand the complexity of what you represent on the screen. How do you decide the length of your films? 

I believe that every film, depending on its subject, needs its own breathing duration. So, a 10-minute film can seem long to me, while films like those of Wang Bing (some of which last more than 7 hours) never seem long to me. I made two fiction films, Yara and Dawn of the World, each of which is about an hour and a half, which is the normal allowed length. If Homeland: Iraq Year Zero lasts five and a half hours, and Tales of the Purple House lasts three hours, it is due to their subjects, which embrace major events on the scale of an entire country. Anyway, when I start shooting a film, I never know in advance how long it will be. It is during the editing that the film takes shape and imposes its own duration.

During the Venice Film Festival, you made a comment on Facebook that if you search the festival on Google you get almost only pictures with the red carpet. Do you think that big festivals put too much emphasis on the glamorous aspects?    

Sponsored by major perfume and haute couture brands, certain big festivals, Cannes even more than Venice, have become showcases for promoting glamor and narcissism more than cinema. This explains for example the presence of singers in the juries, while there are never any film critics in these juries. This explains the presence of American blockbusters, which are programmed not for their quality but for the promise of their stars’ presence on the red carpet. Thus, while refusing films by unknown authors (who are the great masters of tomorrow), these festivals compete with each other to obtain films from the major American studios, leaving the real cinema elsewhere.

You have lived in France since you were young. Why haven’t you made a film in France with a French subject?

When I was a film student in France, I made three short films whose subject is located in France, but it is true that I never had the desire or felt the need to shoot a feature film in France. I like French films, for example those of Eric Rohmer, who was my teacher, but I don’t see myself making a film that deals with a Parisian love story. To make a film, I have to feel its usefulness. I feel this usefulness when I shoot in Iraq, Egypt or Lebanon, but not in France.

You have paid several tributes to Godard after his death. What would be his most important legacy in your opinion?

I started watching movies, often with my father, when I was 5 years old. Until I was 15, my favorite movies were Italian westerns, peplums, Egyptian melodramas and Indian musicals. Then one day I saw a movie that was unlike anything I had seen before. This film was Contempt by Godard, whose name was unknown to me. Without understanding everything in the film, I was struck by its form, which reveals a very particular style. Driven by curiosity, I sought to find out more about the film and its director. And that’s how I discovered the existence of “auteur cinema”, which is very different from the “genre cinema” I was familiar with. Later, in France, I discovered Godard’s other films, and without loving them all in the same way, I appreciated the freedom he allowed himself each time and his constantly renewed inventiveness. 

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.