By Dima Saqfalhait
“If you were a bringer of joy, why do you wish to leave your home?”
Today’s film review is quite special. The Lebanese Independent Film Festival gave me the chance to watch Barzakh (2018) by Hussein Hossam (which is currently playing on their Vimeo platform) and offer my review of the film. Whereas I usually resort to world classics, mostly long fiction, this one is relatively recent and short (13 minutes). It is written and directed by Hussein Hossam, an Egyptian filmmaker who decided to follow his passion in making films that deal with the troubles and dreams of his generation in the Arab World. I have always had a weak spot for auteur films and thus was super excited to watch this Egyptian film and write about it.
The film opens on a blurry fighting scene, after which we see a clock with missing numbers. This instantly gave me surrealist/dreamlike vibes and reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s clock in Wild Strawberries (1957), which features numbers but no hands. The setting feels quite theatrical, particularly in the presence of the chairs facing us the audience. Perhaps what evoked the impression of theatre most was the “Exit” sign, which also brought to my mind Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944). I found myself wondering if this is part of a dream or an after life? Is the man waiting to find whether he was destined to go to hell or heaven? Well, yes and no. The man is not yet dead but wishes to be so. The reason?
Well, he clearly explains:
“My people are good people but they lost their sense of humor a long time ago.”
He explains how he is a caricature artist who once brought joy to his people’s lives, but apparently no longer does. Both Angel and Devil appear in the background taking notes, as if to decide who wishes to take him in. What sort of a conversation would a caricature artist have with an Angel and Devil? Will he be able to convince either of them to take him in, or will they be able to convince him to stay alive? They obviously ask many questions such as:
“Who’s your master?”
“What is your belief?”
“Who is your prophet?”
“On what have you spent your life?”
Asking him questions about his beliefs, they clearly state:
“A man who serves no master is lost. In life and in death.”
The whole scene looks like a visa interview. I particularly enjoyed the parallel the film draws between wanting to escape life (death) and wanting to immigrate to a new country. In both cases, people are unable to accept the reality forced upon them and are seeking a better world, or a “promise land” as called in the film. I found this quite smart and telling of the period we live in in the Arab world. An urgent attempt to escape towards a better reality, while our qualifications and credentials are constantly assessed and reviewed.
On a different note, I found the choice of language in the film to be peculiar. Whereas the man spoke in an Syrian Arabic accent, the immigration officer spoke in poor standard Arabic accent, the angel spoke in English and the devil spoke in English with a British accent. I am not sure what to make out of this but nevertheless find the film mind-provoking and worth watching. Perhaps more than once as it is filled with symbolism worth exploring.
“Will you redeem yourself if you were given a second chance?”
I am afraid you will need to watch the film to find out what his answer was.
For more film quotations and recommendations, you can follow Dima Saqfalhait’s Instagram account @cine.words