As I sat in the dark SVA theater in NYC, watching a special "Tribeca Talks: After the Movie" screening of Mahmoud Kaabour's touching documentary Grandma, A Thousand Times (Teta, Alf Marra) this past Monday, I finally found the answer to a question that I'm often asked: "Why do you love Arab cinema?"
I love Arab cinema because it embodies the quiet self-assuredness I so adore in people from the region -- their ability to display genuine feelings, unapologetically and without being afraid of appearing weak, but also without obnoxious grandeur. Filmmakers from the Middle East don't need to shout their tragedies from the rooftops, or inspire thunderous laughter with their comedies; they simply show the truths of life lived inside a precious little place called the human heart.
Kaabour's Grandma, A Thousand Times is at once traditional and groundbreaking. While it does present a portrait of the feisty Teta Fatima -- the filmmaker's spirited Beiruti grandmother -- within her own fading, bittersweet environment, it also tells her story from a contemporary and relatable POV. Hidden in plain sight among this slice of life documentary are hints for navigating our modern world, increasingly in need of a Western understanding of the Arab spirit and the realization that we are all much more alike than different.
So, those of us who like a little CNN with our morning coffee know all about the uprisings in the Region and throughout MENA. The same audience is also the most likely to connect to the grown-up themes of Arab cinema -- which surprisingly grows out of a region where 50 percent of the population is under the age of 25.
The programmers at this year's Tribeca Film Festival were aware of this newfound interest in the Region and came up with an electrifying program of films from the Middle East, depicting Arab themes and struggles. While the future of each individual country hangs in the balance, the future of Arab cinema is pretty much guaranteed by institutions like the Doha Film Institute, dedicated to educating young filmmaker, spreading awareness of regional cinema and funding upcoming projects.
The Grandma, A Thousand Times screening at Tribeca Film Festival was hosted by the Doha Film Institute, and Kaabour's project is one of the first partly financed by DFI, a one-year old cinematic institution, but one that has already had great "transformative power for the Region," as DFI Executive Director Amanda Palmer proudly admitted during a recent interview. Palmer continued, about Kaabour's project "I was saying to the Tribeca people earlier, let me tell you what you've done for this filmmaker. With the tiniest bit of money he got to finish his film, then he got to bring his documentary to an Arab film competition -- Doha Tribeca Film Festival -- where an international jury gave him an award. Then he got selected to go to Rotterdam, and here he is with Grandma, A Thousand Times at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC!"
Grandma, A Thousand Times won the Audience Choice award and a Special Jury prize at Doha TFF 2010, and at the end of the screening of the film here in NYC, the audience clapped all the way through what seemed like half the credits. I believe its great appeal lies in the unifying power of the film, showing us that a loving, witty Beiruti Teta isn't so different after all from our own grandmother. At their after-party, I met the film's executive producer Eva Star Sayre's own Ukranian/American grandmother, and while I listened to Baba Sayre's heartfelt, charming stories of Easter spent with her family, I felt like I had stumbled upon the next cinematic installment of Grandma...
Kaabour confessed the film is "rooted in my Canadian years," the time when he was away from his family and the Middle East, while studying -- and then awaiting his citizenship, which in the end, never came through. "During those years, I kept playing these incessant memory exercises, recollections of my Grandma and my childhood in Beirut." It wasn't until one of his professors made him realize the urgency of documenting an 80-something woman who would not be around forever, that the film started to take shape.
Sayre, who is also Kaabour's wife and partner at Veritas Films, attributes Teta's ease and candidness in the film to a combination of her "little husband" Mahmoud -- how his grandmother lovingly refers to him because of the resemblance to his deceased grandfather -- sharing the screen with her but also "a very small, all-female crew shooting." It is exactly because of this uncommon ease that one of the funniest bits in the film takes place, when Sayre first meets Teta Fatima. But you'll have to watch the film to find out. It plays next at the Seattle International Film Festival, which starts in mid-May.
While some would argue that the film's succinct length may have prevented it from being in competition at more film festivals, Kaabour calls his documentary "48 minutes of glory" and thought that "anything longer would be overkill, being in that Beirut apartment, listening to Teta for say, 90 minutes." This is truly the case of a very courageous "less is more" approach, to use the filmmaker's own words, and when the climactic end scene comes, we are indeed all left wanting for more, craving the company of this outspoken Arguileh smoking Grandma and her charming, adoring grandson.
It's no wonder Grandma, A Thousand Times has melted hearts from Beirut, to Doha, to Rotterdam and now NYC. It is a cinematic love letter dedicated to a beloved woman, one that all who adore their grandparents wish they could have had the chance to write.