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Nathalie Rosa Bucher

'Asfouri'

An enticing film about love, language, and nostalgia

Asfouri, filmmaker Fouad Alaywan’s latest film and first feature film, succeeds in transporting audiences into a microcosm that, while located in Sanayeh, captures much of Beirut in the mid-70s and 90s. In the process, it touches on love, language, heritage, nostalgia, and identity.

 

Alaywan tells NOW: “Asfouri is a language invented during the Ottoman Empire. It was a secret language. Language is generally based on the intention of making ourselves understood. Except when there is no unity.”

 

According to the director, "Asfouri" is also a reference to the birds of Sanayeh Gardens (asfour means bird in Arabic); to madness (Asfourieh is the name of a now closed mental hospital), and to the Lebanese ‘pig Latin’ language commonly used by barbers especially in old Beirut (Asfouri), that places a Z after every syllable. 

 

Through the male lead, Karim, (played as an adult by Wissam Fares), audiences are taken back to a Beirut that was marked by greater tolerance - exemplified by the old building in which Karim grew up, and its inhabitants – Christian and Muslim, Lebanese and Armenian families all lived under one roof. The buildings built in the 1920s were designed for cohabitation and conviviality. 

 

“I grew up in an old building, my mother spoke to the neighbor,” Alaywan recalls. “There is an element of communication to cities, but Beirut is losing not just it’s collective memory but everyday life. You don’t know your neighbor.”

With the onset of the war, the previously harmonious lives of the residents of the building change irrevocably, and many decide to leave Lebanon. 

 

One of the first to leave is Mathilde (Caroline Hatem), an Armenian who lived upstairs and is close to young Karim (Pio Chihane). She leaves him her Super-8 camera, sparking his interest in this medium.

 

The boy first thinks the camera can be used to shoot at people, but then he starts to take his camera everywhere, filming as he goes. In a key scene, a teenage Karim rides with his friend to a café. His friend tells him to keep the motorbike running. Karim’s camera follows as the friend goes inside where two Israeli soldiers insist on paying with Shekel, at which Karim’s friend pulls out a gun and shoots them. The scene is a re-enactment of the Wimpy shooting in Hamra in September 1982. 

 

Asked about his decision to include this hugely symbolic scene, Alaywan says: “The real guy [Khaled Alwan] was a friend in school, I saw him in Hamra not long before this happened….. It was fun shooting and editing this scene. Everything in Lebanon is like an eraser. Everything you do someone else erased. The resistance started in Hamra in 1982. All Lebanon is in Hamra. It has all colors, all religions, even foreigners, it is really Beirut, everybody’s home.” 

 

Like Alaywan, Karim ends up leaving Lebanon and studying cinema in the USA, where he stays for many years. He returns to 90s Beirut, to find it in the throes of reconstruction. “In Lebanon, everything is autobiographical, we all have the same story. This is the story of my generation – the ones who left.” 

 

His home, the old building his grandfather had built, survived, but the discourse around it has changed, with some owners having adapted to the lingo of real estate sharks and property development, lured by huge sums of money and a new life in a tower. 

 

Once back, Karim wanders around Beirut with his camera, but everything he sees and captures has changed.  He is introduced to Maya (Zalfa Seurat), a young Canadian-Lebanese woman who has also returned to Beirut to reconnect with the city she left as a young girl. Seurat and Fares portray their characters with depth and emotion, as they each pursue the same quest, but from different angles.  

 

Music is prominent in the film, and Vatche Kalenderian’s catchy Asfouri song won the Best Soundtrack Award at the 2013 London Film Festival. In a notable scene, en route to Sidon, Maya sings a sultry yet playful rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy for Karim, as he desperately tries to keep his eyes on the road.  Seurat says she has been a huge Monroe fan from a young age, and so the song somehow ended up in the film.

 

It is particularly poignant to note that Seurat’s own father Michel Seurat, a French historian, was kidnapped by Islamic militants in Lebanon in 1985, his remains being discovered 20 years later. 

 

The film follows an ambitious story arc, skillfully meandering between the decades. To visually underline this journey, Alaywan, along with cinematographers Philipe Van Leeuw and Renato Berta, have captured parts of Beirut in the same enamored way as Woody Allen did with New York in Manhattan

 

Alaywan and Seurat, with whom he worked on the final draft of the script, agree that nostalgia is prevalent in Lebanon.  “For me, cities like London and New York don’t have that, in Paris, however, the cult of the past abounds,” Seurat says. “Lebanon is caught between the two. But how can you wipe out the signs of the past?” 

 

Alaywan comments: “In the Middle East, nostalgia seeps through everywhere, even music. Just listen to Umm Khultum. Whether it’s a sickness or richness, when we love, we love too much, when we hate, we hate too much.”  He says: “In Lebanon, everything is autobiographical, we all have the same story. This is the story of my generation – the ones who left.” 

 

He continues: “I lost something. I needed to find out what I had lost. And I wanted to defend my past from oblivion and put it on screen.” Asfouri is largely Alaywan’s telling of his own story.

 

 

Asfouri is now showing at cinemas in Lebanon. 

From Dulux to danger looming - a residents' meeting on the eve of the Civil War (image courtesy of Exit Film Production)

“In the Middle East, nostalgia seeps through everywhere, even music. Just listen to Umm Khultum. Whether it’s a sickness or richness, when we love, we love too much, when we hate, we hate too much.”