Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Heritages reconstructs the past

Philippe Aractingi’s latest film explores deeply Lebanese issues of memory, identity, and migration

Philippe and Luc Aractingi
Philippe Aractingi with his three children
Philippe and Diane Aractingi
Eve Aractingi

Philippe Aractingi’s latest film, Heritages (Mirath), does not fit neatly into the traditional genres of feature or documentary. Referring to Heritages as an autobiographical film in images, Aractingi follows a century of migrations – his own as well as those of his wife, his three children, their ancestors, and other compatriots – to touch on issues of identity, emigration, and memory. Among the many questions he raises, the one that unites the film’s numerous stories is a dilemma that plagues many Lebanese today: should I stay or should I go?


Born in 1964, Aractingi is old enough to have traumatic memories of the Lebanese Civil War but also knew Lebanon before it. Focusing on “la petite histoire” (everyday memories), his recollections are bound to resonate with many Lebanese. “I’m Christian, [a] francophone from Ashrafieh, but a Sunni Muslim will see himself in that film, whose father had to leave Damascus,” Aractingi told NOW. “It’s specific, personal, and universal.”


The hundred years covered in the film, from 1913 to 2013, witnessed repeated waves of wars and migrations, with refugees flowing into Lebanon by the thousands while Lebanese fled for Europe, the Americas, Australia, and West Africa. Aractingi himself left Lebanon 20 times, staying away for years in some instances but usually returning as soon as possible. When in 2006 the Aractingis left for France, the filmmaker had to face his children’s questions. “I started to understand that if I was unwilling to look back on my past, I would be incapable of explaining war or exile to my children,” he said. “I would simply be unable to move forward. That’s when I started my research on transmission, the action or procedure of eliciting something to progress from one place or individual to another.”


For Heritages, Aractingi dives into photographs and film footage of his family taken over the years, reliving birthdays, holidays, and other milestones. These sequences primarily feature his wife Diane and their children: Luc, now 15; Mathieu, 13; and Eve, 11. But the film goes beyond recent memories to add older family footage and archival shots of Beirut as it was, interspersed with scripted fictional vignettes starring Aractingi and his family that reconstruct his ancestors’ journeys. The presence of the director’s children enriches Heritages with their quirkily perceptive comments, adding compassion, tenderness, and wisdom to the film.


Though driven by a duty to remember in the face of collective silence, Aractingi hesitated over whether and how to go on after shooting the first chapter in 2010. But a chance encounter with French doctor, ethologist, neurologist, and psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, known for his work on trauma and resilience, introduced the filmmaker to the concept of creating a “diversion through a third party” rather than re-telling a traumatic story. 


“There are two mistakes that should be avoided: to not talk about it, and to talk about it too much,” Cyrulnik told Aractingi. “The protective intention that prevents us from talking about it is the dumbest. This means that in trying to protect our children, we deprive them of part of a representation of their roots. If we don’t talk about it, we relay the anxiety. The second bad solution is to talk about it too much, in detail. Then you end up transmitting the representation of your trauma directly to your children’s head.”


Inspired by Cyrulnik’s advice, instead of telling his children the story of their grandparents, Aractingi has them cathartically act out their forbears’ experiences. In a memorable scene, the filmmaker stands with his family at Tabaris, a dangerous crossing during the war. “This street was filled with containers. They blocked the entire street for 15 years,” Aractingi explains to his children. “I remember being shot at once here in the street… Imagine how it was… Hold my hands, we used to run like this, one, two, three.” The four of them hold hands and run across the street as if it was 1983. The filmmaker also relates to them how he used to avoid snipers, admitting that it was fun back then. “That adrenaline made us believe that violence could be a lever for change… You can only forget what you’ve acknowledged,” Aractingi eventually came to realize. 


In a key scene, Aractingi opens a box containing his collection of ammunition. “This drawer contains all of my childhood belongings. I haven’t touched it in 30-35 years,” the filmmaker tells his children. The three of them sit spellbound around the table as Aractingi proceeds to unwrap cartridges and talks them through his collection in a language his children cannot comprehend. Luc, the eldest’s, face transforms in front of the camera into a mask of disgust, as if he were about to storm out.


“I was your age, 10 years old, we were in a defensive situation,” Aractingi explains.  “We cooked for the ‘shabaab;’ the bad guys for me were the others, Muslims, the Palestinians. It took me 20 years to understand that for them, I was the bad guy!”


“I discovered what living normally meant by going to France: without knowing what a Kalashnikov or M16 is, how a bullet wounds,” he says. “If I get into details you’ll get traumatised.”


Looking at the deadly assemblage spread across the table, Eve, the youngest, tells her father that she now understood that his childhood was a bad time for him and disarmingly offers, “You paint the grenades and then it makes happy grenades.”


Heritages is now playing in cinemas throughout Lebanon. A French version with English subtitles is being screened at Metropolis in Beirut. For more information: heritagesthemovie (Facebook), HeritagesMovie (Twitter), heritagesthemovie (Instagram)

Philippe Aractingi and his oldest son Luc on the set of Heritages. (Image courtesy of Fantascope Production)

“It’s specific, personal, and universal.”