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Pulse of the World

The Timeless Films of Tahani Rached

Neighbors, dir. Tahani Rached (2009)

“The monkey, in its mother’s eyes, is a gazelle,“ would answer Tahani Rached’s mother when her children asked which one she loved. It was also Rached’s answer to my question as to whether she has a special fondness for any one of the 20 or so films she has made over the past 35 years.

For 25 of those years, she was one of the lucky staff filmmakers at the National Film Board but Rached never took her role for granted. That’s clear from the motivating passion behind every film in her impressive body of work. From her earliest independent films in Canada documenting labour issues and immigration stories, through her last production at the Board, Soraïda – a woman of Palestine (2004), to her recent Egyptian-made These Girls (2009), an unrelenting encounter with street girls in Cairo, each film exudes a sense of urgency, a need to speak to the unacceptable, the unjust, in her environment, near or far.

Despite the time it takes to make them, her films always seem to emerge just as an issue is reaching wide public consciousness. Poverty, racism, homelessness, immigration, war and exile, healthcare, AIDS; urgency and timeliness are what really define Tahani Rached’s oeuvre.

A personal favorite is Au chic resto pop (1990), an inspiring exploration of the personal lives and motivations of employees in a community restaurant for low income people in Montréal’s East end. Rached recounts how after two months of hanging out with the staff and volunteers, she knew her characters but had no idea how to tell their stories. In pre-interviews, people were sad and ill-at-ease, while in their work they were positive and determined. She didn’t want to dwell on the sordid aspects of lives often damaged by poverty, abuse and addictions.

Inspiration came like a bolt out of the blue: the idea that characters could sing their stories. Though reticent initially, people gradually came on board and with the collaboration of musician Steve Faulkner, five songs were co-written, with Faulkner providing the music and the band. Music had a salutory and liberating impact on the characters who emerge as talented and articulate.

The film’s central theme is poverty and there is plenty of sober reflection, but the message ultimately is one of hope and the affirmation of human capacity for sharing and making change happen. The film also provides some startling comments on capitalist excesses and environmental follies.

While Rached says she doesn’t really understand where the idea came from, she says each film ultimately imposes its form—a necessity that requires time. Music is critical to her way of seeing the world. Sometimes it emerges full-blown, as in her “musicals;” in others, one or more individuals—for example, street musicians in her films on Haiti and Beirut—are woven into the film, providing an additional narrative layer, a commentary on what is taking place.

Emergency: A Critical Situation (1999) was another timely film—released as overcrowding, cuts in staff, bed closings, and in Québec, our own distinct invention for the farming out of public health, le virage ambulatoire —hit their apogee, and as HMOs (Health Medical Organizations) emerged as alternative models of health care delivery. A dozen nurses and a few doctors—the evening shift in a mid-size Montréal suburban hospital—provide an ensemble cast for a riveting tale of dedication and frustration, passion and skill, solidarity and humour.

With Au chic resto pop under her belt, Rached once again used music to lighten the mood, without lessening the impact of what the nurses and their teams convey: their front-line position in the health care system, and pride in the work they do responding to people at their most fragile and dependent. The film provides a sharp analysis of what reforms are ultimately doing—removing people from what they do best and giving them soulless, bureaucratic tasks to perform.

Rached had ventured into the medical world a few years prior to this film with Doctors with Heart (1993), a portrait of doctors pioneering the treatment of HIV positive and AIDS patients. Once again, passion and dedication are constants, with an additional “subversive” level regarding the nature of medical practice. At Montréal’s Clinique Actuel, whose co-founder Dr. Réjean Thomas is the film’s central character, treatment is personal, subjective, non-judgmental, in sharp contrast to the official line taken by the Québec Collège des médecins and its director, Augustin Roy.

In an early, striking scene in the film, Thomas talks about giving the diagnosis to a patient and quickly breaks down. It is rare to see a doctor weep for his patients, and it immediately brings us into the heart of the film as well as the doctor’s.

Doctors with Heart is more of an essay on the ethics of treatment than about medical choices. Several scenes in the film take place in a University of Montréal philosophy class where Thomas, among other doctors, is listening to a lecture on Kant, subjectivity and personal responsibility. In another session organised at the clinic with a McGill bio-ethicist, doctors ask seemingly impossible questions concerning their patients’ unsafe practices, either sexual or drug-related.

Thomas and his colleagues go wherever the front line of AIDS prevention and treatment take them: international conferences, high schools where they consult on education programs and getting condom machines installed, universities where they both teach and learn, workshops, as well as their own medical practices. For these doctors, AIDS is a syndrome that raises much more than medical questions. It confronts us with our prejudices and forces us to look at a potent mix of human emotions and frailties around sexuality.

These Girls, dir. Tahani Rached (2006)

Rached says her motivations in making films is to feel less alone, to learn from others and to be able to share the lives of her films’ characters, all of whom have something important to say that concerns us all. Her journey into the many realities she has chosen to explore is whole-hearted, intense. Her films are clearly subjective, but never preachy. In fact she doesn’t so much seem to be trying to convince us of a particular point of view as find answers to her own questions.

Rached left the NFB about five years ago when it made the decision to cut its staff filmmaker positions. Her last film there focuses on a woman living in Ramallah. Soraida Abed Hussein is 40-ish, a one-time freedom fighter against the occupation, now a mother of two who has put aside such dangerous activities for her family. But she has lost none of her fighting spirit as she tries to maintain a semblance of normal life and raise her two children.

The small victories recounted—being able to rush out and shake the rug before a sniper shoots you—are prosaic testimonies to life under occupation. Soraida is surrounded by strong women, her neighbours and friends, but all are constantly on edge, waiting for the next disaster, the next piece of bad news, negotiating check points if not dodging bullets. All fear for their children, what they will grow up to be, wondering if fighting and living are incompatible.

The constant struggle is against dehumanization. Children play war games, Soraida’s daughter asks why her mother is always crying and her son says he wants to commit suicide “to have peace.” Soraida fights against anger and the siege mentality that comes with their situation.

Like mothers everywhere, the women fulfill the mundane duties of life but as they hang out the laundry, prepare meals, serve tea or plant their gardens, they talk about their frustrations—the overwhelming and all-encompassing reality of occupation. As one woman who often recounts her dreams says, “They never leave us alone, not in life, not in dreams; there’s no end to it.”

Strong women characters distinguish many of Rached’s films, not least in Four Women of Egypt, a film that made me painfully aware of my ignorance of Egypt’s “modernity” and surprised that I should be in wonder at the very existence of these four educated, engaged women. Friends for most of their adult lives, deeply involved in Egyptian political life as left wing activists, Muslim militants or believers in reforms of mainstream politics, they fly in the face of stereotypical Western notions of Eastern women.

Born in Egypt, where she lived until the age of 18, Rached has returned to live there, at least part time. Having spent most of her life in Montréal, she is not about to abandon it altogether, though she is doubtful of being able to work in the new media environment, with its short time frames and multi-platform obligations. Her films are mostly long form, one-off, controversial works that don’t easily find a home, and she will not compromise on what for her is a key element in making them—time. She says independent filmmakers are a threatened species, that making a film today is a bit of a foolish adventure.

In Québec, Rached worked for many years with legendary director and cinematographer Jacques Leduc, with whom she says she learned everything. She also collaborated with the same editor on several films, Hélène Girard, the same producer at the Film Board, Eric Michel, and the same composers, Jean Derome and René Lussier. Her films reflect the close-knit relationship established over many years and films; it’s a kind of craftmanship that is becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

Not that Rached has always been privileged. She began working in film in the turbulent late ’60s, collaborating with distributor New York Newsreel and developing personal and working relationships with Robert Kramer and company. One of her early NFB films, Beirut! Not Enough Death to Go Around, was made shortly after the Sabra and Chatila massacre, with little notice; there was a two week shooting period and three weeks of editing. The film is visceral and harsh, capturing the anger of people caught in the Middle East debacle and abandoned by all—their own State as well as the international community.

In Egypt, Rached has been working with independent Egyptian producer Karim Gamal el Dine whose Studio Masr has provided all the back funding for her last two films, These Girls and Neighbors. Rached doesn’t know if this relationship will continue but feels very lucky to have had this support.

These Girls premiered at Cannes in 2009 to critical acclaim. In the film, we witness more than we’d like to of the lives of a handful of young girls living on the streets of Cairo. The action takes place largely at night, the harsh glare of streetlights appropriate to the tragic play that unfolds below them.

There is a surreal, carnivalesque quality from the first frame, where we see a girl galloping a horse down a busy five-lane Cairo highway. The horse is a leitmotif throughout the film, a symbol of the freedom these girls so clearly lack, of the exuberant power they possess.

The stories are unrelentingly bleak—of abandoned children, fleeing family situations (or lack of them) that one struggles to believe can be worse than life on the street. Many are pregnant or raising their babies; most are sniffing or taking whatever cheap drug they can find to dull the senses; rape is common, but preferable to “scarring”; violence is ubiquitous.

What saves the film from total bleakness is the solidarity the girls share, the way they watch out and care for each other, and a kind of innocence: they are barely into puberty, still girls who could just as well be playing hopscotch as changing their baby’s diaper. There is also the kindness of people in the neighborhood—a man who manufactures a baby’s bed from an old cooler, others who give the girls food or a safe place to sleep.

Then there is Hind, a kind of Islamic Mother Teresa who visits regularly from her comfortable, apparently normal life. The girls love her; she listens to them, advises them (to no avail), and she loves them. There is nothing to be gained except the exchange of affection: a mother figure for the girls, children for Hind.

Neighbors is Rached’s latest film, an unexpected and unusual project in which the central character is Garden City, a lush green neighborhood of Cairo, historically important as the dwelling place of colonial officials and architecturally, a European fantasy of the Orient. Garden City is also where Rached spent some of her childhood and currently lives.

At a reception at the American Embassy following a screening of These Girls, she casually asked the ambassador whether she could come and film. So began a journey into a district that is an allegory of changing political and social landscapes, in Egypt and in the world.

The film’s contemporary slant derives from the presence of the American Embassy, torn down and rebuilt in the wake of 9/11, in an enlarged version that has annoyed just about every current inhabitant of the sector. Security barricades cut off streets that once teemed with shoppers and strollers; buildings were torn down to accommodate the new embassy, dooming shops, big and small, and creating empty lots, which spoil the architectural landscape.

Neighbors is peopled with a fascinating collection of players, from the current British and American ambassadors, to the owner of an amazing antiquary, to a long-time extended family who seem to live a good deal of their lives on their roof, to a local dentist, to an elderly man, the final guest in a long list of residents of Garden City.

This soft-spoken, articulate widower lives alone with his books, 12 of which he has written himself. He takes us on a tour of his libraries—a half dozen or so scattered throughout his house, organized by subject and alphabetically: history, politics and science, theatre, arts, literature and poetry, and a final one for Marxist philosophy, from its heritage to today. He talks of years in prison for his communist leanings, of the book of poetry he wrote: “Readings from the Wall of a Prison Cell”, of his optimism and the beauty of life. His window looks out onto the American Embassy.

In the three films she has made in and about Egypt, Rached provides a privileged understanding of a rich culture and its modern contradictions, beyond the limited frame of mainstream media. Indeed, Rached’s films, in addition to bringing much needed perspectives on contemporary issues, are also timeless in their reach. They remain pertinent because the problems they address refuse to go away, as do, thankfully, the fundamental humanity and strength of spirit they reveal.