Yamo – A documentary about the permanent chaos of one family and the country they live in


A documentary about the permanent chaos of one family and the country they live in

Ellie Violet Bramley, July 6, 2012

The trailer of director Rami Nihawi’s documentary, Yamo. (Video via Vimeo.com)

amo is a disquieting documentary. Slow paced and melancholic, it exudes a kind of paralysed anxiety that seeks to encompass both harsh reality and detached poetry. Its considered structure allows it to convey a rich narrative within a distinct filmic ambience that proves hard to forget. For all its melancholy, it is a bit of an uncut gem.

In it, Nawal, the long-suffering mother of Yamo’s director, Rami Nihawi, answers her son’s questions about life and lost love, alienation and lack of ambition.

Ostensibly about one family, complete with sibling bickering and bedroom brawls, maternal notes threatening to break plates over heads if the washing up isn’t done, and a long-absent militia man father, the film speaks more broadly of the Lebanese post-civil war ‘condition.’ A condition, the film seems to be telling us, that is not dissimilar from the amnesia and fractured present of Nihawi.

The film has a stultifying atmosphere, and the camera shots are as lingering as the smoke of the mother’s slow burning cigarettes – you never see her hand without one, but we rarely see her take a drag. Camera shots are often static, resting on one angle in a room, on a face, or on a half-eaten Manouche.  Action is lent by the living creatures in these otherwise still-life shots. With a camera focused on the knobs of a cooker, we see Nawal return home before walking down the corridor to bed accompanied only by the sound of her squelching sandals. In a shot of an abandoned breakfast, ants become the protagonists, forming a frantic column diagonally across the screen.

In one sense, this is a film about Nihawi and his Yamo, but in another it is about the generational, national rut of a country recovering from years of in-fighting. The inert camera seems to represent this paralysis, itself dictating the frames, the people merely populating the scene. They are stuck in the dimensions of any given shot just as, the film seems to be telling us, the people of Nihawi’s generation are paralysed by the national context handed down to them by their parents’ generation.

The premise of the film, not instantly obvious, is that Nihawi can remember nothing of his childhood. His fractured memory has alienated him from himself, and he finds himself suddenly awake, but with no memory. To regain his memories, Nihawi must speak to his mother, but Nawal doesn’t tell stories, we are told. Nevertheless her son decides to ask, and she does eventually tell, charismatically and touchingly, despite never going so far as to ever be forthcoming.

In the course of this feature-length documentary, we learn, in carefully meted out narrative drips, of Nawal’s troubled marriage, of her disinheritance for marrying a Muslim, her tumultuous relationship with the Syrian Baathist militiaman whom she wedded, and of her love affair with the Lebanese Communist Party followed by her alienation from it.

As a family portrait, this documentary is thoughtful and a watchable. Nawal makes for an interesting interviewee because of, not despite, her frequent reluctance to divulge, along with her fairly unsubtle maternal disapproval at some of her son’s questions. He asks about how she felt when she first married his father, for example. He pushes her to delineate more clearly: Was she happy or content? She guesses it was all just normal. But normal or happy, he labors the point, and in so doing reveals the emotional nuances that have crept in for his generation, taught to expect more than hers ever did. Hers, she says, was never allowed to have ambitions.

We see the home life of Nihawi’s family through a series of seemingly random vignettes – Nawal’s early, coffee-filled mornings, dragged into action by a host of alarm clocks; Nihawi’s scraps with his adult brother, Rayan – like two overgrown spiders, all limbs, in board pants fighting on a single bed – we see the sleeping bodies of men sprawled on floors close to fuzzing fans and never far from over-flowing ashtrays; we see the bolshie, no doubt justified sister who chastises Nihawi for the state of the flat; and we see the laundry room whose pile of unwashed clothes only ever seems to increase.

It is the mundane that proves the most poetic and the most watchable – the cluster of little bespectacled boys Nawal transports to the school where she teaches in her banged up, lurching old Merc; or the glimpse we are given of Nawal at her night job in an off license. With Nihawi’s voiceover comes greater risk of the poetic losing itself in pretention, and once or twice the line is blurred. But, despite these occasional blurs, Nihawi’s voiceover is in part what lifts the film and says the more difficult things that need to be said. It is how we are given insight into his amnesia: “The sound of bombs was always louder than your voice, Mom.” He might not remember his childhood, per se, but he remembers the kidnappings and the bombs. It is also in the voiceover that Nihawi questions the “hoarding of history with heroes,” the lack of a faith that “would return meaning to things,” and life’s riddles; the cryptic end of the civil war being the biggest riddle of all.

Nihawi finishes his voiceover: “I am my mother’s dream. If she were sleeping, I would kiss her pale face and wake her.” These are the words of a generation begot of Nawal’s, which live in close quarters with all the dissatisfaction of being in a place they fought, but failed, to change.

For Nihawi, this translates to the permeation of his reality with defeat, and in turn the permeation of his film with the dissatisfaction this defeat causes.

Yamo is now showing at the Metropolis Cinema until July 11. It’s in Arabic with English subtitles.

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