The Alpe Adria Cinema festival in Trieste can always be relied upon to deliver something a little more esoteric than others. Whether it be Central Asian films in their "Stars of the Steppe" section or a retrospective of some East European maestro, there’s always something a little quirky and decidedly non-Hollywood. This year brought a retrospective from the experimental Swiss director / producer, Samir. His name itself means "storyteller" and that is how he was billed for this festival; although he is also promoted as a "veteran young filmmaker" – a somewhat ridiculous description which no doubt amuses and bemuses him in equal measure.
Samir produces both documentaries and fictional work and both were well represented at the festival. All exhibit his passion for technical experimentation through his use of windows, split screens, colour inversion, super-imposed images and cartoonish graphics. These serve a double purpose. At one level they are a part of Samir’s own playfulness and lightness of touch. Although his films often deal with difficult subjects, in person he is anything but the earnest, grave Euro-intellectual that might be drawn to such areas. At another level, the technical deconstruction and reconstruction of his films gives a certain distance to the viewer so that he / she can question his / her own emotional responses to the material.
Born in Iraq, Samir moved with his family to Switzerland at an early age. This mixed heritage informs much of his work It’s likely that in the near future he will go to Baghdad to produce a documentary loosely based on his own family, who have created their own mini-diaspora and are spread all over the globe. Though strongly opposed to the current war in Iraq, the overthrow of the Saddam regime has ironically given him the opportunity and potential freedom to make such a film. It would form the third part of a trilogy of sorts ("You have to have a trilogy these days" – he joked) after his 1993 documentary Babylon 2 and from 2002, Forget Baghdad. These two documentaries are perhaps Samir’s strongest works so far and certainly the most appealing to a British audience.
Babylon 2 examines the place of second-generation immigrants in Swiss society. Introducing the film, Samir explained that it was one of the first films to be totally created by computer, with various types of film (Super 16, Betacam etc.) all being mixed together like a "collage", along with titles and graphics, and then remounted onto 35mm film. The notion of "collage" is of course central to the film’s subject. These children of immigrants come from all sorts of backgrounds – Iraqi, Italian, Jamaican, Armenian, Hungarian, Jewish, Turkish, Spanish – and create a new section of Swiss society. Samir calls the process one of "atomisation".
The film itself starts off like a space odyssey, closing in on the earth and then Switzerland, with a voice-over intoning an alternative beginner’s guide to Switzerland. The film then introduces a succession of "half-half" people, starting with Samir himself. At least you think it’s him until you realise that the voice and the face are different. Only at the end of the film does the real Samir put himself into the frame, next to his alter ego, his childhood friend and actor, Michel. They recall a story from their youth when they were threatened by a group of skinheads. The skinheads called Samir a "dirty Jew" and Michel a "dirty Arab". The two friends laughed so much at the absurd irony of this racial inversion (Michel is Jewish) that the skinheads were totally flummoxed and the boys were able to run off!
The film created the term "secondos" to describe these second generation Swiss and was the first to be made by a "secondo". It explains how many of them were attracted to the electronic media for work, as they were more dependent on it anyway. Many are involved in the hip-hop scene, rapping in English because the language is "soft, like chewing gum." One of the most poignant comments comes from Michel. Asked why he hasn’t emigrated to Israel he explains: "There are no Jews in Israel any more, there are only Israelis."
Samir’s work has many unique touches. Along with the use of splitscreens and the mixing of old footage and photographs with contemporary interviews, he also inserts little dramatic recreations of certain emotional moments. These are not "proper" historical recreations like those so beloved by modern British documentary makers. At one point he describes the fear he had of snow in Switzerland because the words for snow and ice are the same in Arabic, and in Baghdad the only ice he’d known had been huge big blocks in the market. Shortly after this, we see a small Arabic child standing, obviously in an empty studio, with small shards of ice dropping all around them. It’s clearly artificial, but encapsulates perfectly the child’s sense of fear and wonder. Samir explained in interview that he was criticised for this approach, as it was not "pure" documentary. Thank goodness it isn’t. He also shows one of his interviewees giving intructions on how to edit his interview so as not to mislead. The message is clear. Just because something is presented as a documentary, it doesn’t mean it’s the truth. All screen work is a creative process and therefore interpretative.
In 1999 Samir was given some funding by the Romantsch-speaking areas of Switzerland and he produced a short film about the Tibetan immigrants who live there (Tibetan Projections, 1999). Samir cleverly sets it against a background of young Swiss people going to see the latest Hollywood Tibetan movies (e.g. Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet). They all express rather wistful and naive appreciation for the Tibetan / Buddhist way. As one of the Tibetan "secondos" says: "Tibet should not just be a screen onto which people project their own lack of fulfilment in the West".
Samir told me that he thinks Forget Baghdad is his best work. It certainly seems the most personal so far. He travelled to Israel to meet 4 Iraqi Jews – who had all been communists in Iraq and who had emigrated to Israel when the political situation had deteriorated in Iraq. Samir had hoped that they might have known his father, himself a member of the Communist party who had also had to flee, but this turned out not to be the case.
All 4 men are totally engaging, describing what a mixed city Baghdad had been, with Muslims, Jews and Christians all living together relatively contentedly. The Second World War had changed all that with Nazi Germany seeking allies in the region and spreading anti-Semitism on the way. The political climate became all the more intolerant and there were bombings of Jews in Baghdad. However, Samir’s interviewees suggest that it was probably Zionists or the Israeli Secret Service that perpetrated these acts, to encourage emigration to Israel. Not enough Ashkenazi (European) Jews were immigrating to the new state of Israel so they needed the Mizrahi (Jews from the Middle East) to come to Israel too, and about 120,000 of 140,000 Iraqi Jews did so. They faced massive discrimination and prejudice on arrival, being seen as less "civilised" than their Ashkenazi counterparts. This prejudice extended to the establishment. All the men are highly eloquent about their mixed Arab – Jewish heritage. They have had to become an "enemy of their own past". However, one of them revels in this mix: "I am like baklava – each level loves the other level of my personality".
Though made two years ago, this is a timely documentary, which has yet to reach a British audience, in spite of many screenings worldwide. In an increasingly mobile world, the dangerous fatuity of nationalism is more and more anachronistic. Human identity is never just about where you were born. We’re all mixed one way or another. What these documentaries appear to show is that "secondos" are much more enlightened as to what this actually means.
Samir’s fictional works are less accessible, particularly to an English audience. Early films such as the short Stummfilm, 1983 and the feature Marlowe, An Ode to Heisenberg, 1986 are silent – depending totally on visuals, Samir’s technical experiments and subtitles to convey the narrative. It’s fun up to a point but too often the actors are left having to do too much "thinking" acting. This is also the case with the later film Immer & Ewig, (Always & Forever) 1991, which this time includes dialogue and is entertaining in places with a great soundtrack, but too often the action drags. The most interesting work is the more conventional Filou, (Scoundrel)1988, which portrays the antics of Massimo, a young guy increasingly losing his way in the Zurich underworld.
Samir’s work is all highly unique. Whilst his unconventionality yields very mixed results in his fictional work, his documentaries are some of the most engaging and honest that you are likely to see.