“Part of me is with me,
Another part of me is with you,
Each part misses the other.
Will you come back, please?”
-- Mahmoud Darwish
On 1 December and as part of the ongoing 8th Panorama of European Film, The Narrow Frame of Midnight (or Itar El Layl, 2014) was screened in the presence of its lead, Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla, and followed by a Q&A session with Abdalla.
A France/Morocco/Qatar/United Kingdom production, the film was written and directed by Moroccan-Iraqi filmmaker Tala Hadid and stars French-Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze and the seven-year-old Moroccan Fadwa Boujouane.
The film is set in Morocco and centered on three main characters: Zacaria (Khalid Abdalla), a Moroccan-Iraqi writer born in the UK who sets off to Iraq in search of his brother, Youssef, who was previously imprisoned and tortured in Morocco and left to join jihadists in Iraq; seven-year-old Aicha (Fadwa Boujouane), an orphan sold to two Algerian child traffickers, Abbas (Hocine Choutri) and Nadia (Majdouline Idrissi), who plan to deliver Aicha to a client in France; and Zacaria’s former girlfriend Judith (Marie-Josée Croze), a French expat and art aficionado living in Ifrane, in South Morocco.
Lingering loss, denied belonging, and audacious quests weigh heavily throughout the film and are set against the backdrop of a tormented Middle East. In his search for his brother, Zacaria is a desolate Arab plagued by tragedy and determined to hold on to his identity. The same sense of loss and quest is true of the two other main characters: Aicha, who is looking for a home, and Judith who takes refuge in art as she awaits the return of Zacaria.
On audacious quests
Starting off from Morocco as he embarks on a journey to Istanbul, then Kurdistan and finally to Iraq, Zacaria runs into Aicha’s traffickers whose car has broken down on their way to deliver Aicha to their client. When Zacaria gives them a ride, he finds out Aicha is being trafficked and decides to save her, perhaps his own sense of loss inspiring this act of kindness.
As Zacaria and Aicha run away together, we take a brief yet needed break from the film’s intense mantra of grief as scenes tinted by compassion unfold between Zacaria and Aicha, two humans with different stories yet united by adversity and loneliness.
Later in the Q&A discussion, Abdalla would comment on how, in essence, the film is about “two orphans, one who was orphaned during childhood, and another who was orphaned at an older-age.”
Zacaria takes Aicha to Judith, where he is positive Aicha will be in safe hands, before he resumes his journey towards Iraq. At this point, the film follows two stories unraveling in parallel: Zacaria en route to Iraq to fetch his lost brother and make a certain pact with his fractured identity in the process; and innocent Aicha, who is loved and nurtured in her new home, and who, when her Algerian traffickers locate her, is adamant to return to her new life.
Cinematographer Alexander Burov, whose repertoire includes working with iconic Russian director Alexander Sokurov, communicates these human complexities to great effect.
But the film, which was nominated for Muhr Award at the Dubai International Film Festival (2014), and
presented in the Discovery Selection at the Toronto International Film Festival (2014)
and also in the Cinema d’Oggi Selection at the Rome International Film Festival (2014), also positions itself as an onlooker on a region caught in despair.
In one scene, a French debate on TV on unemployment argues for revising France’s refugee intake quotas, and in another scene there is a voice-over of an Arab narrating his journey of war and exile.
The region’s anguish is also poignantly conveyed when in one scene where Zacaria, now close to Iraq, has an encounter with an old Iraqi man. The old man speaks of a time centuries ago when Iraq was invaded by the Moghuls who threw thousands of books into the Tigris River, blackening it with their ink. Now, centuries later, Iraq is “as red as its blood.”
Still from The Narrow Frame of Midnight's trailer.
Indeed, Iraq’s tragedy is captured in several scenes: a morgue, piled bodies appearing from within the truck that stands outside the morgue’s door, swathes of blood being wiped off a slab table inside the morgue, covered corpses lying in a mosque, as prayers for the dead unfold.
Uttering a total of 10 sentences throughout the course of the film, Abdalla proves he is in impressive command of his art as an actor. He communicates the layered nature of Zacaria’s character and his real-life complexities: lost but purposeful, grief-stricken but capable of compassion, holding multiple identities but not necessarily confused by them, tormented by the Middle East but unwilling to abandon it.
While The Narrow Frame of Midnight is largely free of dramatic tension, it is steeped in agony. It renegotiates the human obsession with the notion of "belonging," and chronicles how we humans battle loss, whether personal, or that of a nation.
On multiple identities and the importance of telling our story
The film’s story, as we learn in the Q&A, began when Abdalla first met the director in 2008. Tala Hadid is a Moroccan-Iraqi who grew up in France and was studying in the US when 9/11 and the 2003 War on Iraq took place.
As Tala commenced writing the script in 2003, she, as Abdalla explains, “was not interested in making a film that tackles the issue of refuge and immigration in the traditional manner, where nostalgia reigns, and where the protagonists are only interested in going back to their home countries,” but that rather shows how “a third identity is formed [as a result of this state of refuge].”
Preparations commenced in 2008, and filming began in 2013, the film thus taking a total of six years to come to light.
Asked why he persisted with the film, Abdalla attributed his determination to the character's interesting mix of origins. “It’s always either the person is from here (the Arab world), or from there (the West). And if he happens to be from both places, his multiple identities are always portrayed in a demeaning manner. And this [multiplicity of identities] is everywhere now, especially if we talk about our area today as the official number of refugees coming from our region amounts to a total of 15 million.”
This interest in playing a character with multiple identities is a reflection of Abdalla himself. Asked by an audience member to introduce himself, Abdalla said he had yet an answer to this question, “because I have yet to know who I am. I was born in Scotland to Egyptian parents. My parents were living in Egypt but left in 1975 because my father was involved in the Egyptian Students Movement. They left to Baghdad, and later moved to Scotland where I was born. I’ve been living in Egypt since 2008.”
“So far, I have not had the chance to act in any of the languages I’m accustomed to, whether the Egyptian dialect, or in English. The fact that I always act in different languages confuses people who become lost as to where I’m from,” he added.
While Abdalla’s film repertoire includes three Hollywood films (United 93, The Kite Runner, and The Green Zone), all Western productions about the region, The Narrow Frame of Midnight was different, in that it was weaved by Arabs.
“I believe that each of us should tell their story and hence find it necessary for films to be coming out from our region too,” Abdalla asserted.
“The distorted image [of Arabs] that exists is a very deep one and it has an infrastructure. If we don’t find a way to make these films, we will not be able to fight the image that comes to someone’s mind whenever they see an Arab face.”
Still from The Narrow Frame of Midnight's trailer.
“The night lengthens, and the wound knows its name”
But The Narrow Frame of Midnight also seeks to capture the current moment the Arab world seems to be trapped in.
The film’s title, The Narrow Frame of Midnight, taken from German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, echoes this idea.
“This narrow frame of midnight,” Abdalla explained, “is a moment that we go through every day, that moment when we’ve already left today but tomorrow has not arrived yet. Its hard to claim this moment although it occurs every day.”
“If we apply this idea to the present moment in the region, that moment becomes a representation of our in-between revolutions, counter-revolutions, wars, as well as our uncertainty about the possibility of peace,” Abdalla added.
As such, The Narrow Frame of Midnight was “an attempt to open this [the region’s] wound.” This "wound" is captured in one scene when Abdalla turns on a cassette player and the following Arabic song lyrics unravel: “The night lengthens/and the wound knows its name/and my tears dry/my eyes turn to blood/and my tears have dried.”
But the attempt at tackling this wound was far from smooth. That the film took six years to complete was also a result of multiple delays, which Abdalla explained had to do with locating production means.
The film comprised 188 cuts only, while as Abdalla asserted the usual number of cuts would amount to 1000 or more per film, which rendered the film difficult, production wise. Additionally, and because of time pressure, every single shot could only comprise between three to five takes.
Abdalla spent four years preparing for his role and “trying to understand the character.”
“The director and I took a decision to control my food and sleep. She wanted me to look as exhausted as possible,” he added.
Audience members applauded Abdalla’s performance. One audience member commented on Abdalla’s reaction in the morgue scene, saying that he looked excruciated rather than terrified, an observation that he indeed confirmed. “For me, it’s a sure thing that the amount of deaths we’ve seen throughout the past years has affected me.”
Earlier in the discussion, Abdalla also spoke of how this particular scene was the most difficult for him, “especially when you’re standing there [in the morgue] knowing that each corpse lying on the floor represents 10,000 of those who have died throughout the Iraqi conflict. This is besides the other 10,000 who will die tomorrow, and an additional 10,000 who will die [trying to cross] the sea.”
Asked by an audience member whether given the gloomy nature of the film, Abdalla was at all hopeful about the future, Abdalla said that film’s two final scenes particularly conflicted him, and left him unable to decide whether optimism or pessimism won in the end. “The first time I watched the film, it was during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. I was looking at the kids and contemplating the kind of future they might have. This scene left me pessimistic.”
“On the other hand, in the following scene, we see a person confront pain and catastrophe. For me, for the protagonist to find himself in Baghdad, and not in Europe, embodies optimism. There’s this joke of a pessimist and an optimist [reflecting on life]. The pessimist says, “Life could not possibly get any worse.” The optimist says, “Why not? Much worse things can happen.”
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