Memoirs – Insights from the barber of Phoenicia

(The Daily Star, December 23, 2010)

Along with children, documentary film loves old people. It’s not hard to see why. Documentary traffics in knowledge, and narrative convention tells you that, being experienced, senior citizens have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to bestow.

Also, as they have had at least 40 years practice, it’s assumed old folks are pretty good storytellers. Another bonus, one that few filmmakers could acknowledge in good conscience, is that men and women in their declining years tend to be colorful subjects. Since they are at a greater remove from youth’s self-conscious obsession with image, older people are free to be comfortably eccentric for the camera.

So an experienced audience member has a package of expectations in mind when it sits down to watch “All About My Father.” This brand-new work by Lebanon’s Zeina Sfeir, which had its world premier at the Dubai film festival’s Muhr Arabic documentary competition, trains its lens on the filmmaker’s father, Elius.

Eighty-something Elius Sfeir has been a barber for 70-odd years. After cutting his scissors in the Lebanese village of Alay, he went down to Beirut, where he has trimmed the hair of the great and the good in salons adjacent the St Georges Hotel, then the Phoenicia – both of which have been known for their exclusive clientele.

His long tenure as the barber of choice for Lebanon’s rich and famous has put him in intimate proximity to power ever since independence from France. Ipso facto, Elius Sfeir is a rich font of insight on the workings of this broad land.

So it’s not unnatural that the opening shot of Sfeir’s film should find its subject standing next to the kitchen stove in his pyjamas, boiling water. He’s not making coffee but preparing to shave himself.

He bears the boiling water to the bathroom and stares into the mirror, not at himself but at the camera lens trained on his reflection.

“Just do what you do normally,” the filmmaker says to his unasked question.

The father pauses, lathers his face and begins to apply a straight razor.

“Khalas?” his eyebrows rise at the camera after a couple of strokes. The scene obediently ends.

The next scene finds Elius Sfeir sitting in his living room, a microphone attached to his shirt.

“Can I get up now?” he asks after a preliminary exchange of words. “I have to go to the toilet.”

“Tell me a story,” the filmmaker’s voice urges from behind the camera.

“What stories?” Sfeir replies. “It’s just gossip.”

While the filmmaker struggles to convince her father to share some of his anecdotes about the old days, he appears to be far more preoccupied by the present. One of the leitmotifs of the film is the subject’s obsessive-compulsive telephone conversations with Roni, who minds the barber shop when Elius isn’t there himself.

One of these one-sided conversations finds the veteran barber sitting on the sofa – he always seems to sit on the same spot on the sofa – phone pressed to his ear, eyes intent on the floor before him.

After absorbing some information from Roni, he nods and asks, “Did he have a haircut?”

He listens to the reply, hangs up the phone and looks up at the camera.

“Everyone from the international tribunal [investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] checked in at the Phoenicia today,” he reports. “But no one got his hair cut.”

Sfeir does sometimes coax her father into sharing some of his reminiscences, though some subjects leave him more taciturn than others.

There was that time when, while shaving the Trad family zaim (traditional leader), he shared some gossip about the pretensions of Khazen family.

Then there are the tales of the Attrash family – parents of the famous performers Farid and Asmahan – who used to summer in Alay.

“Is there anything else you need?” Dad suddenly interrupts himself to ask. “Khalas?” Again, the scene obediently ends.

Sfeir is content to depict his conversation with a wine-swilling Frenchman who once remarked that the Lebanese would never be civilized enough to achieve independence.

The subject’s incessant requests to be freed from the labor of performing his recollections for his daughter’s camera is another of the amusing leitmotifs of “All About My Father,” yet there is an unspoken core of melancholy beneath his impatience.

“Papa what happened in 1958?” the filmmaker asks, referring to the year of independent Lebanon’s first civil war.

“What happened?” he replies. “Nothing happened.”

On another occasion, while recollecting how he’s had to move the location of his salon during the various phases of Lebanon’s civil war, he suddenly loses patience again.

“Come take this thing off me,” he demands. “It’s suffocating.”

Visibly shaken, he retreats to his bedroom to lay down, prompting his daughter to ask why he’s upset.

“I don’t know.”

As it is a documentary about an interesting older person, “All About my Father” may remind some audiences of other films to emerge from this region recently.

The most obvious point of reference is Mahmoud Kaabour’s “Teta Alf Marra” – if only because it too is a Lebanese doc released in 2010 – which took the audience prize at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival a couple of months back.

Promising to be a bio-pic about the filmmaker’s grandmother, “Teta” calls upon the lady to reminisce about her long-departed husband (who happens to have been a famous Lebanese improvisational musician) transforming the film into a musical contemplation of mortality and nostalgia.

Performance is central to the form of “Teta” as well as its content. The filmmaker is evidently aware of contemporary theoretical discussions about how anyone will become a performer if you thrust a camera lens in her face, and so the documentary embraces performance.

In its form and thrust, though, Sfeir’s film is more readily compared with “Final Fitting,” the award-winning 2008 doc by Iranian documentarian Reza Haeri.

At its most basic, Haeri’s film profiles Mr. Arabpour, the octogenarian master-tailor of Qom (Iran’s top religious center), who has tended to the appearance of the country’s clerical elite since long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Since Arabpour has made the robes and turbans of senior ulama, from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to the present spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, “Final Fitting” becomes a wry micro-cultural history of Iran’s clerical class since the revolution.

The vital distinction between Arabpour and Kaabour’s Teta on one hand and Elius Sfeir on the other is the latter’s reluctance to act as a conduit for the sort of cultural history in which his daughter seems interested. He simply refuses to perform.

Because her subject is uncomfortable fulfilling the role of gregarious historical totem, Sfeir’s film (deliberately or not) subverts the documentary forms that the work of Haeri and Kaabour exemplify.

“All About My Father” is at once more intimate and more universal than a collection of politicians’ anecdotes could ever aspire to be. Sfeir has stumbled across a landscape of memory that is too painful to recall.