Documentaries from the Arab world can often be intensely personal, with filmmakers using their own lives, experiences and surroundings as a first – and often tentative – step towards a whole world of stories they might ultimately want to tackle.
This can be tedious, to be sure, since not every life is fit for public consumption – but sometimes it also produces revealing and intimate portraits of people we would have passed on the street without a second thought and who only become interesting once a narrative is applied.
In ”The Turtle’s Rage” (”Schildkrötenwut”), Palestinian/German filmmaker Pary El-Qalqili finds the subject for her first feature-length documentary disquietingly close to home – in the basement of her house, to be exact, which is her father’s favorite retreat from reality.
When Pary was twelve, he vanished to take up the Palestinian cause – and when he came back years later, he did not have much to say to his wife or his daughter. Several trips to the Middle East followed, but all apparently ended in defeat for a bitter ex-revolutionary whose politics often seem like a band-aid for other disappointments in life, barely covering an itch that he cannot scratch.
Pary El-Qalqili stubbornly refuses to let her father brood in silent anger, prompting him aggressively to tell her about his years abroad, but rarely succeeding to get more than a few words out of him. What emerges instead is the portrait of an enigmatic, but deeply troubled, angry man who’s tired of swinging at windmills, but does not seem to know what else to do.
While not every child has the misfortune to grow up with a geographically and emotionally distant father, not every filmmaker lucks into such a rich topic – but El-Qalqili not only recognizes the treasure trove of secrets, disappointments and bitterness her father represents: she manages the delicate feat of balancing her film on the fine line between professional detachment and genuine empathy.
She barely hides her own anger at the man who deserted his family for long periods of time, failed to be a provider and does not seem willing or able to reconnect with them on any meaningful level, but also revels offstage at the vibrant personality he exhibits when they take a trip to Palestine together. Suddenly the grumpy old man becomes jovial and energetic, reveling in the proximity to a homeland that he never really left.
But ”The Turtle’s Rage” is also a film about secrets, since the elder El-Qalqili refuses to speak about his years of fighting “for the cause”. Just as he did after he was forced by the Israelis to return to Germany, he keeps his cards close to his chest, only allowing for generalizations that strongly hint at blood on his hands, but never specifics about what he might have done.
Starting a film by asking questions that will be left unanswered is usually a recipe for disaster or at least boredom, but in the case of this film, the lack of concrete revelations is oddly beside the point; as is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is used as a historical and political backdrop to the personal story that is at the core of this film.
When the credits roll, Pary does not know many more details about her father’s past, but she might like and understand him marginally better. Not by getting answers to her questions, but by studying him like a rare animal – in his cellar serving as a cage, as well as in his natural habitat, into which he is not likely to be released for good, at least in his lifetime.
The fact that Pary El-Qalqili was able to take the audience on such an arduous journey, is due to highly developed filmmaking skills and professional discipline – that we emotionally experience her catharsis, can be chalked up to immense talent and heart.