9th ALFILM – Opening of the Spotlight Program: Reflections on Arab Masculinities

On Thursday 12.04.2018, the ALFILM Festival began its Spotlight programme: Reflections on Arab Masculinities. The screening was opened before a large audience by the program coordinator Clauia Jubeh. The idea to reflect on Arabic masculinities in film has been around for some time. In German discourses on the subject of gender relations in Arabic countries, the focus has generally been placed on the role of women. How then is masculinity constructed and which problems do men face in the arabic world? Claudia Jubeh said that ALFILM have attempted to consider this subject from a cinematic perspective and to foster discussion around the way that different directors perceive the it. The opening film of the Spotlight program was Room for a Man and the director, Anthony Chidiac, was present for the opening and a Q&A session afterwards.

 

© Katja Volkenant

Chidiac’s Room for a Man is predestined for this years Spotlight program. The documentary from this young filmmaker is an intimate portrait of a person who is read as a man but is searching for his own individual, queer identity and his place in society. It becomes clear in the course of the movie that Chidiac’s mother is a large part of his life. His relationship with this frequently overzealous woman is often ambivalent. Sometimes more and sometimes less directly, she makes one thing very clear: Anthony is not a real man. She says that to become virile and feared by others, he needs to spend more time with ‘real men’.

Later on in the film, Chidiac interviews several different men. In the process, one thing becomes clear: there is no single example of an Arabic man, instead there are many different Arabic masculinities, molded by varying histories. Then comes Anthony’s uncle who openly expresses his dislike of Anthony’s homosexuality. Anthony’s family, according to the uncle, is full of important (masculine) identities. He believes that Anthony can’t, in the figurative sense, wither away and shame in the process bring shame to the family, especially not as their last male descendant.

Meanwhile, during the renovation of Anthony’s childhood bedroom, there are a lot of Syrian builders working in the flat. In the interviews Anthony conducts with these builders, many diverse images of masculinity become apparent. The young Syrians explain to the director their various dreams, hopes for the future and difficulties they experience as Syrians in Lebanon. At the same time, it also becomes clear how boasting about muscles and violence plays a role in the construction of masculinity.

Finally, Chidiac turns to his father who was absent for most of his life. The father, who lives in Argentina, appears to be a picture of conventional masculinity, who seems bitterly disappointed with his son. His father also implies that his son could have been more ‘manly’ and could have resembled him more closely if his father had been more present in his life.

Between all these different masculinities and a strong mother, Chidiac ultimately tries to find his own place. From his own perspective, he doesn’t align himself with a traditional masculine identity. Several times in the film, he expressly states that he is neither a man nor a woman. He seriously doubts if he can find his place in Lebanon – his desire to leave the country frequently comes to light.

In the closing Q&A session, Anthony Chidiac explained his approach to making this private self-portrait. The film began when he started filming his everyday life with his mother. At some point, he was watching the building works in the neighbouring building and happened upon the idea of also interviewing building workers for his film. All the scenes and interviews in the film were unscripted and recorded entirely as they happened. The construction workers were quick to get involved and the only problem was to avoid distracting them from their work for too long. Chidiac had the possibility to get to know the real characters behind these tough men and to notice many parallels between their experiences and his own. Most of them wanted to leave Lebanon and if possible, to find a foothold in Europe. They all hid a weak, sensitive side and felt lost in wider society. One critical observation from one member the audience concerning the representation of the Syrian builders was that they felt that refugees in cinema are too often presented in a sexualised light. Chidiac said that he was simply attempting to present a portrait of the Lebanese society in which his past, present and future life is grounded.

The inclusion of Anthony’s father in the film was also unplanned. He had only very infrequent contact with his father, but at some point he needed some help translating something from Spanish. At this point he reached out to his father and decided to include him in the film. Overall Chidiac depicted his family in the Q&A as a source of stress and only loosely connected to him. He has wished for many years that they would change their views, but sadly they are too deeply entrenched.

Finally, Chidiac explained how a largely unscripted film came to contain voice-over segments. The idea only came about during post-production. He was of the opinion that with a few extra words, certain feelings could be expressed more clearly. He felt most comfortable with a feminine voice as a means of expressing his character, so he used the voice of a female friend for the voice-over.

The film had it’s German premier at the 9th ALFILM Festival after screenings in Montreal and Greece – the film will also be screened in Lebanon soon.