- The very creative Khaled Abdulwahed malaxes memories and sets out to follow the few traces left by his father, a Syrian student in the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s
"Maybe we'll manage to see each other again. Who knows..." A refugee in Germany for several years now, Syrian director Khaled Abdulwahed has been working on a fascinating experimental documentary practice, notably about memory and always linked to his country of origin, and which has already won him numerous awards with the short film Backyard in 2018 and the feature film Purple Sea in 2020. An emerging body of work that is being brilliantly fleshed out with Background, unveiled in the international competition at the 34th FIDMarseille. A highly singular film, with great formal finesse and making a lot out of very little, in which the filmmaker weaves sonic and photographic links with his father Sadallah, stuck in the contemporary difficulties of Aleppo, by investigating his youth as a Syrian who went to study engineering in the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s.
"I set off alone from Baghdad station in Aleppo. I took the Orient Express to Istanbul, then the Balkans, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Vienna, Czechoslovakia, and Germany." The phone line crackles or drowns out as the father tells his son, in bits and pieces, about his journey and his stay in the GDR, which began in 1956 with a year in Leipzig to learn German, then at the universities of Dresden and Merseburg to study chemistry and petroleum engineering. At the other end of the line, Khaled dissects the rare photos of his father from that period, digitising and manipulating them, trying to corroborate the identification of places ("there's a Gothic cathedral in the background: that's Europe", "there are Western advertisements in the street: Universal, Moulin Rouge, Volkswagen: that can't be East Germany. Vienna? Or maybe West Germany?", "Google recognised the location: St Petersburg. Was it a holiday? A university trip?"). But the director (who lives in Berlin) also travels to Leipzig and Dresden, finding documents in the local archives to support his investigation (in particular a newsreel from the 1950s about this school attended by students from around fifty countries). These clues and more general information feed the intimate exchanges with a father he may never see again (the procedures for granting him asylum in Germany are complex, Aleppo lives to the rhythm of the explosions and the search for petrol for generators, the father has a worrying cough, etc.) and with whom he maintains a precious link and a source of memory beyond time and distance.
An expert in the art of creating enormous meanings and echoes with infinitely few elements, Khaled Abdulwahed knows how to play marvellously with images and sounds, sometimes right up to the edge of abstraction. An undeniable talent that's both ancient and modern, whose development will be very interesting to follow.
Background is produced by Berlin outfit Pong.
(Translated from French)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.