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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2024

Review: We Are Inside

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- In her remarkable, intimately autobiographical documentary, Lebanese director Farah Kassem finds the political in poetry and infuses politics with the poetic

Review: We Are Inside

In We Are Inside, which has just world-premiered in Visions du Réel's International Competition, after 15 years of living abroad, Lebanese director Farah Kassem returns to her hometown of Tripoli, where her widowed, 82-year-old father Mustapha lives with their long-time Sri Lankan maid, Nana. He is an acclaimed poet, and one of the first scenes sees him reading out the dedication in his new collection, for her and her brother. Here, Kassem establishes a key theme: that being the daughter of an Arab man is political in itself. Mustapha has written that he is proud of her, but is unhappy because she is not married yet – which she protests with a loving awareness of her father's traditional views and sharp humour that we will recognise is typical for her. When she attempts writing poetry in order to get closer to him, Mustapha is at first derisive. But she is welcomed to his poetry club, a space where conflicting opinions and readings accompanied by grand hand gestures typical of poets come with a helping of famous Tripoli sweets.

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We can clearly see the pretentiousness of him and his poetry-club buddies – all of them old men – at the promotional event for his book. But Farah treats it with affection, rather than mocking them. The most reasonable and likeable of the poets wants to help her, while Mustapha keeps dissing her efforts. Even for his friends, he is extremely traditional in his views, always underlining the rules of metres and rhymes. But he is ill, suffering from serious problems with his legs and later, probably, with his heart (there is little exposition in the film to tell us more), which puts him in a somewhat dependent position. This adds to the fact that she is the one holding the camera in their power game, if it can even called be that, subtle as it is. Farah also has a health problem related to her ears, which is symbolic in a film that asks whether anyone is really hearing anyone else.

Gradually, she gets better at poetry, and Mustapha becomes more accepting, especially when she comes up with a word that he had been missing for one of his verses. But still, he exclaims, “A poetess! Daughter of a poet!”

In the background, there are elections coming up, and through the window of their flat, we see the streets full of police and military personnel. This is a very tangible border between the inside and the outside, and right on it, on the windowsill, there is a pigeon laying eggs. Kassem keeps coming back to it, which both shows the passage of time and symbolises the crossroads of poetry, politics and the father-daughter relationship.  

Two hours in, Kassem switches from showing the political in the poetic to infusing the political with poetry. Her shift from being someone looking out from the inside to joining the outside world is remarkable: as she drives through the city to the main square where the 2019 demonstrations are taking place, one of the rare snippets of music comes in, and it is absolutely gorgeous. An atmospheric, jazzy piece with what sounds like tenor saxophone accompanies her ride as buildings on the dark streets pass by, creating a noirish vibe. In the protests, she playfully alternates between the diegetic roar of the crowd, drumming and loud music, and this original score.

For most of the film, the camera, in the 4:3 aspect ratio, is static, sometimes not capturing any of the protagonists in the frame, or just showing parts of their bodies. We see bare walls and furniture with apparently very little colour grading, until the last third of the film, which opens it on all fronts. By taking this risk, with almost two hours of talking about politics and poetry, with dollops of recitals in the melodic, Arabic rising cadence, Kassem lulls viewers into a state of tranquillity, so the final stretch, where emotions, events and cinematic tools take the film into a crescendo, leaves them breathless. She infuses the first two hours with a unique mix of honesty and irony, and implied meanings that are a joy to notice and unpack, eventually displaying a mastery of cinematic poetry that her father would be envious of.  

We Are Inside is a co-production between Lebanon's Road2Films, Denmark's Good Company Pictures and Al Jazeera Documentary Channel.

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