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From Abdul to Leila: Reconnecting with memory through poetry

From Abdul to Leila: Reconnecting with memory and roots through poetry
5 min read
17 May, 2024
Film review: Artist Leila Albayaty digs deep into her family history to construct meaningful recollections & piece together her own complex Arab-French identity

Is cultural identity a social construct or a natural stratum, inlaid in the subconsciousness of our personality?

In the case of French-Iraqi musician and filmmaker Leila Albayaty, the author and protagonist of the lyrical documentary From Abdul to Leila, recently shown in the Film Forward competition of the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, the Arab blood in her veins inherited from her Iraqi father Abdul seems to boil so irrepressibly – despite her French upbringing – there is no way she can feel a complete person until she reconciles both these cultural backgrounds in the depths of her inner self.

As a result and with persistence, she sets out to discover and bring together the characteristics of the Orient and the West intertwined in her roots, excavating the sorrow and hardships her family and her people have gone through to rise from adversity like a phoenix from the ashes.

Because, according to her own words, Leila has always preferred singing to speaking, the resulting film is an eclectic collage of musical performances based on her father’s poetry and personal confessions, recently captured moments with her parents and family home movies.

Simultaneously reminiscent of Bjork’s screams and whispers and Twin Peak’s Julie Cruise’s otherworldly croon, Leila’s singing gradually unfolds an intimate yet politically relevant narrative through her lyrics with the additional help of voiceover storytelling.

It turns out that Leila’s youth spans Iraq's tumultuous political landscape, from the 80s through to the Gulf Wars in the 90s, while the relationship with her father absorbed and reflected all the widespread anxiety around these events.

Abdul was a Baath party member long before Saddam Hussein came to power, but upon his return, he was expelled and faced exile, torture, and persecution for his dissent. Always supporting the oppressed, he invariably entered totalitarian power’s field of view, not letting him out of its sight, and so fear became a constant companion in his life.

Seeking refuge in France, he started a family, aiming to shield his children from their Iraqi connections, as well as the nostalgia that haunted him by not teaching them Arabic and trying to cut ties with their origins. But past and roots appear to be stubborn ghosts and whenever you attempt to hide them, they show up and spook your loved ones.

Hardly waiting until she turns 18, Leila journeyed to embargoed Baghdad with an already shaken sense of identity, driven by family narratives and a quest for roots. Despite language barriers, she immersed herself, only to confront harsh realities that shattered her naive worldview.

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Her return to France marked a turbulent period, culminating in a life-altering car accident that left her bedridden for a year and enduring numerous operations. Memory loss and fragmented identity plagued her, leading to a nomadic existence and estrangement from her parents. Until the need to go back to her essence floated up to the surface to sink her back into the creative process of making From Abdul to Leila.

Vacillating between truth and illusion in her slippery memory, amid restored past moments that have remained locked away for too long in her subconscious, Leila Albayaty seeks to explore not only her Iraqi origins and unveil her father’s traumatic past as a political dissident but also touch upon the tragedy of an entire nation in this candid autobiographical film.

Аlthough at first glance it seems loosely structured and meanders through the emotional states of the author and main character, the film is, in fact, a comprehensive portrait and an authentic testimony, a view from the inside of the violent disintegration of Iraqi society and state, provoked by external policies — а bitter fate that befell other nations in the Middle East too.

According to Leila, the biggest lie in history was the US Government’s accusation that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which served as an excuse to start the Gulf Wars, with the actual reason being to source and plunder natural resources.

As summed up by daughter and father, the results appear to be lasting – even today local people get cancer and children are born with abnormalities because of the depleted uranium weapons and white phosphorous used by the Americans, while for the last decades, the local population has known only wars, embargoes, and poverty.

The positive note in From Abdul to Leila springs from the gradual rapprochement between father and daughter, which we are privileged to observe closely on screen, without witnessing moments that are too intimate, as often happens in documentary family portraits.

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The act of overcoming a deep intercultural, intergenerational, and interpersonal conflict that left father and daughter mute to each other for years is a moving story, especially when tears and hugs are not staged, as is the case here.

Еven more arresting is the suspense that hangs in the air before, at the very end of the film, Leila reveals the trauma of the collision with Iraqi reality and everyday killings which shakes her to the core and scars her soul forever.

The remedy she seems to find is to compose melodies, inspired by Abdul’s poetry, which he started writing again only now, after a break of nearly half a century. And in honour of their reconciliation.

Eventually, From Abdul to Leila gropes for the golden section between the socially significant and the personal, between global politics and private sentiments, between an eye-opening narrative woven from little-known or conveniently forgotten facts about infamous political crimes that have remained unpunished and an eccentric artistic expressiveness.

A characteristic that distinguishes the film from so many others denouncing the same crimes. Moreover, it is a confessional oeuvre that binds wounds and succeeds in proving that more than completion, cultural identity requires recognition and deep understanding.

Mariana Hristova is a freelance film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer. She contributes to national and international outlets and has curated programs for Filmoteca De Catalunya, Arxiu Xcèntric, goEast Wiesbaden, etc. Her professional interests include cinema from the European peripheries and archival and amateur films