Framing the human: Meet the British-Palestinian filmmaker fighting for the forgotten
Set in the region of Magway, Myanmar, A Thousand Fires (2021) takes us on a journey with a family living off the unregulated petroleum industry. Husband and wife Thein Shwe and Htwe Tin mundane live a continuous odyssey. Using bygone means, the couple has to produce a barrel of oil every few days. Their efforts are phenomenal, yet the benefits are very meagre. The film’s unencumbered simplicity is powerfully gripping.
The film’s director, Palestinian-British filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky talked to The New Arab about his life, his passion for cinema, and his ardent dedication to advocating human rights through his art.
"For Farouky, films have a responsibility to avoid reducing or flattening the grandeur of life’s complexity. His films are almost collaborative in nature, people presented in the film are more or less in charge of where the story goes and how it develops; the magical element of surprise is entirely in their hands"
Saeed Taji Farouky, who was born to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, is British of nationality. His background allowed him to know of and care for different worlds.
Farouky explained his propulsive interest in making films about various parts of the world, so far focusing mostly on marginalised spaces, "There are a couple of reasons why Palestinian filmmakers are expected to make films about Palestine. One is a political reason: We should represent the cause and the liberation movement and we should be using cinema to express concerns regarding oppression and Palestinian resistance, and I agree with that.
"The other reason may be a more social or industrial reason. I think European filmmakers are allowed or even expected to make films about any part of the world because their viewpoint is often seen as the default one. Filmmakers from other backgrounds on the other hand, from Palestine for example, do not really have that freedom. Having said that, I think every film I make is about Palestine in one way or another. For example, I made a film in Afghanistan about the occupation and the Afghan Army. For me, a film about occupation and men deciding to dedicate their lives to fight is also a film about Palestine, even on an emotional level. Because my films feel personal to me, I see them as films about Palestine."
Matt scenery, fires, mud, oil, arduous unrelenting work are all ubiquitous in the film. Yet, it has an insurmountably beautiful story of family ties and heroic parenthood that anchors hard work in the hope of a better future. The film is slowly paced and very subtle in approaching the family’s life, which frees us – the spectators – from any feeling of invading their privacy, we feel invited.
The politics of the film are equally delicate, A Thousand Fires does not come with a predetermined political stance, we are rather invited to observe ordinary lives being shaped and demarcated by the politics of their times.
Farouky comments on his personal connection to the film, "The film is not only about Myanmar, but also about a father trying to do his best to give his son a better future in a country which is ruled by the military. That is very similar to my life growing up with my father who was working hard under the shadow of a military dictatorship to give me the best future he could."
Farouky reminisces on being obsessed with films since he was eight. He knew very early on what he wanted to do: just to make films.
His career began before it even began; he started by making films with his parents’ camera recorder as a kid. By the time he got to actually making his first short film, in 1997, he had already been practising representing worlds visually for ten years. Farouky interestingly describes filmmaking as a language for him. His inclination towards investing more in documentary filmmaking was a direct result of his growing political awareness.
"Farouky’s film does not only manipulate time, it, perhaps inadvertently, also manipulates the meaning behind physical materiality"
For Farouky, films have a responsibility to avoid reducing or flattening the grandeur of life’s complexity. His films are almost collaborative in nature, people presented in the film are more or less in charge of where the story goes and how it develops; the magical element of surprise is entirely in their hands. Farouky explains that this is also by virtue of his cultural background.
"So, when I approach people, I approach them with this desire to reflect real-life in all of its complications. I know what it is like to be misrepresented, so I do not want to do that to others. I want to make films that are surprising, confusing, and nuanced. The people in my films are allowed to contemplate things about their lives that we would never have even imagined; things that are outside of the clichés that we hold about them."
Farouky passionately explains to The New Arab that he is more interested in making films about human stories instead of conceptual films. His artistic approach, which centres on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, requires patience and the sensitivity to see what is unique about people and their situations.
"What I do not like doing, is starting a film with a predetermined story and trying to find people whose life fits that story, it means that there would be no surprises left, no magic. I am very cynical about documentary films with a very obvious structure where the plot is the most important part of the film," Farouky adds.
This artistic approach continues to ensure the uniqueness of each film that Farouky makes because each film has its own singular process of unravelling. There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void (2013) was made on a ship sailing around the arctic with a group of artists on board. Before the artist residency on this ship, Farouky’s mother passed away and thus, the idea of the film changed. It became, in Farouky’s words “a kind of meditation on death and my own sense of identity through her family history”.
Perhaps one of the most captivating aspects of documentary films is the moment of transition from real life into a film through the camera’s lenses. The present moment instantly and continuously morphs into the past. Simple moments that might go unnoticed become more open to scrutiny and interpretation when they are documented.
Very simple moments in A Thousand Fires capture our hearts the most: A baby babbling with Thein Shwei who cannot understand her but smiles and interacts with her, or the family gathering to watch a football match. The spectators, wherever we are, become connected to that family in Myanmar.
Farouky, the filmmaker, inevitably experienced this connection on a deeper level and discovered new dimensions of time during his long journey of making the film. "When I started filming, Thein Shwe told me I wonder why you came halfway across the world to make a film with me, maybe we were related in a previous life. It was so beautiful and powerful, something that was so casual for him to say, but I would never have thought of it because reincarnation is not part of my culture at all.
"I started researching Buddhism and found out that we are one life in endless incarnations. When you start to think of your life in that way, time does not mean the same thing anymore. The ultimate goal is to reach Nirvana, to fully die. I found it so bizarre because from Western perspective immortality is the ultimate goal. These Buddhist concepts convinced us to find new ways to manipulate time in the film. Time is actually cyclical in the film, obviously, the film has a beginning and an end, but the story does not end when the film does."
Farouky’s film does not only manipulate time, it, perhaps inadvertently, also manipulates the meaning behind physical materiality.
The film’s absence of any political statements pertaining to the unregulated oil industry in addition to its focus on the repeated and arduous process of drilling heightens the connection between Thein Shwe, the land, and the oil. A powerful connection between a present material body and material remains from over millions of years. As Farouky explained, the story does not end when the film ends.
Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize
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