Style and content fail to mesh to compelling effect in “This Is My Picture When I Was Dead,” a free-form docu-essay from Jordan-born, Netherlands-based Mahmoud Al Massad (“Recycle”). Unfolding in mannered, low-key scenes that never build narrative momentum, the pic flits among topics without explicating any of them. The title refers to Bashir Mraish, son of assassinated PLO fighter Mamoun Mraish, who, as a 4-year-old in 1983, took a bullet along with his dad. But the film sometimes appears to be about his father, and sometimes about the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, which has disintegrated into bloody factionalism.
Although coolly received in its world preem at the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the pic nabbed the Arab docu award at the recent Dubai fest. Production investment from U.S. broadcaster ITVS Global means “Picture” will reach some American smallscreens (ideally with fuller subtitles), but the material is more apt to be appreciated in the Middle East and Europe.
In interviews, Al Massad has noted how difficult it was for him to find a structure for the film. Unfortunately, his choices do little to illuminate or provide context for the subjects he addresses. Uneven in tone, the pic feels like a jumbled outline that is never satisfyingly fleshed out.
Combining archival footage and photos and dramatic re-creations, Al Massad uses an uncomfortable-looking Bashir Mraish, now a PR exec and political cartoonist, as a stylized character (seemingly modeled after the deadpan Elia Suleiman persona in Suleiman’s own films). While the tantalizing title seems to promise an exploration of the traumas of the man’s life, we learn very little about him. Instead, the helmer offers multiple scenes of the younger Mraish listening to his father’s friends (not identified in subtitles) tell stories about the man for whom the Palestinian cause was more important than his family.
Bashir is also shown working at his PR office (the nature of his business is unexplained) and designing cartoons on the computer, some of which are censored. His most interesting interactions are with his mother, who implores him to move out of the home they share and get married, and a male friend, who suggests he might do better with women if he was dated one who liked his mother.
With Mamoun’s death allegedly a Mossad hit in retaliation for the deadly operations he organized for the PLO, the film touches on the 1978 Israeli Coastal Road massacre as Bashir leafs through his father’s old photos and finds a picture of the striking Dalal Mughrabi, the 19-year-old female fighter killed there along with 37 Israeli citizens and 10 other militants. Other PLO history is offhandedly squeezed in, including archival footage of the death of Yassir Arafat in 2004 and the Hamas win over Fatah in 2005.
Docu’s most striking aspects are what amount to visual asides: the arrestingly composed images of Jordanian architecture and ordinary street life captured in beautiful light, and the spectacular opening shots of martial firepower lighting the sky over Gaza, accompanied by an ironic Christmas tune. Helmer Al Massad did the lensing on the Red One camera.