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Toronto Film Review: ‘My Love Awaits Me by the Sea’

Mais Darwazah's documentary is a moving, intensely personal essay on her experience as a second-generation Palestinian making her first trip to the homeland.

With:

Ghayda Ajalyaqeen, Hasan Hourani, Mohammad Reda Al-Haj Ahmad, Samer Hussam, Ammar Hanini, Muhannad Halawani, Nael Kanj, Leila Kanj, Hazim al Sharef, Mariam Yassine, Sheikh Amin A-Nabulsi, Hamdeh Mousa. Narrator: Mais Darwazah. (Arabic, English dialogue)

Those looking for a different kind of Palestinian documentary would do well to check out Mais Darwazah’s “My Love Awaits Me by the Sea.” A poetic meditation on what it means to be denied the chance to participate in a collective memory of normal life, this is a moving, intensely personal essay inspired by the late artist/author Hasan Hourani’s life and work, seen through Darwazah’s experiences as a second-generation Palestinian making her first trip to the homeland. Incorporating perceptive observations by refugees and those living under the occupation, “My Love” will be especially welcomed by diasporan communities and fests.

Ramallah native Hourani was 29 when he drowned in 2003 while trying to save his nephew in the forbidden waters off the now-Israeli city of Jaffa — “forbidden” because people in the West Bank aren’t allowed to visit, a situation nicely tackled in the portmanteau film “Water.” Darwazah doesn’t include these details in her narration (she’s got a great voice), though while speaking of Hourani as her lover, she gradually makes clear they’ve never actually met, and she cannot join him where he is now.

A yearning for the sea, or to at least see the sea, forms a large part of the narrator’s musings, influenced by her mother (Ghayda Ajalyaqeen) telling stories of the freedom one feels at the shore. Families the world over have memories of visits to the seaside, yet for Palestinians (excluding those living in the Gaza Strip, noticeably absent), such stories are part of a past which they’re unable to replicate. Darwazah uses pencil, charcoal and watercolors to illustrate elements of the tale she envisions between herself and Hasan, and while in the retelling the concept sounds twee, the helmer turns it into an elegiac device of childlike simplicity.

Woven into this imaginary, impossible love story are conversations with Palestinians. There’s Mohammad Reda Al-Haj Ahmad, an articulate young man living in a refugee camp in Damascus, who speaks of the frustrations of being controlled by the forces of politics and religion. Three friends in Jerusalem discuss what makes the city special, with one guy, Samer Hussam, especially powerful on the need to strip the occupation of any Potemkin niceties. Nael and Leila Kanj, in Nazareth, talk of the dream of living an ordinary life.

Dreams form a key element in “My Love,” yet while most people like to imagine the exceptional, the people Darwazah converses with dream instead of something commonplace that’s been denied them by statelessness and occupation. In general, Palestinian docus fall into either melancholic or angry categories, and this one is definitely in the former camp, with additional layers of intelligence, poetry and, thanks to the director’s mother, humor.

Along with chats and illustrations, Darwazah shows black-and-white snapshots of Jaffa’s seaside promenades that intensify the connection to place, increasing the sensation of tragic ridiculousness that a destination forming part of a people’s geographic and mental landscape should be forbidden. For the director herself, born and raised in Amman, this journey to Palestine, with Hourani’s book “Hasan Is Everywhere” as her mind’s guide, cements her attachment to place.

Mixed with informal visuals are a few stunning shots of town and countryside, especially one image of hills peeking above low-lying clouds — the kind of shot rarely included in docus on Palestine. Cynthia Zaven’s music, at times influenced by languorous piano works of Debussy and Satie, forms a gentle, pleasing accompaniment.

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Toronto Film Review: 'My Love Awaits Me by the Sea'

Reviewed online, Rome, Sept. 9, 2013. (In Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running time: 80 MIN. Original title: "Habibi bistanani and il bahar"

Production:

(Documentary — Jordan-Germany-Palestine-Qatar) An Imaginarium Films, Little Wanderer Films, Mengamuk Films production, in association with Screen Institute Beirut, with the participation of Sanad. Produced by Rula Nasser. Co-producer, Michel Balague.

Crew:

Directed, written by Mais Darwazah. Camera (color, HD), Arlette Girardot, Joude Gorani; editor, Wardan; music, Cynthia Zaven; sound, Issa Qumsieh, Jochen Jezussek; line producer, Najwa Mubarki. 

With:

Ghayda Ajalyaqeen, Hasan Hourani, Mohammad Reda Al-Haj Ahmad, Samer Hussam, Ammar Hanini, Muhannad Halawani, Nael Kanj, Leila Kanj, Hazim al Sharef, Mariam Yassine, Sheikh Amin A-Nabulsi, Hamdeh Mousa. Narrator: Mais Darwazah. (Arabic, English dialogue)

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