Conceived as an ur-text for the Lebanese experience, Philippe Aractingi’s “Heritages” is a deeply personal take on his family’s repeated pattern of flight from and return to a country traumatized by more than its fair share of strife. Using a mix of re-creation, homemovies and archival sources, the helmer (“Under the Bombs”) traces generations of displacements and homecomings, using his wife, kids and mother to play forebears when they’re not being themselves. Though it neglects the existence of other Lebanese stories, the docu weaves a poignant, elegant tapestry about the meaning of exile, and is a natural for fests and Euro TV.
The director left Lebanon for France three times, each departure precipitated by violent instability and a troubling sense of deja vu. Realizing this was a family pattern replayed by his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, he set out to capture the experience of exile and return, reflecting the tragedy of Lebanese history along with the learned resilience of its people.
He certainly has a charming family: wife Diane, sons Luc and Matthieu, and daughter Eve. They’re well-off Christians, an important bit of info since context plays a large role in Lebanon’s sad history of sectarian violence. An obsessive filmer of his family, he speaks of the need to capture the moment for fear it may all disappear – common enough among people who’ve been uprooted too many times.
The latest departure was during the 2006 Lebanon War, when the family moved to Diane’s sister’s home in the upmarket Parisian suburb of St. Maur. For Diane, the move felt like repatriation rather than exile, since her experience mirrors the classic pattern of young immigrants: She left Lebanon for France at age 5 and quickly shed all Arab signifiers in order to blend in as the perfect French child. For Philippe, the flight seemed wrong just when his country was under attack, so he went back to shoot “Under the Bombs,” ultimately returning with his family in 2010.
Aractingi divides the docu into seven chapters, each covering a different aspect of his family’s experience going back to the 1860 Druze-Maronite Massacre when his great-grandfather had to flee. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the French Mandate, the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus) and the Nasserist pan-Arab movement are key moments in the timeline, when Christian-Muslim conflict and pressures from neighbors tore the fledgling nation into pieces that have yet to heal.
For the helmer, psychological scars from the Civil War are never far away, although his wise mother, Andree, tells him they need to be put aside. A moving scene has him showing the collection of bullets and grenades he put together as a youngster growing up in war-torn Beirut; Luc can’t understand a childhood where such objects could become playthings. Tellingly, at a similar age Diane collected erasers — a Freudian fetish if ever there was one.
Some may find the Aractingis too perfect (they’d be ideal for breakfast-cereal ads), but the only real problem here is that the family tale, presented as a sort of archetype of the Lebanese experience, seems not to recognize other narratives. Those less fortunate, without connections in France, don’t seem to exist, and Muslims are mentioned merely as participants on the other side of the Civil War. Of course “Heritages” is a personal story and will deservedly find powerful resonance with many Lebanese, yet given the country’s bitter divisions, some acknowledgment of the Aractingis’ privileged standing would have been welcome.
Technically and visually, the docu is a pleasure to behold, expertly mingling homemovies (of exceptional quality), archival footage and re-created events, the latter refreshingly effective and appealing. In addition, the kids are naturals before the camera.