Most global conflicts have their father-son dimension, war being such an overridingly male endeavor. This observation is brought home to the most literal extreme in Omar Shargawi’s abrasively raw, intimate documentary “Western Arabs,” with its intensely personal focus on the Danish-born filmmaker’s anguished relationship with his Palestinian father, Munir. Also the subject of Shargawi’s well-received “My Father From Haifa,” Munir is charming and magnetic, but quick to anger and able to hold a grudge even against his eldest son, whom he bans from the family home in Copenhagen for a time.
Some of the friction will be recognizable to any child born outside a parent’s culture: How much do we owe to a country we’ve possibly never seen and how much is it our birthright to forge a path that, politically, culturally and socially might be radically different from that of the people who made us? Other aspects of Shargawi’s story are more specific to the plight of, as the title suggests, an Arab raised in the West (he was bullied, with depressing predictability, with taunts of “Paki” growing up), or more narrowly still, to the conundrum that is being half-Palestinian, but a full citizen of a country that does not recognize Palestinian statehood.
But all this is extrapolation, as Shargawi’s film, a kind of tormented, grief-stricken personal essay, leaves broader implications to the viewer, and presents his meditations on family loyalty, duty, honor and violence in a series of shrapnel fragments. Sometimes it is Shargawi himself, at visibly different ages and periods, in scenes culled from 12 years of on-off shooting, delivering pained monologues to camera. Sometimes it is clips from his scripted films, which often starred Munir and so, poignantly, have him delivering dialogue that Shargawi wrote, half-knowing that it was the only way he would ever hear his father say the things he needed to hear. And other times it’s archive footage, distressed and defocused, of news reports on Gaza; of bomb blasts and keening women; of the man falling forever from the upper floors of the World Trade Center.
“There was always a lot of love, growing up in that house,” Shargawi says as a scene of some rambunctious family dinner or other plays out. But it was a love that often expressed itself through ferocity: the film opens with Shargawi in his car confessing to having just that morning threatened his younger brother Kareem with the same pair of scissors that he had originally brought out to defend or avenge his sibling in a bar brawl. That all of this is done in some sort of tangled attempt to obey his father’s commandment to look after his little brother, only further adds to the inner turmoil that “Western Arabs” conveys so effectively.
It’s often less a film than an act of self-surgery, and Shargawi is not afraid to paint himself in an unsympathetic light. Sometimes he’s the aggressor, sometimes, by virtue of an unflinching close-up or a revealing edit (from editor Thomas Papapetros who does a terrific job of balancing the film’s hard edges with its haunted, woozy mood) we wonder if maybe Omar’s drive to both expose and reconcile with his father is partially his way of shifting some of the responsibility for his own failures, of temper and self-control, onto someone else. It’s a mark of his bravery that Shargawi must surely be aware these moments do not cast him as a hero, yet he includes them nonetheless.
But this often unflatteringly sharp self-scrutiny has its limits, which can be frustrating. While we, given our distance as viewers might be able to piece together a bigger picture, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Shargawi’s own focus is so inward it amounts to a kind of myopia. The brusque, emotionally inarticulate masculinity of his outlook is identified as the root of much of his distress, but never actually challenged. The women in his life are adjuncts in his film — his Danish mother; the girl he falls for; his daughter, for whom he wishes to be a less volatile man. When mentioned at all, they are presented as satellites in orbit around an axis that extends solely between him and his father. And though that relationship of contested terrain, disputed borders and entrenched enmity has its hopeful moments — a trip to Haifa and an unexpectedly bittersweet final coda among them — the question remains: Without a radical reframing of the terms, in such fraught territory is lasting peace possible, or will ceasefires only ever be temporary?