Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

What Walaa Wants (2018) [Canada/Denmark]

Like a lot of observational documentaries, this takes a chunk of a person’s life (maybe six years or so) and tries to make some sense of it, but given the person being followed is trying to make sense of what to do with her life herself, there are relatively few tidy strands. She is Walaa, of course, and in the midst of her teenage years her mother has been released from an Israeli prison, having been there for eight years. We never actually hear why she was put there, or what her story was (and from a post-film Q&A it seems to have been a fascinating one), because the film prefers not to dwell on the past or the violence and oppression constantly surrounding this town in Palestine — it’s something we’ve seen all too often, and get presented to us on the news all the time — in favour of the younger woman and how she sees her future. Because there are limited prospects, we find her focusing on the police to find some grounding: she does well enough academically but is bored at school and is a troublemaker. This quality of course makes her stand out as a documentary subject, but also, given her situation, makes you really worry this film is going to move towards a really depressing ending. Thankfully it doesn’t, but it does try to maintain the sense of the constant pressures of occupation, as well as the dangers inherent in their lives, which for all that we see are filled with plenty of joy and community too. Walaa’s period of time training at a police academy are also covered, though she takes some time to lose her attitude, and it’s a wonder she ever graduates, and probably as much down to the eagerness of the authority to get new recruits. Certainly her involvement with the police isn’t universally welcomed within her family, and that suggests further tensions within this brittle society. Still, it’s a solid portrait of one young woman, and her carefully trodden path within this society.

What Walaa Wants film posterCREDITS
Director Christy Garland; Cinematographers Garland and Hanna Abu Saada; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 18 November 2019.

Born in Evin (2019) [Germany/Austria]

Clearly a very personal documentary which follows the director Maryam Zaree as she tries to uncover the circumstances around her birth, which she learns was in Evin prison in Tehran, famous for being the main site for holding Iran’s political prisoners, for its poor conditions and for its many human rights abuses. Zaree’s desire to learn about her early life is certainly personal and touching to watch, but throughout the film I felt an increasing sympathy with her mother, who just doesn’t want to relive the experiences that she has clearly worked so hard to move past, making a new life for herself in Frankfurt with a new husband and a successful life in politics. Zaree at one point seems to position her mother’s lack of testimony to her time spent in the prison as a painful affront to Zaree’s own existence, that she’s hiding something that will help to unlock her own complicated feelings around her origin — and maybe she is; undoubtedly it’s deeply felt — but it seems as if the only thing her mother is hiding is a deep-seated desire to avoid talking about what must clearly have been the worst and most dispiriting time in her life. Obviously the stories of the pain and suffering have their place — and we see a glimpse of formal hearings around human rights abuses — but ultimately the filmmaker’s mother is most eloquent in her very lack of desire to open up, which leaves the film in a precarious position that the director ends up acknowledging with an inconclusive ending.

Born in Evin film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maryam Zaree مریم زارع; Cinematographer Siri Klug; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Saturday 23 May 2020.


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