Review: Ibrahim: A Fate to Define
by Vladan Petkovic
- Lina Al Abed's first feature-length documentary mixes the investigative and the personal in a story about the unknown destiny of her father
Damascus-born Palestinian filmmaker Lina Al Abed has made her first feature-length documentary, Ibrahim: A Fate to Define [+see also:
film profile], about her father. This complex story is treated through a combination of investigative and (auto)biographical documentary that spans decades and continents, a global political intrigue and deeply personal family issues. The film world-premiered at CPH:DOX and has just had its North American premiere in Toronto's TIFF Docs section.
Al Abed sets the stage with archive footage from six years before she was born – of Yasser Arafat speaking at the UN in 1974. What follows are TV reports of the spectacular assassinations executed by the Abu Nidal Group, aka the Revolutionary Council, a splinter group of the PLO which opposed the mainstream faction's peace negotiations with Israel and considered them traitors.
After this, we are introduced to the filmmaker and her father Ibrahim via her own voice-over. A prominent member of the Abu Nidal Group, he left their home in Damascus in 1987, never to be seen again. In search of clues to his destiny, but also her own identity, Al Abed embarks on an investigation that takes her to Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Amman, Berlin and, finally, her father's home village of Deir Abu Meshaal, near Rammalah.
Although this investigation is essentially personal for the director, it has inevitable detective elements. These are mostly placed at the beginning and the very end of the film. According to Patrick Seale's book Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, Ibrahim was working for a big Zurich-based company, and was accused by the group of being a Mossad and CIA spy, for which he was executed in 1987. But in 1998, when Al Abed was 18, a former neighbour in Damascus told her family that Ibrahim had returned and asked about them, only to leave again in a hurry.
The bulk of the film consists of Al Abed's conversations with her relatives, from her Egyptian-born mother Najat, who is the only one that has still not left Damascus, and who says that a man who leaves his family does not deserve to have a film made about him, to her oldest sister Najwa, who talks about how their father's disappearance influenced how she relates to men. After a number of such talks with various relatives across the Middle East, Al Abed goes to Berlin, where her brother works as a bartender and her relative Khalil is running a pizzeria, and seems to garner more specific clues about Ibrahim's destiny.
In the process of defining her father's fate, the filmmaker, of course, questions and discovers her own. Her well-measured and unsentimental voice-over is by no means redundant, alternately addressing the viewer, her father and herself. The film was lensed, co-written and co-edited by the producer, Rami El Nihawi, who creates an engaging, well-balanced rhythm and sometimes employs creative devices such as blurry shots of a man behind a window in Damascus, a clear association with the elusiveness of the film's topic. In the end, the political aspect of the story remains almost as cloudy as it is at the beginning, and the personal one reaches a denouement that the viewer can relate to.
Ibrahim: A Fate to Define is a co-production by Lebanon's Sak A Do, Palestine's Idiom Films, Denmark's Tonemestrene, Slovenia's Iridium Film and the Doha Film Institute. Idiom has the international rights.
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