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BERLINALE 2021 Panorama

Review: Miguel’s War

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- BERLINALE 2021: Eliane Raheb’s sparky and creative documentary draws on a blend of narrative techniques to get inside the mind of a gay Lebanese man hoping to find freedom in Spain

Review: Miguel’s War

It’s no picnic being gay and Arab at the same time. Miguel’s War [+see also:
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, directed by Eliane Raheb and presented in the Panorama section of the 71st Berlinale, leaves us in no doubt of that. The filmmaker behind such titles as Sleepless Nights and Those Who Remain steps in front of the camera to interview, support, debate, transport and assist the titular Miguel as he tries to get to the roots of his mental and emotional distress. A fearsome mother and his own sexual orientation have left deep imprints, especially as she was born in Syria and he grew up in Lebanon in the twilight of the last millennium.

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Returning to the scenes of his childhood in Beirut, scarred by cataclysmic civil war, Raheb assembles a framework on which to hang confessions, conversations, reencounters and reconstructions of pivotal moments in the life of the perpetually restive Miguel Jleilaty, reborn on the day he crossed the Mediterranean bound for Madrid in search of his place in the world. In conveying Miguel’s odyssey in pursuit of freedom, the director also makes effective use of bold, witty and expressive animated sequences (the work of Fadi El Samra), masterfully cut together by Raheb’s own hand, as well as a liberal selection of archive images.

It all comes together to tell a moving story about a man who knew he was different from a very young age, shoved to the margins of a society and a family intolerant of difference (at one point accusing him of being possessed by the devil) and, even more so, of any deviation from the sacred duty to procreate and honour religious doctrine. Almost forty years since Miguel put his past behind him in favour of a life that didn’t trample him down, the time has come for a reckoning: those scars have not yet healed.

With Raheb at his side, he returns to Lebanon and also Seville, Granada and Barcelona, places that have meant a lot to him over the years. Today, Miguel earns a living as a translator, takes singing lessons and wears his sexuality on his sleeve (he makes full use of dating apps and unabashedly confesses to having a thing for seventies TV star Lee Majors). He has found the freedom he once longed for so desperately and a loving family of friends, several of them trans. His journey is depicted with sympathy, energy and creativity, and although you are bound to shed a tear, both the reconstructions, performed by actors whose casting we sit in on – certain “biblical” dreams come to mind – and the horrifying confidences radiate humour, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

Miguel’s War was awarded the Robert Bosch film prize and selected for La Fabrique des Cinémas du monde, a coproduction platform under the aegis of the Festival de Cannes. The film was coproduced between Lebanon, Germany and Spain by Itar productions, Kabinett Filmproduktion and Zeitun Films.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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