Randa Chahal: ‘Always This Running Away...’ Filmmaker’s Complex Identities Spawn Thematic Dualities

By Brigitte Caland

Randa is a friend. A real friend, someone who you are certain will be with you when you need her, someone who will surprise you by her attentions, her consistency, and her own way of making sure people she cares for are fine. But Randa’s priority is being a mother for the three wonderful children who surround her. Her daughter, Nour, studies art and lives in the same building; her eldest son, Pierre, studies in London; and her youngest, Ulysse, remains with her, at home, attending a middle school nearby. Around her, various friends form a tribe that looks beyond nationalities, languages, and cultural backgrounds. Her house and garden are open to visitors who stop by, often with no notice, joining her for tea, lemonade, pastries, or a casual meal.

Randa’s credits as a filmmaker include “Lebanon of Another Time” (1981), “Sheikh Imam” (1985), “Screen of Sand” (1992), “Our Imprudent Wars” (1995), “The Infidels” (1996), “Civilized” (1998), “Souha, Surviving Hell” (2001), and “The Kite” (2002).

On a cold Parisian afternoon, the final weekend before starting the production of her film – she will start shooting the first months of 2006 – she sits in an armchair in my office and sips hot jasmine tea. She shares freely: “My reasons for filming are rooted in Tripoli, the town in Lebanon where I was born and grew up. I was stuck between two activities: going to the movies, or going to the beach. It was a traditional and rather sad city, and I was an unusual young girl who was lucky to have exceptional parents – open, literate, and conscious of the world around them. We used to discuss global issues, human rights, and the well being of others. They guided the three of us, me and my siblings, towards reading and making thoughtful choices. They helped me so much. I was privileged to grow up in a Sunni environment with extremely supportive parents who used to encourage me, saying: ‘Go ahead, you can make it, nothing can happen to you, surprise us.’

“I felt so confident. One day, while traveling on a plane, a wing caught fire and people on board were consumed with panic. Except for me. I just thought to myself, ‘My parents will not let anything happen.’ In time, as they aged and the situation was reversed and I took care of them, all my childhood fears resurfaced. I took on the role of a parent, and I no longer felt protected. I was present at their surgeries and the three of us – my sister, my brother, and I – now mothered them.”

Randa continued: “When I was 13 or 14 years old, I saw ‘Blow Up’ and it was a revelation. When we left the screening I told my father ‘I want to do the same.’ At that time he did not discourage me, but later, after I finished high school and left for France, he suggested that I aim for a job that would allow me to be financially independent. I pursued medical studies for one year, after which he recognized that this was absolutely not for me.”

With a tender smile, Randa mentions the relationship between her parents: “My father used to say that he married my mother because the Communist Party asked him to, to get her out of jail. She had been imprisoned several times, because, although quite young, she was the chief editor of the Iraqi party newspaper. So, I suspect he must have gotten her pregnant three times in a ‘comradely’ way. He was Sunni. He used to love life, beautiful objects, and beauty in general. She was somber, like most Iraqi people… I feel sorry for the Americans who did not check where they were putting their feet!

“My mother left Iraq and never was able to go back. She mourned Iraq from a distance. She did not travel because she did not enjoy traveling. She suffered when I left Lebanon, but she did not stop me from leaving. She felt making films was not a serious job and would have loved for me to write, as I once did for As Safir newspaper. I wrote in Arabic; they liked my style, but used to correct my grammar. Dad loved going to the movies. We used to have intense discussions about the scripts and the technical approach a director would take. I knew I would become a filmmaker in Paris.”

Randa’s pessimistic view of the film industry today is imbued with a nostalgic eye towards earlier times, when Hollywood and the proliferation of visual imagery was not subordinated to market demands.

“Today, the filmmaking industry has changed quite a bit. Images are common now, and we have an over-abundance of footage. Everyone has a camera, whether digital or video. Before, creating images was a difficult task. I remember how excited I was the first time I put my eye to a lens. Now there is such a demand for images… I feel manipulated by the situation, by imposed choices, by the images that continuously spill forth, by the marketing, by the need for commercial success. Most of the time, one must produce at such a rate that there is not enough time to think about the work being done. I don’t feel free. But I do think that all this is going to settle. There is such a gap between the movie I produced and shot 17 years ago and the one I am producing today. If you don’t play the game, there is no place for you. Everything needs to be basic. Hollywood has decided to make movies for the lowest common denominator. Those in charge of the industry believe that no one understands nuance, so everything is overly emphasized. Films are made for the masses.”

Randa adds, “I went recently to see ‘Chicken Little’ and found that it, too, had been made for the simple-minded. You quickly understand that the character has a problem with his father, but they say it so many times that my son looked at me and asked sarcastically, ‘Mom, did you understand that he has a problem with his father?’ ‘Fantasia’ is so far away. During the past 40 years, the industry has regressed a lot.  All movies seem the same; all the scripts are simplified.”

Reflecting on the complexities of an identity informed by both Arab and European cultures, Randa imparts a critical perspective on filmmaking in France: “To get into the European mainstream, you need to swim in the mainstream. It is narcissistic and fundamentally concerned by its own history; there is no place for anything else. If you are not born French, you must talk about the suburbs, even when you live in a residential and elegant district in Paris! The newspapers have praised Abdel Latif Keshish so much, and in such a colonialist way, that I wonder what he will be able to do now, because he is not part of this mainstream.

“I am Middle Eastern, but I don’t want to be the Arab that makes movies for the Arab. It is a difficult process, because, unlike writing, the film industry requires a great amount of money before a movie can come to fruition. It took me two years to get away from the language of my family – Arabic – and to speak to the neighbors in their language – French. In French, for instance, you ‘work on the loss of someone,’ meaning, you try to overcome and forget. In Arabic, you remember. In Arabic, often one word is enough to explain a feeling, a situation, while in French most of the time you need a group of words: to burst into laughter, to let go of, to take the neighbor’s tongue.”

A thematic duality – between her mother and father, France and Lebanon, herself and her husband – persists as Randa contemplates the future. “I am not complaining; I am happy with what I have accomplished. But today I question the place I have here. And I think I don’t have a place in Lebanon. I think about my mother who lived as an exile. When she died, I had the feeling she died as a political, sentimental, and unreconciled exile, since her last will was to be buried in Iraq. We have not been able to fulfill her wish yet, and this is another form of exile. But Lebanon is not an option. I say it with no complaints – it is just a thought. I think about what would have happened had I stayed there. After living here for 30 years, I feel more and more distant from France and find I am getting closer to something more genuine and authentic. I don’t see myself getting old in France. I am comfortable neither in the position of intellectual jetsetter, nor in the position of Middle Eastern intellectual. I think it comes from my background. I am born from a mixed marriage. Both my parents were communists. We used to drink from crystal glasses brought from Bohemia, us the children, with the peasants rather than with the elegant guests. There was constantly this duality, this battle. The same happened with my marriage. I married someone out of my environment who had concerns other than mine. Today I am single and divorced and have developed cancer, which, hopefully, I have overcome.”

During her bout with cancer, Randa said she always had nightmares. “Like this friend of mine who lost three of her six children in terrible accidents. She used to have nightmares, every single night, and when finally she was able to name her fear, her nightmare, she lost her brother. My nightmares stopped when they removed my left breast. I was told that the left breast is connected to the image of the Man. I used to have terrible nightmares and used to tell them to my parents, to my lovers, and to my children. Today it is over, most probably because I dealt with this duality. I am finding my place.”

With her unique accent and great sense of humor, Randa considers where she wants to settle and grow. “But there is another issue about this duality I need to solve: the place where I wish to live and grow old. I do think that we have a choice. You and I have a choice. And this is what makes things harder. Nothing forces me to accept the system, the cold winters. My accent always makes me feel foreign. When I enter a store, or anywhere, when I talk I can see people’s eyes perpetually asking ‘where is she from?,’ but I have the same feeling in the Keserouan, or in Fakra. It took time to build my complicity and intimacy with my French friends. My godchild remains amazed by my accent, and I often tell him, ‘You will remember it later and you will love it,’ and the young people I work with laugh about it.

“Do I feel concerned by French politics? I have voted here ever since I obtained French citizenship. My daughter is more concerned: she is Parisian; I am not. I still am very much a Mediterranean. You sense it in my movies. There is always this ‘running away.’ I wonder to myself if it is linked to an incident that happened one day, when my ex-husband dropped me at the border of the no-man’s land in Beirut, which was cut in two during the war. I had to run in order to escape the sniper’s shooting. When I arrived on the other side, I was safe, but I ran on. A young boy started running alongside me, and while licking his ice cream he asked, ‘Why are you still running?’ But I think that the cause is deeper than this.”

Randa suddenly looked at her watch. It was time to rush off. Her son was waiting for her. She still had to find dessert for his dinner, and in her hurry, she almost left part of her meal in my refrigerator. As she rushed down the stairs, she came back to retrieve the food she was going to share with her daughter that same evening. We had spent another wonderful moment together. And although she usually despises talking about herself and giving interviews, she had generously opened up and spoken about subjects that are so clearly important to her today.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid


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