Day Five: Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma (2014)
In the spirit of recent posts at Krell Laboratories (“Rethinking the American Canon”) and Girls Do Film (“A Realisation…and a New Year Resolution”) on the paucity of work by women directors, and in the less lofty spirit of just getting my sh*t together already, this post is on the last AFI Festival film I saw (you know, last November), written and directed by a Palestinian woman. Each blog writer noticed she hadn’t posted much about films directed by women and made a commitment to seek out, and post about, more such films. Brava, I say. And, me too, I also say. In the thus-far short list of directors about whom I’ve written there is nary a woman to be seen. Shameful.
Both Krell Labs and Girls Do Film are engaging, well-written film blogs (Krell Labs even has a quotation from Samuel Johnson!), each covering very different territory from the other. I suggest you scoot over to at least one of them now and promise to peruse the other later. I’ll wait here.
Alrighty. As Louis CK said about an entirely different activity, “Here we go!”
The final film I saw at the AFI Fest was director Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma. It is a quiet film, in comparison to some of the others I saw, but no less absorbing. There are almost no men to speak of. (That’s not why I liked it so much. … Okay, maybe that’s not the only reason I liked it so much.) Most of the film stays inside a villa belonging to what’s left of the Touma family, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Toumas are an old Christian family—Ramallah used to be largely Christian, and they now comprise a significant minority there. One of the neat things about Villa Touma is that the “now” of the film isn’t entirely clear. At first, it looks like the 60s or maybe the 70s. When the film eventually moves from the house to the city, it becomes clear that it’s much later than that, sometime close to now (2014), but probably not right now (2000-something).
Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the Touma family has been whittled down to three unmarried sisters, used to being respectable and upper class but now running out of money. None of them works, and being aristocratically respectable seems to mean that, as women of a certain age and background, the sisters remain decorously cut off from social life. That’s certainly what it means to the eldest sister, the implacable, imperious Juliette (Nisreen Faour), and what Juliette says, goes. Another of the sisters, Violet (Ula Tabari), was married, but so briefly it doesn’t appear the relationship was even consummated. Given that her arranged marriage was to a much older man (who inconveniently died almost immediately), Violet doesn’t miss her husband so much as she misses the status accorded a married woman. She keeps her wedding dress hung over the only mirror in her bedroom, looking at the dress rather than at herself in the mirror. The dress keeps her from facing the passage of time. But her refusal to acknowledge her reflection is also a denial of herself as a person whose life has changed since her wedding day. That dress is one of the many signs that, for Violet and her sisters, Juliette and Antoinette (Cherin Dabis), time stopped somewhere in the late 60s, when they each lost so much.
The present comes to stay in the form of the sisters’ niece, Badia (Maria Zreik) the daughter of the brother they loved…until he married a Muslim woman, shaming the family. Eighteen-year-old Badia has grown up in an orphanage. When the sisters agree to take her in, she is nervous about living among strangers, especially strangers who have as many unspoken rules as her aunt Juliette does. The list includes a refusal to discuss either of Badia’s parents. Juliette figures they can marry Badia off quickly, after outfitting her with the appropriate training—a little piano, a little French, what folks used to call comportment—and some clothes “reflecting her status.” Juliette is determined to reestablish the family’s good name (and perhaps to bring a fellow with some money into the fold). The predictable clash between an unhappy, mothballed past and a freer but equally perilous present ensues. Watching it take place, though, I was fascinated.
Thankfully, what doesn’t happen is a series of amusing-yet-poignant episodes in which vibrant youth helps its crotchety and staid elders catch up to the present and re-learn how to enjoy life. Instead, all four women have real, intense personalities. Unlike characters in a mainstream Hollywood film (especially female characters), these women have not been diluted into kinder, gentler characters by the end of the story. They change, yes, but there are no grand epiphanies at Villa Touma. The sisters, or at least Juliette and so Violet and Antoinette by default, remain bound to some traditional ideas about what sort of behavior is acceptable for women, especially unmarried, aristocratic women. And so, the ending the audience wants for these women doesn’t come to pass, at least not all of it. It is sad in a very real way, without being terribly depressing. One does not leave the theater (or couch) feeling like the world is an awful place and human beings a plague upon it. Neither would I call the film “a darkly comic fable” as the NY Times did, but it has many moments of humor.
Rather, Villa Touma is a film that offers its audience the time and visual space not just to appreciate each actress’s performance but to notice those performances in ways we often can’t in “bigger” films—films in which there’s more plot to get through, or expensive effects or locations by which we need to be impressed. The soundtrack in this film is often simply ambient noise—and Villa Touma, as you might expect, is a pretty quiet place. The space of the house is shot in ways that invite you to notice how dated the tasteful decor is, and how the sisters move through the house as if parts of it are somehow off-limits, already wrapped up and packed away. The characters interact with the space in ways that are both graceful and telling, and the women are often arranged in forms that suggest the embrace of a tradition both nurturing and stifling. Some of this blocking is repeated over the course of the film, sometimes with the same shot set-up, sometimes from different perspectives. The ritual of eating meals and taking tea together is perhaps the most important of these; it provides the audience with a subtle calibration of the shifting ground under the Touma women’s feet.
Suha Arraf and Cherin Dabis, the writer, director, and now actress who plays Antoinette, the youngest of the sisters, were present at the AFI screening in November. One of the topics Arraf discussed is the dispute between herself and various Israeli state agencies over what nationality the film is given when presented at festivals. Arraf insists the film is Palestinian, but the Israeli economy minister, the Israeli Film Fund, and the Israel State Lottery beg to differ. They are demanding that Arraf return what amounts to something over half a million dollars to these various institutions that provided funding for the film. It looks like there hasn’t been a resolution yet, unless it just hasn’t been reported. Villa Touma premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival as Palestinian. According to The Hollywood Reporter, at screenings in Toronto and London, the film remained nation-less.
From the admittedly little I know about the situation, it seems petty for the various funding institutions to demand their money back. It’s not like Villa Touma is the next Gone with the Wind; I suspect most of that money is simply gone. And, more to the point, presumably Arraf was given the funding based on some description of the story, if not an actual script. If that is the case, these funders knew the characters were Palestinians, were speaking Arabic, that it would be a “Palestinian story.” What, other than political points, is to be gained by labeling the film Israeli? There’s an interview with Arraf about the film here. And an earlier NY Times story here.
The Hollywood Reporter, by the way, described the film as stodgy and the performances as wooden, noting that festival audiences are more likely to be “generous” in their assessments. I can’t agree with any of those statements—slow and deliberate is not necessarily stodgy, the performances were vibrating with life, and festival audiences are often snootier than the snootiest professional critic. Sometimes you just want to punch the two dudes standing in line in front of you at festival screenings, those guys who are loudly making it clear they really appreciated, on an intellectual level, the most broadly offensive film at the festival. Or who are busy dissing the most controversial film there as bourgeois. (They’re almost always dudes, and they’re always in front of you because they got there first, the longer to stand in a line that advertises how ahead of the curve they are.)
Villa Touma is still on the festival circuit and scheduled to be at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the end of this month (January 2015). This is Arraf’s first fiction feature, but her other screenwriting credits, Lemon Tree (2008) and The Syrian Bride (2004), are both available on disc via Netflix, and Lemon Tree is available for rent on Amazon Prime. There are clips of both on Hulu+.