"Days of Boredom": Days of Insouciant Bliss By Latika Padgaonkar

in 5th Dubai International Film Festival

by Latika Padgaonkar

Mixing tenderness and compassion, gentle wit and humour and a lightness of touch, Abdellatif Abdelhamid’s latest film Days of Boredom (Ayyam El Dajar) stands out for its life affirming tone and for its ability to suffuse a small tale with meaning. At a time when many of the films emerging from the Arab world tackle problems of war and its aftermath, of identity, and all manner of social deprivations and psychological turmoil, this award-winning director remains faithful to the path he has carved and negotiated before: the joy in the ordinary; the gentle satire; an underlying faith in human relationships; and camerawork that responds to the call of the narrative.

It’s the Golan Heights in Syria and the year is 1958. A normal, happy family (the father is a soldier) comprising parents and four boys, lives in a small house near the frontline in the middle of nowhere. As in Abdelhamid’s other films, nothing extraordinary happens to shake their daily life. An abandoned and dusty tank that had once been hit and rendered useless by a missile stands near the house and helps the children pass their time. It’s their playing field and their hidey-hole, and even, on occasion, turns into a bedroom for the parents. And so the family passes its days in insouciant bliss but not boredom, filling life with innocent gestures, nursing small dreams: the eldest boy takes part in an officially organized sports meeting and is pressured by his father to win at all costs because the prize is a radio.

Days of Boredom is a leaf from the book of life. The father is summoned by the army to carry out a reconnaissance mission and collect information on an Israeli location that is nothing out of the ordinary, just a part of his routine duty. Back home, life moves on with minor hiccups. The children fall sick eating an inedible plant, a snake slithers into the house and is killed by the mother, and for reasons unknown, the family gets a larger share of army rations than before. All this while Egypt and Syria try to establish the United Arab Republic and the Middle East begins to simmer with the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet off the coast of Lebanon. Then there are air raids. The father, who had returned from his sortie, is mobilized once again and the family is evacuated to safer terrain.

In the bus that takes them to their grandparents, Abdelhamid shows us the stirrings of nascent, adolescent love in the eldest boy for a girl in his school who is also being evacuated. Life carries on in the new home. Moments of fun alternating with moments of mild boredom (the children are inventive enough to know how never to slip into full-fledged ennui; and there is no question of any adolescent angst so prevalent in cinema today). And none of it is allowed to let the film flag for an instant.

When the father returns he is no longer the same person in body as the man who had left. He returns as a war casualty, wounded in the eyes and hands by an exploding landmine. But, as he has survived, he has the right to rejoice. He taps his feet to music and smiles broadly through his bandages as he calls for his children. Wounded he may be, but he has his life, they have their father, the wife has her husband.

Abdellatif Abdelhamid oscillates gently from these painful moments into what is deceptively a simple film. Relationships between his characters are the bedrock of his story. These relationships keep families and the society on an even keel; they are ‘traditional’ yet leave enough space for characters to blossom. Balancing delicately the beauty of the everyday set against the gathering political tension, Abdelhamid uses a style that draws no attention to itself and seeks to make no dramatic impact. What is provided is the most natural unfolding of a drama that never grows preposterously big or insurmountable.

With images that flow and telescope seamlessly into one another devoid of any stylistic devices or embellishments, this is story-telling at its most simple and compelling. Nothing detracts from the spirit of warmth that pervades the film. Nothing detracts from a point of view which is essentially sympathetic, a point of view that shapes the shots — shots that are never edgy or pointed, and are, indeed, as rounded as the narrative itself. Story, dialogue and form drift into each other and make up the stuff of the story and of life. And you, the viewer, watch this caravan pass by and come out reassured.