"Salad House": A Home Movie, in the True Sense By Koen Van Daele

in 10th Mumbai Documentary Film Festival

by Koen Van Daele

“Identity is what we leave behind, not what we inherit. What we invent, not what we remember.” (Mahmoud Darwish)

In the opening sequence of Nadia Kamel’s documentary Salad House (Salata Baladi) the director’s sister Dina takes her son Nabeel to his first Eid. During prayer the ten-year old’s gestures are still out-of-sync with those of his fellow worshippers. In response to the mullah’s sermon appealing to close ranks (since “they” want to wipe out “us”), the director is prompted to offer her nephew an alternative to the dominant post-9/11 ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric. It is this urgency and necessity to tell a personal, closer-to-life story that drives and motivates this 105 minute family fresco.

With her mother Mary as an accomplice, Kamel devises a project. Nadia will film Nabeel’s grandma as she explains to her grandson the complex and colorful story of their cultural, ethnic and religious roots. She will tell the tale of the circumstances that led to a series of migrations and conversions, causing Nabeel to be a blend of Egyptian, Italian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Russian, Caucasian, Turkish and Spanish origins; with Muslim, Christian, as well as Jewish backgrounds But Mary — who willingly, affectionately and lovingly plays the role of protagonist-educator-narrator — has a fantasy project of her own. In the course of the making of this film she will attempt to take Nabeel on a journey to those relatives who left their Egyptian homeland.

At first their trip to Italy seems merely a happy reunion of a family that has been separated for all too long. Their visit is punctuated by some funny comments on cultural misunderstanding. For instance, the fact that pork is “haram” doesn’t prevent Nabeel from ordering Nadia to buy a roasted pig-head. However, soon Mary’s voyage to Italy reveals the real reasons for her parents’ and brother’s displacement. They were living happily in Egypt, but it was Nasser’s post-war policy that was hostile towards non-Arab Egyptians that forced them to leave. And neither their consecutive statelessness nor immigration to Italy was smooth or painless.

Mary’s second journey is pivotal in this intimate drama. Part of her Egyptian-Jewish family immigrated to Israel. There has been no contact with them for over half a century. Everyone has always remained silent about this branch of the family. Even some of Mary’s closest friends were totally unaware of her Jewish roots and Israeli relatives. The official boycott of Israel by Arab nations may have been abandoned by Egypt in 1980, but the popular boycott is still firmly in place. More than 30 years after Sadat made his first visit to Israel, the idea of travelling there — or even to the Occupied Territories — is still an absolute taboo for most Egyptians.

Mary, who has been a journalist, activist, pacifist and communist (something for which she has been imprisoned three times for a total period of seven years) has always actively supported the Palestinian cause. However painful, this automatically implied boycotting of her own Israeli family since 1948. For this project she has decided to make a giant leap, a move that will demand a huge amount of courage. But she is not afraid to expose herself, or to put herself in a socially and politically vulnerable position. As the filmmaker soon comes to realize, that which really prevents Mary from pursuing her fantasy project is that she does not want to betray the Palestinian people. In a deeply moving scene her Gaza-based ‘sister’ wholeheartedly endorses Mary’s project to visit the Holy Land.

What follows is one of the most powerful sequences of the film. The mise-en-scene is simple, but all the more effective. Mary and her husband Saad (who is also an eminent writer and activist) sit side by side. Both face the camera. We all know that their journey to Israel is bound to cause an avalanche of unpleasant consequences. Friends will be shocked. Some might even turn their backs on them. There’s bound to be lots of bureaucratic hassle and red tape.

And then, suddenly, Mr. Kamel makes this overwhelmingly disarming statement: “We have to be one”. All the earlier considerations suddenly evaporate, becoming mere trifles. For their entire joint life the couple has shared the same dreams, the same convictions and beliefs. They have agreed on everything (“with the exception of the subject of cigarettes”, Mary remarks with a smile). So what really matters is that they have to be together on this big project as well. So when Mr. Kamel says he’ll start the procedure to get the necessary permissions and visa, we cannot interpret this as anything else than a beautiful and intensely moving declaration of love. Grand Cinema!

In a wonderful coda to the scene Mary accompanies Saad down the corridor. This is the beginning of what will become a long and demanding paper-work procedure with no guaranteed outcome, to which the director adds a dash of suspense as we notice a Hitchcock poster on their way out. In a consecutive bird’s-eye shot taken from up in their apartment we see Mr. Kamel walking down the alley, all alone on his way to face bureaucracy and prejudice.

Although Mary, Saad and Nadia will eventually get their visa, Mary’s fantasy project will remain only partially realized. Nabeel isn’t able to join them. His Palestinian father and his Gaza registration automatically makes him persona non grata in Israel.

Salad House is a home movie. I am not referring to that perpetuum mobile, to those amateur videos that are permanently, framelessly, aimlessly shooting family life as if it were a zoo. No, I mean it in the literal sense: a movie about home. About that what is close and dear to its filmmaker. It is in the home that we discover the multifaceted features of our protagonists Unobtrusively Kamel shows us the ingredients of these ‘Salad Houses’: the books shelves and family pictures; a replica of Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting “Il Quarto Stato”; the making of pasta; the 1936 ‘Visit Palestine’ poster (depicting old Jerusalem); the ‘Umm Khulthum room’ in the Tel Aviv apartment; statements like Saad’s “I’m the spirit of communism”; or, one of the Israeli relatives whisperingly confiding to Nadia that her mother used to sleep naked; the many languages spoken (Arabic, English, Italian, French and Hebrew); tracing their travel-itinerary not using today’s map of Israel and the Occupied Territories, but by doing this over the many Palestinian/Israeli maps produced in the second half of the 20th century, etc.

Salad House is filled with these directorial annotations, which at first look insignificant and can easily be overlooked. Yet they’re at the very centre of this film.

While waiting (in vain) in Ramallah for the Israelis to re-open the Erez Checkpoint — which would enable them to visit their Palestinian brothers and sisters — Mary tries to communicate with her Palestinian friend in Gaza via webcam. On the computer they do succeed in establishing visual contact, but the sound is missing. Through this technical problem the director instantly captures and represents the harrowing situation of the Palestinian refugees caught in the Gaza Strip. Collectively punished for decades this is a people whose voice has been systematically taken away, and remains all too often unheard.

The format of Salad House is video, often hand-held, sometimes apparently clumsily out of focus shots. But all of this has its purpose and none of the shots is gratuitous. What some might see as technical shortcomings is actually part of the film’s conceptual strength.

Salad House is a home movie in the sense that it looks at the 20th century history of the Middle East from the home perspective. Kamel hardly resorts to voice-over, and when she does it is not to inform or explain. She is a participating observer. So there is no authoritative narration or tone. This would endanger this strong personal project that wants to stress that no person can be reduced to single, convenient labels. Every person is more than the sum of his or her parts.