"The Virgin, the Copts, and Me" or the Vices of Personal Documentary

in 52nd Krakow Film Festival

by Miroslaw Przylipiak

As time passes, I am getting more and more skeptical about so-called “personal documentary”, in which a filmmaker comes to the fore by making a film about him/herself and family. For one thing, the recipe for such a movie seems all too easy: take your parents and grandparents and let them speak, find and follow some family mystery, make good use of very nice, old pictures and films from a family archive, and you can’t lose. All inconsistencies may be accounted for by the trials and tribulations of human fate. The deluge of words brings this form close to the soap opera. The filmmaker meets parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and is bound to hug them and exchange at least a few words, and usually much more, with each of them. The result is long-winded with stretches of boredom that even the best films of the type aren’t spared. What degrades this genre is its innate narcissism. The “I” of the filmmaker overshadows the whole, quite contrary to the old, Griersonian understanding of the function and mission of documentary.

The Virgin, the Copts and Me (La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi), a film by Namir Abdel Messeeh presented at the Krakow Film Festival this year, is not free from these vices. Its main character, the filmmaker himself, was raised in Egypt, in a family of Egyptian Copts, but has lived for many years in France. For reasons that are not quite clear, he decides to make a film about Marian apparitions in Egypt, although he himself doesn’t believe in miracles. On the spot, in Egypt, it turns out that it is not so easy to gather material on the subject. The last apparition took place a long time ago, people don’t remember much and the church is not very willing to collaborate. This situation brings the author to a rather controversial decision: he decides to stage a vision casting family members he hasn’t seen for years and other people from the village in the roles. We observe people having great fun making the movie, and then applauding themselves on the screen. The family reunion is displayed with great warmth and a sense of humor.

The aforementioned risks entangled in the very genre of personal documentary are evident. Family relationships are in the foreground, and the main object of the film seems to be to enhance them. Also, as is usual in this type of project, nothing bad can happen: when you can make a movie that you planned, it’s okay. When you can’t, this is also all right — you make a movie about the impossibility of making the movie. The film goes from conversation to conversation, words dominate and visuals are played down.

The most important thing, however, concerns the relationship between the director and the world, especially with respect to the film’s religious theme. To put it bluntly, the film is secular in tone, and presents a layperson’s view of religion. The apparition is a fake, a fiction. Everybody knows this, yet nobody seems bothered. This fiction, however, plays a great role in cementing family and community relationships. Religious symbols are not important per se, and do not reveal any metaphysical, higher order. They are human creations, with functions relating to totally worldly, earthly matters. This is the message of the film. It seems, however, that this is solely Messeeh’s attitude to religion, and not that of the community portrayed. In other words, he ascribes this attitude to the community he’s portraying, in my opinion not entirely justly.

The film’s title contains three parties: the Virgin, the Copts, and the filmmaker. But we do not learn anything about the Virgin, aside from the fact that apparitions of her are fake. We do not learn much about the Copts either. The viewer who did not know much about them before remains unenlightened. More specifically, we don’t have a chance to delve deeper into the situation of this Christian minority living in a Muslim country in times of a “clash of civilisations”. We do learn something — not too much, though — about the third party of the title, the filmmaker. Here, however, the question posed in the first paragraph returns. Are we important enough to overshadow the rest of the world? Messeeh’s film takes skillful advantage of the form, and, regretfully, yields to all the potential risks involved. Its very charm, sense of humor and narcissistic attitude let it avoid the serious questions posed by the reality presented. Perhaps the old, Griersonian stance, according to which documentary cameras should be directed at the social world, and not at the filmmaker, wasn’t so weird, after all.