We certainly hope it will. An amateur production with a small budget and difficult birth, this modest black-and-white film is nevertheless compelling in the intensity of emotion that it captures. “I am the bearer of flowers to my own grave” – the film’s title is borrowed from the Syrian woman poet Daoud Haddad, who disappeared in 1991 – delights in the most primal way. One is immediately struck by its visual beauty, the originality of its structure, qualities found too rarely in contemporary cinema, which excels in producing tightly-woven narrative rather than aesthetic innovation.
Forced to flee Syria in 1981 for political reasons, Hala, the producer and narrator of the film, arrived in Paris with her husband, Youssef. And so began the long years of exile, underpinned by a constant longing for return. “We were two young newlyweds, freshly arrived from a country that quashed public expression, and this country offered us, as a wedding gift, the vision of the streets of Paris joyously welcoming the Left to power,” remembers Hala, in the beginning of the film.
The film opens with shots of the details of a bridge, a glimpse of a soldier’s uniform; a somber procession of black-and-white scenery filing past a car window; the markings on a bird’s wing, etched mysteriously against the sky; and a courtyard with a mirror and a playing-card, a recurring image in the film, reinforce the themes of destiny and chance. The camera finally settles on the faces of women – a first, a second, and then a third. Serious, beautiful and formidable, they arouse tenderness with their candor and the raw honesty their eyes convey. These feminine voices – those of Fadia Ladkani, Rola Roukbi and Raghida Assaf - alternately powerful and unassuming – echo throughout the film. Each speaks of her own form of imprisonment and of exile.
Finally, the filmmaker re-orders this sequence of disconcerting narratives, and the simplicity of her words cuts through this symbolic multiplication of images and reveals the heart of the film and the motives behind its genesis: “When I arrived in France with Youssef, twenty-five years ago, I wanted my child to be born in Syria, not abroad – then my fortieth birthday drew near, and Layla was conceived in Paris in 1994. I wanted to make films in Syria, not in a foreign country, and then, 25 years later, as my fiftieth birthday approached, the possibility of returning to Syria became ever more distant. It was time to lay down my burden – my ideas had accumulated, and I would draw them all together in a single film, starting immediately.”
A blend of fiction, fable and cinéma vérité that frames individual and collective memories, “I am the bearer of flowers to my own tomb” is made in the shadow of an imagined, future film, and ends up usurping it. It also weaves in images of Hala’s husband, filmed by Syrian co-producer Ammar al Beik. These juxtapositions give way to a truly exquisite work which addresses the impossibility of healing the wounds of exile, of reconstructing memories, while managing to salvage fragments thereof with surprising grace.
In spite of the separations, the rifts, the grief, the , half-spoken outrages alluded to in passing – in spite of Rola’s tearful admission that life has “bowed her, a little,” and who confesses to having returned to Syria simply because of memories triggered by the smell of rain on warm earth at the end of a French summer – these women have retained their youthfulness. Their eyes sparkle, and soften the gravity of their faces, their peals of laughter dissipate suffering, and illuminate the shadows in which their renounced selves have taken refuge/retreated (alt: the shadows to which they have consigned their past selves). This is doubtless why none of them has fully accepted her real age, and why they are startled to see the advance of the years intruding upon their youthful inner selves. “Sometimes I feel about 25 years old, but most often, about 15,” reports Fadia, while Hala, attempts, a little later, to smooth out the skin on her face.
“I am the bearer of flowers to my own grave” confronts politics not directly or explicitly, but through the sheer poetic and creative power of the characters it presents to its audience. The male artists of the film are also poignant, particularly in their attempts to trace the arabesques of memory through their works. Thus Youssef, in his atelier near Paris, attempts to hold time still and capture its tortuousness by reproducing and reviving still-life paintings. The similar approach he adopts to drawing a revolutionary’s massive raised fist questions, not without irony, the vagaries of political engagement. The icons that the Damascene painter Elias Zayat loses interest in restoring in favor of restoring his own canvases are also a striking metaphor for the impossibility of capturing lost time, and a sort of abandonment of collective memory for individual memory.
And yet the film does not celebrate individualism, but is rather a hymn to the individual who has learned to bend without ever being broken, to reconcile herself to her tortured life. It is also a story of return, and of the unknown – the scene of Youssef’s arrival in Damascus airport, to the embrace of his friends and the mother he has not seen in 24 years (the fourth key female character of the film) is a heartrending example.
The final images of the film are particularly eloquent. The scattered birds’ flights of the beginning of the film takes the shape of an enormous gull, whose silhouette lengthens and morphs in the sky above the filmmaker, perched on the rocks of the Isle of Arwad, facing the Mediterranean, looking across to the other shore of her exile.
“I am the bearer of flowers to my own tomb” is a simultaneously poignant and comforting film, facing the past and yet open to the present. Lovers of Syria will recognize the land they hold dear in this first feature-length film by Hala Abdalla – a land irrigated/nourished by the creativity and soul of its artists, even if they are condemned to exile.