Sunday, July 7, 2013

May Telmissany -- Wajdi Mouawad in Cinema: Origins, Wars and Fate

Wajdi Mouawad in cinema: origins, wars and fate
by May Telmissany
Cineaction #88 (2012)

"Unknown and alone, I have returned to wander through my native country, which lies about me like a vast graveyard; and perhaps what awaits me is the knife of the hunter who preserves us Greeks for his sport even as he does the wild beasts of the forest." (Holderlin, Hyperion) (1)

The question of origins in Wajdi Mouawad's plays and film adaptations Littoral (published in 1999 and directed by Wajdi Mouawad in 2004) and Incendies (published in 2003 and directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2010) is concomitant to the question of belonging. Both questions are explored from multiple perspectives and both suggest various beginnings. While the plays combine references to different arts (2) as well as references to Greek and classical tragedies, the film adaptations seem to distance themselves from the plays' dialogical structure and introduce some narrative coherence into the discontinued and scattered timeline of war and memory depicted in the plays. This article will compare Mouawad's depiction of the question of origins in light of the historical and philosophical reality of war and study how origins are conditioned by fate imposed on the tragic hero. Littoral tells the story of a Canadian-Lebanese young man, Wahab, who struggles to bury his father in his parents' homeland. Throughout his journey, he discovers the truth about his father, and more importantly he discovers his country of birth ruined by war and terrorism. Incendies follows lane, a Canadian-Lebanese daughter who strives to find traces of her father and brother in the rubble of a war-torn country she never knew. Both Wahab and Jane are sent on a quest, and both discover the roots of their multiple identities upon their parents' death, while travelling across their parents' country of birth.

The powerful and multilayered construction of Mouawad's plays offers various beginnings to the narrative of origins, whether it is the narrative of the nomad (immigrant/traveler) or the narrative of war and displacement. The plot is built in order to explore, understand and challenge the conceptions of belonging and distance, of Self and Other, of identity constructions and postmodern dislocations. Both film adaptations respect and explore these elements and features; they also investigate the possibility of bringing together the reflection on war and the history of war in Lebanon within the "realist mode of representation" inherent to cinema, which helps in exploring the major questions of the plays under a different light. Hence, as one can see in cinema, the physical and material horrors of war take precedence over the transcendental tragedy of war depicted in the plays; moreover, both film adaptations open the door to clear partisanship and provoke controversy among film spectators who were mainly skeptical about the historical/sociological accuracy in both films as well as their political implications.

Also within the cinematic context, the question of origins is altered in order to link together the immigrant's situation which involves at least two different cultures (Canadian and Lebanese) and the theme of civil war as a tragic event in Lebanon. Following the death of a parent, the hero is compelled to travel in quest for an answer to three recurring questions: who am I, where do I belong and how can I reconcile my multiple belongings, including belonging to my family's own history, within the context of displacement? In a much broader sense, Oneness (the One as opposed to the Multiple) which used to be a chief value in Modern Western thought seems no longer valid in the postmodern era when multiplicity has become the condition of the transnational individuals like the author and his characters. The displaced or the expatriate like Mouawad, and the temporal nomad like most of his characters, seek answers through the artistic expression (with its intrinsic logic of fragmentation and multiple beginnings) and through travelling and dislocation. Origins are therefore nourished and developed as an object of knowledge not as an object of national worship; similarly, the author and protagonists who look for truth and salvation learn through their journey that knowledge can only be accomplished thanks to movement and displacement.

In other words, knowledge of one's origins is constantly deterritorialized; it is achieved through an inescapable journey in time and space, back to the time of war, back to the place of birth, and back to the Greek and classical tragedies as major sources of inspiration. In fact, Mouawad's plays (and his single film to a lesser extent) add to the complexity of the question of origins by multiplying the intertextual relationships with Sophocles' masterpieces Oedipus Rex and Antigone, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. (3) For example, in Incendies, the mother falls into silence and dies after discovering that her lost son was also her persecutor in prison and the father of her twin son and daughter. The daughter (more than the son) is haunted throughout the film by the mother's ghost who knew before dying the identity of her persecutor and killer; exactly like in Littoral, where the father's ghost is following the son to help him understand the reasons of his disappearance years before his death. The transposition of the Greek and classical characters and themes into the contemporary setting of war in Lebanon allows for a new interpretation of what it means to be aware of one's own history (including the history of the literary canon) and accept one's fate; to be able to relate the stories behind one's origins from different perspectives, and from different starting points; to recognize one's affiliation to family and nation as an inescapable bridge between childhood and adulthood. When they finally succumb to the twists and turns of fate, the protagonists achieve adulthood and accomplish their quest for truth. Both their agency and their intellectual freedom are determined by the amount of truth they come to reveal: "There are truths that can only be revealed when they have been discovered." (4) says the mother Nawal to her daughter in Incendies. Yet unlike their Greek and classical counterparts, Oedipus, Antigone and Hamlet, Mouawad's protagonists are portrayed as nomads and outcasts, as immigrants and misfits. They are depicted in constant movement, much as Mouawad himself, learning about their origins and looking for the true story behind their parents' life and death. And while they explore their land of birth of which they know nothing, they also discover the meaning of their parents' silence and the signification of their tragic life. The viewer is therefore invited to reconstruct the parents' story out of flashbacks, symbols, signs and props (e.g. tapes, letters) as the story unfolds throughout the children's journey.

In addition to the textual/intertextual dimension, themes of war and fate are dealt with differently in both plays compared to the film adaptations. The plays deal with war and fate as themes within a larger humanitarian discourse that transcends the mega-narrative(s) of the Lebanese civil war. On the contrary, the films deal with war and fate as the expressions of immanence, relocating the narrative within its social, historical and political contexts and challenging the impression of reality altogether. One could argue that the tension between the divine and the profane takes place in the battle field of cinematic representation, re-defining the romantic perception of tragedy and fate and relocating the very idea of being Other (and/or Different in one's own culture) in a rather naturalistic fashion which delves into the horrors of war and the impossible salvation of mankind. However, Mouavvad views theatre as the site of a "ruthless consolatiores" (5) where the tragic and transcendental dimensions of war and Otherness are challenged on the plane of immanence, in writing, while writing. The process of writing itself has to do with the way Mouawad perceives of himself as a member of a larger group, as an Other within the Same in a rather epic way, when his own voice embodies the voice of the Greek chorus and vice versa. He explains in the preface to the English version of Incendies that the writing continued during the rehearsals, in an attempt to challenge the traditional conceptualization of a ready-to-play text produced by an all-knowing writer: "Throughout the entire period, I felt that the troupe, with its technicians and actors laying the groundwork for the writing, was at the heart of the process (...) It must be said, it must be heard: Incendies was born of this group, the writing was channeled through me. Step by step to the very last word." (6)

While analyzing the multiple links between the question of origins, the quest for truth and the reflection on war and displacement, this article seeks to answer the following questions: what role does the diasporic condition play in Mouawad's approach to the question of origins? What is the impact of war as a subject of reflection and as a historical event on both film adaptations? How is fate perceived in the plays and in the movies, and what links can be made between the tragic fate and war in Lebanon? The first part of this article contextualizes the question of origins in Mouawad's career as dramatist and filmmaker, with a special focus on the Oscar-nominated Genie-winning film Incendies by Denis Villeneuve, which offers a moving hymn to tolerance and a cry for the anti-militarization of religious and ethnic conflicts in Lebanon. The second part examines the relationship between war, fate and Otherness through the lens of Holderlin's concept of fate as a superior power to which the tragic hero must succumb in order to be punished. It will also explore Thierry Hentsche's discussion of death and narration as a way to understand Mouawad's infatuation with the question of origins and belonging in a world where displacement has become the modern expression of many heroic actions.

The Context: Transnational Cinema and the Question of Belonging

Haunting origins is not Mouawad's own innovation; it is one of the major topics explored in diasporic and transnational filmmaking as a tool to overcome the trauma of loss and displacement, and to restore order in a world of chaos and opacity. in fact, Arab Canadian filmmakers (7) like their counterparts in Europe and the United States, introduce in their films three major socio-cultural features which deal more or less with the questions of origins: first the ethnic/cultural feature which draws attention to the staging of minority problems as well as majority/minority relationships in homeland and in hostland; second, the historical feature which explores the filmmakers' present and past through the investigation of the colonial and post-colonial history as well as the major historical events that might have led to movements of immigration and displacement; and third, the religious feature which is expressed through the manifestations of religious conservatism and the call for tolerance on one hand, and through the political instrumentalization of religion in times of war and conflict on the other hand.

It is important to relocate Mouawad's cinematic adaptations within this larger context of transnational and diasporic cinema made by filmmakers of Arab origins or based on their work. It is equally important to highlight Mouawad's hyphenated identity and the many lines of escape his work proposes beyond his Middle Eastern culture and his Canadian belonging. Born in 1968, Mouawad spent his childhood in Lebanon, his adolescence years in France and came to Canada in the late 1980s. His theatrical production in French is both locally and internationally acclaimed. In his plays Littoral and Incendies, the ethnic, cultural and religious identities (either Arab or Canadian, Christian or Muslim) are demoted for the benefit of a rather universal/cosmopolitan identity. Yet, it is obvious through the play of nouns and scattered allusions to geographic as well as regional characteristics, that both plays start in Canada and end in the Middle East. It is also noted that religious belongings are not criticized as such but rather demystified for the benefit of a clear-cut critique of the absurdity of conflicts based on religious affiliation in general.

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