Interview: Abbas Fahdel on Tales of the Purple House
This article appeared in the October 5, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.
Tales of the Purple House (Abbas Fahdel, 2022)
For two decades, the work of Iraqi-French director Abbas Fahdel has moved deftly between fiction and nonfiction, often within the same film. His latest feature, Tales of the Purple House, is his most comprehensive integration of these two modes to date. At once intimate and epic, the film is a dual portrait of Fahdel’s wife, the painter Nour Ballouk, and the political turmoil in Lebanon. From the couple’s lavender-colored home in the South, Fahdel fashions a deceptively fluid narrative about the real-world horrors that continue to affect both public and private life in his adopted country.
While the sections featuring Nour, who for long stretches is seen painting in the couple’s multitiered garden, foreground the day-to-day familiarities of a COVID-19-crippled world, the film notably casts a wide historical net. Fahdel (who doesn’t appear on camera) draws parallels between multiple wars and political conflicts—from the liberation of Southern Lebanon in 2000 to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine—via news reports, personal photographs (including some of Nour’s bombed-out childhood home), and on-the-ground footage of protests against the Lebanese government, which contrasts with breathtaking landscape imagery and lightly dramatized scenes set in and around his home. There, the couple’s numerous cats patrol the garden, merrily feasting on birds, mice, and lizards; in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, their small British Longhair, Panda, is found paralyzed from a snakebite. Nour, meanwhile, when not painting, is shown gardening and chatting with a young Syrian boy from the neighborhood who gives voice to many of the sociopolitical anxieties that plague the region, including issues related to immigration and employment, as well as misinformed ideas about the pandemic.
As with his landmark wartime chronicle Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), which was made over a period of years and through an unfolding set of tragic circumstances stemming from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Fahdel allows Tales of the Purple House to take shape by way of the unknown and unforeseen—namely, the domestic realities of life during the pandemic and, even more devastating, the 2020 explosion of an ammonium nitrate stockpile in the port of Beirut, which left more than 200 people dead and 300,000 people homeless. Centering the tripartite film around this still-unresolved event, Fahdel presents a panoramic view of life in modern-day Lebanon, somehow finding beauty amid horror and comfort in the love provided by family, friends, and felines alike.
Following the premiere of Tales of the Purple House at this summer’s Locarno Film Festival (where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize), I began an online correspondence with Fahdel, who worked for many years as a critic before turning to filmmaking. We discussed all aspects of the project, including its origins in the COVID-19 lockdown, the circumstances that determined its structure, and how he manages to remain hopeful in troubled times. Over the course of our exchange, two significant events transpired: the death of Jean-Luc Godard, one of Fahdel’s guiding lights, and the birth of his and Nour’s first child, Camellia.
Tales of the Purple House screens October 11 at the 60th New York Film Festival.
Tell me a little about the village where you and Nour live. How does it compare to Beirut?
Perhaps I should start by explaining why I, the Franco-Iraqi, have chosen to live in Lebanon. In 2016, while I was living in Paris, I posted an announcement on my Facebook page saying that, for the purposes of my new film, I was looking for an isolated farm—not abandoned or [renovated], and if possible in a mountainous region. I received several responses, but nothing corresponded to what I was looking for. It was then that a Lebanese friend, the painter Nour Ballouk, to whom I was not yet married, suggested that I shoot the film in Lebanon, in the Kadisha Valley, in the north of the country—a region that I already knew, and where I knew I could actually find the “primitive” farm I imagined.
This is how I left to shoot my feature film Yara (2018) in Lebanon, where I decided to stay after the end of filming. Having married Nour shortly afterwards, we left the North to settle in the center of the country, in the Chouf region, where we stayed for a little over a year, during which we shot the documentary Bitter Bread (2019) in a Syrian refugee camp located in the neighboring Bekaa plain. So these two films are linked to the regions where we lived, as is Tales of the Purple House, which we shot in South Lebanon, where we settled three years ago.
The film may suggest that our house is rather large and opulent, but in truth it is the smallest and most ordinary house in the village. What makes this house valuable for us is its large garden, spread over three levels, the house being located on a small hill. Living in this village allows us to be surrounded by trees and greenery, and thus enjoy, with our cats, a welcoming shelter, which somehow protects us from the sound and fury of a dramatic Lebanese reality marked by wars, by the great economic and political crisis, and more recently by the explosion in the port of Beirut, which destroyed a large part of the city.
Were you always planning on making a film with Nour, or about recent events in Lebanon, or was it purely a product of the pandemic?
After making Bitter Bread, I wanted to devote a film to the people of Southern Lebanon, where I had just settled. Nour was not supposed to be in the film, but instead neighbors and other people of the area. A few weeks after I started filming, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Lebanon, and containment measures were decreed by the government. The film I’d originally planned was no longer possible, and I had to adapt to the new situation. As Nour and I were living in confinement, surrounded by our cats, and with a small Syrian neighbor boy as our only contact with the outside world, I decided to center the film on this new reality. But very quickly the events of the outside world burst into our life, and consequently into the film: the economic and political crisis, the explosion in the port of Beirut, the threats of a new war… This is how, by inventing the film from day to day, without knowing what it would look like in the end, we found, more or less naturally, its final form.
I’m curious about the painting sequences, which unfold almost like montages, with multiple angles and camera setups. Can you tell me how you conceptualized these moments from a visual standpoint, and how you worked with Nour to shoot these scenes?
“Is a red dress still red when no one is looking at it?” asks Goethe in his book Theory of Colors. By broadening his question, we can ask ourselves if a flower, a tree, a forest, or a mountain continues to exist if no one is looking at it! While making Tales of the Purple House, I was guided by a personal motto: regarder et garder. Watch something and keep (save) it—by filming it. This is also what Nour does by painting the trees in our garden or the neighboring mountain.
Tales of the Purple House is a syncretic work where painting and cinema respond and overlap to represent, in the sense of making doubly present, a world whose very existence is threatened. The frames placed by Nour between her gaze and this world, the white canvases awaiting pictorial recording, and also the frames formed by windows and TV screens are thus like pieces of a framework that help to maintain the world’s standing. Here, painting and filming, the paintbrush and the camera, all collaborate in the same operation of (allegorical!) rescue of the world through images.
Now, to respond more precisely to your question about the painting sequences, I will again quote Goethe: “We do not know the works of art when we see them only completed, we must also have known them in their state and process of becoming.” The filming of Tales of the Purple House was spread over more than two years, during which Nour painted several paintings. I followed, by filming each of these paintings in the “state and process of becoming.” An oil painting is not done in a few hours—it takes several days. Nour starts by putting on a first layer, and then waits one or more days for this first layer to dry, to add a second layer, and so on. As I was filming each step, I tried to vary the angles of shots, seeking, each time it was possible, to use the “frame in the frame,” for example by filming Nour through the frame of a window. It is a way of using a mise en abyme process to penetrate the secret of the work of the painter (and by the same means, that of the filmmaker), and to provoke a reflection on the similarity of their two approaches.
How does this approach work with regard to editing? How did you find the rhythm for the scenes around the house? Do you conceptualize them differently than the scenes shot in Beirut and other places outside the home?
Since Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, I’ve edited all my films myself. And since it’s me who always holds the camera, the editing process begins during the shooting itself. While I’m shooting a scene, I consciously think about how it will be put together and how it will fit with the rest. It’s relatively easy to do it this way when I’m shooting in and around the house, where I can control almost everything. But that’s not possible when I shoot in Beirut. So for the demonstration scenes, for example, I tried to film as many shots as possible, while making sure to vary them, in order to have choices during the editing. This explains the difference in rhythms between the scenes shot at home and in the garden (which are scenes of a contemplative nature) and the scenes shot in the city (Beirut and Nabatieh in particular), which have a more lively, dynamic rhythm due to the atmosphere of the city and the events that take place there.
In general, the editing and the rhythm are supposed to reflect the difference between two almost antagonistic worlds: a peaceful world, which seems to evolve outside of Time and History, and a noisy and restless world, shaken by the tremors of a major political, economic, and health crisis.
I’m fascinated by the casual relationship between fiction and nonfiction in your work. Generally speaking, how do you think of your work in relation to narrative/fictional cinema?
My conception of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction is part of a long tradition that goes from Flaherty to Kiarostami, via Jean Rouch, who was my teacher in Paris. In a text devoted to Rouch’s Moi, un noir (1958), Godard wrote that “all great fiction films tend towards documentary, as all great documentaries tend towards fiction… And whoever opts completely for one necessarily finds the other at the end of the road.”
This is a conception of cinema to which I have always adhered and which makes fiction and nonfiction, Lumière and Méliès, like parallels which finally meet. Many people associate fiction with imagination and documentary with reality. In my opinion, any film, whether documentary or fiction, is a work of the imagination of its author, who, by his mise en scène choices, gives the desired form to his work.
I made a “fictional” film, Yara, without a preliminary script, with nonprofessional actors who almost all play their own roles in life. So is Yara fiction or documentary? I don’t know, or rather, I don’t care, as I don’t differentiate between the two. I reject the distinction, especially since many “professionals of the profession,” as Godard calls them, make a distinction between what they consider to be “film” (which implies fiction) and “documentary” (which they classify outside of cinematic language).
How did the explosion in Beirut affect the film and its structure?
In the same way that the American invasion of Iraq inspired the division of Homeland: Iraq Year Zero into two parts, the explosion in the port of Beirut led me to restructure Tales of the Purple House in a way that I hadn’t originally planned. The explosion turned everything upside down, like an earthquake that crumbles sections of the walls of the house you’re building, forcing you to start over. As the film chronicles everyday life in Lebanon, with its micro and macro events, the explosion naturally became the centerpiece of the film—its ground zero, the moment after which nothing could be the same.
Despite the horrible events depicted, the film is surprisingly optimistic and even joyful at times, a feeling that really comes through in the scenes with your cats. Where does your love of animals come from?
This love of animals dates back to childhood, for Nour and I, but neither she nor I were able before our meeting to give a concrete form to this love. She and I lived in apartments, she with her family in Lebanon, and I in Paris, so we couldn’t have animals. It was only after our marriage and our installation in the purple house, with its large garden, that we were finally able to give free rein to our love for animals and more particularly for cats.
I would be remiss not to ask: how is Panda doing?
As you see in the film, Panda, who is our youngest and favorite cat, had been paralyzed for a few weeks after being bitten by a snake. But since then he has recovered, and now he has a rival in love, in the person of our daughter Camellia, born a few days ago.
Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight & Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.