Norwegian animation director Mats Grorud unveiled his debut feature, a drama about a family of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, in an out-of-competition slot in Annecy.
Portraying 70 years of strife through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl exiled in Beirut, Mats Grorud’s The Tower offers up a dark if rather accessible depiction of how Israel’s creation in 1948 resulted in the forced displacement of a quarter of a million Palestinians — most of whom have never returned to their homeland.
Premiering out of competition in Annecy, the animated feature, which mixes claymation and 2D techniques, is at times reminiscent of Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, especially in its sequences detailing the 1982 Lebanon War and the deadly attacks on Palestinian refugee camps. A bit slow in spots and not always adequately performed in English, the film is still a worthy addition to a canon of recent socio-political cartoons (Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis also comes to mind) portraying the Middle Eastern crisis in a manner that both children and adults can understand.
The Norwegian-born Grorud spent a year working at the Burj el-Barajneh camp in the suburbs south of Beirut, culling stories from some of the refugees he encountered. From that experience he crafted the tale of Wardi (voiced by Romina Adl Kasravi), a smart if shy pre-teen who was born in the camp and, sadly, represents the fourth generation of her family living there. Wardi is closest with her great-grandfather, Sidi (Mikhalis Koutsogiannakis), and their relationship is the starting point for a movie that flashes back and forth between the grim quotidian of Burj el-Barajneh and the 70 years of history that has left the Palestinians in such a helpless predicament.
Raised on a peaceful farm in Galilee, which was under British Mandate for the previous two decades, Sidi and his parents were removed from their home during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and driven into exile in Lebanon. What was meant to be a short stay soon turned into one lasting more than half a century — a fact that Grorud symbolizes by showing a tree spreading its roots in the middle of the camp. Those historical scenes, which are done in clear-line drawings of muted colors, are intercut with present-day discussions between Wardi and her family that are depicted in realistic claymation sequences, with special attention paid to the haphazard cinder block dwellings of Burj el-Barajneh.
Indeed, the “tower” of the film’s title refers to the one-room constructions that Sidi and other refugees built decades earlier and are now piled high atop each other, offering up a panorama of Beirut. Art director Rui Tenreiro does an excellent job adding intricate detail to such set-pieces, from all the pro-Palestinian graffiti on the walls to the many cracks and bullet holes. They look less like apartments than open-air prisons, even if for Wardi they are the only thing she can call home.
Other flashbacks reveal various stages of the Middle East’s turbulent recent history, including the rise of the PLO in the 1960s, the bombings of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and the attacks on refugees in 1982 — the latter portrayed in a particularly harrowing sequence that recalls the sniper scene from Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. The result is a shell-shocked family that has been beaten down for several generations by the weight of military power — not to mention the quotidian racism of the Lebanese against the Palestinians — and left with little solace but to dream of the land that was once theirs.
As grim as that sounds, The Tower is filled with moments of bittersweet humor and shreds of hope in the character of Wardi, while Grorud’s playful animation helps lighten the load of his discourse. The pacing is a bit flat in parts, with a little too much dead air, but the drama builds its way to an emotional finale where Sidi’s long and difficult life in exile comes full circle.
The choice to have the film voiced in English rather than the characters’ native Arabic proves, however, to be problematic at times, with some of the dialogue and delivery less natural than it could be. Despite that drawback, Grorud’s debut feature remains a well-researched and penetrating look at an ongoing crisis, — nearly 1.5 million Palestinians still live in refugee camps throughout the Arab world — allowing viewers, especially younger ones, to grasp the human repercussions of a neverending conflict.
Production companies: Tenk.TV, Les Contes Modernes, Cinenic Film
Cast: Romina Adl Kasravi, Mikhalis Koutsogiannakis, Aissa Maiga, Mohamed Bakri, Morad Hassan
Director-screenwriter: Mats Grorud
Producers: Frod Sobstad, Patrice Nezan, Laurent Versini, Annika Hellstrom
Directors of photography: Sara Sponga, Nadine Buss
Editors: Silje Nordseth, Karstein Meinich
Composer: Nathanael Bergese
Art director: Rui Tenreiro
Animation supervisors: Pierre-Luc Granjon, Hefang Wei
Venue: Annecy International Animated Film Festival