Lebanese documentary filmmaker Cyril Aris turns his camera to his own family for this meditation on truth, love and lies in the face of illness and death.
An ailing old man’s fragile heart must be protected at all costs in The Swing (Al Marjouha), a low-budget but high-impact documentary in which Lebanese director Cyril Aris chronicles an upsetting story from his own family. The Aris patriarch, Antoine, is 90 years old and his heart is weak, so no one dares to tell him that one of his adult children has died abroad. While everyone worries about Antoine’s health, few seem to notice that his wife of 65 years, Viviane, suffers from a double blow, as she has to process the death of her daughter and do so alone and in silence.
Shot on the fly and with little interest in aesthetics, this is the kind of intimate portrait that captivates purely on the basis of what it reveals about the pain and the complexity of the human experience. This Karlovy Vary world premiere should find a berth at other non-fiction and general film showcases before segueing quite comfortably to the small screen, where its boxy aspect ratio will look most at home.
The curly-haired Marie-Therese, seen in archive footage, was the vivacious daughter of the bed-ridden Antoine and his wife, Viviane, a Catholic Lebanese couple living in an apartment building in Beirut. Marie-Therese looked after Antoine daily when his health started to decline, which is why Antoine seems to have a special fondness for her.
Though the details are a bit murky, it seems like Marie-Therese died while on a trip to Argentina, with the family deciding to keep this fact from Antoine, whose heart, which operates at only a quarter of its capacity, might not resist the shocking news of her death. Instead, for Antoine’s benefit, the family pretends she is alive but busy in South America, which the old man seems to accept even though he can never quite fathom why she doesn’t get in touch with him after looking after him daily for so long. Alongside her husband, Viviane suffers in silence, secretly calling her daughter’s voicemail to hear her voice in longshots that underline how lonely she is.
Director Cyril is the grandson of Antoine and Viviane, though exact family relations of most of the other characters are never completely made clear, with uncles, nieces and various other family member drifting in and out of the family’s apartment. But the audience isn’t alone in its confusion; a very touching moment sees the ailing Antoine ask one of his grandchildren who her mom is, again. When he learns the answer, he suddenly seems to remember and tells the young girl to tell her mom that her mother is really sweet. It suggests both that Antoine isn’t always fully present and that he’s a man full of love and compassion.
If there is one relationship that does fully emerge from the material, it is the almost life-long relationship of the aging couple. Through conversations between Aris’ grandparents and with the help of home-video footage, especially from the early 1990s, it becomes clear Antoine married a beauty queen after having known her for only a couple of months and that he still thinks she’s the “most beautiful girl in Beirut”. Antoine loves to sing Italian love sings — he lived in Rome for six years — and is the more upbeat of the duo. When Viviane breaks down and wonders why we are even born, her other half suggests, rather philosophically, that that’s just a part of life. The moment illustrates how the two balance each other out and support each other and is made more heart-rending by the knowledge that Viviane is referring at least partly to things about which Antoine knows nothing.
Though an uncle suggests jokingly that Aris “turned Jewish and took the name Spielberg” when he became a director, the feature documentary shows more evidence of the filmmaker’s nose for good characters and a fascinating story than for masterful technical skills. Clearly made with no money and basic camera equipment, The Swing has a gritty homemade aesthetic that keeps the story intimate, with practically only the title carrying a more metaphoric dimension (it refers to a swing chair bench on the apartment’s balcony that Marie-Therese promised she would sit in every day with her parents). Though Paul Tyan’s guitar-music score is a little sappy, Aris otherwise impressively manages to keep his exploration of whether lies of this magnitude help save or destroy lives soberly honest and grounded.
After making such a highly personal work, the real test for Aris’ prowess as a filmmaker will come with whatever it is he will make next.
Writer-Director: Cyril Aris
Producer: Cyril Aris
Director of photography: Cyril Aris
Editors: Cyril Aris, Mounia Akl
Music: Paul Tyan
Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
In Arabic, French, Italian
No rating, 74 minutes