It’s never easy writing about your own film, especially when it’s one you’ve accidentally ended up in. The Awakening starring Khaled Nayef and Omar Al Hamid was originally scripted to be a film about the connection between a 10-year-old and an 85-year-old, both without families. The 10-year-old Syrian refugee who is fired from his job at a mechanic’s garage ends up working at a scrapyard under harsh conditions. Abu Walid on the other hand, is an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. His two sons have abandoned him and the reasons are entirely unknown. He ran a paint shop back in the day, which is now only a place for his haircuts. On Omar’s way back home from work, he comes across Abu Walid climbing the stairs to his apartment and is reminded of something or someone.
This is where the film takes a rather bizarre turn; the film director enters the film to get to the bottom of what had happened to Abu Walid. I realized that Abu Walid had fallen and injured himself one day prior to my arrival from New York. No longer was Abu Walid able to act in the film, nor was there anyone to care for him. “Little did I know that his family and sons have left him for dead in what seems to be an empty apartment, a bed and pretty much nothing else” I say in voice-over midway through the film. As the director, I was left no choice but to help Abu Walid recover and question the continuation of my scripted narrative.
Before shooting the actual film, I arrived to Beirut and learned of the accident. I was on a tight schedule and had about one month to shoot the film, aside from family obligations. Three days of contemplating and meditations later, it struck me that I really could no longer make this film. My uncle (a novelist and film studies professor) who had visited me on the second day, confirmed that it was no longer possible and that I should try making something else in the future. I cried that night, as any human would. I had spent 6 months writing the script, successfully crowdfunded it, and flew thousands of miles to Beirut. On the fourth day, I called my friend Mahmoud and asked him to borrow his camera equipment. Without putting too much thought into it, I began to document Abu Walid’s struggle to recovery with my father who was also filming on his iPhone. My voice went missing, the script burnt and the accident was embraced. Frankly, I did however think to myself: what would Abbas Kiarostami do in my situation? Without being aware, I had initiated a journey to discover myself as a filmmaker without knowledge of the outcome or if there would actually be presentable film at all. Slowly, a river of motion effaced the words of the script.
A few days into filming Abu Walid’s recuperation, I was pulled into his world of silence and loneliness. Every morning, I’d bring food, no ideas, and my camera to his empty apartment; a reflection of this vacant landscape mirroring my sentiments. It had transformed into my own circumstance, my intuition, and a playground for me to bring light and story into. That was when I had some sort of awakening on an existential plane, a faint conceptual leap into my own subconscious.
Days later, I had realized that documenting Abu Walid had filled in the void of my original script, at least for his parts. I had a considerable amount of raw material to use, which felt more real and documentary-like. It made me wonder: what do I do with Omar? The scripted narrative remained true to itself, in Omar’s story. He is first interrogated for working illegally, then we flashback to Omar getting fired and starting his new job at the scrapyard. It transformed into docu-fiction.
One night as I was walking back home around midnight, I had caught a floating plastic bag outside an art gallery. It glided across and went down some steps and that became the opening and just before the closing shot of the film, signifying the repetition of life and helpless beings we are. Towards the end of The Awakening, the scenes unfold with Abu Walid and I just spending time together and talking about heritage, travel and music. That was it, there was nothing else to be said at that point.
The Awakening was a realization as to what is possible in the world of cinema, and what can be concocted from start to finish. Today I like to call it accidental cinema. A film about a film that couldn’t be made was the result of Abu Walid’s fall. An incredibly important accident and point in time, and a true realization to set life and philosophy in motion. However, there are no answers as to what would happen next for him and who would replace me when I’d leave Beirut again. Abu Walid was left alone to continue life in solitude. I looked into his eyes and asked him what had happened, but he refused to give me information about his past. In some measure, he seemed satisfied with this withdrawal from life outside. There is one shot in the film, which may be the most significant shot in the film, yet I did not give it more time or explanation. The frame alone, to me, said enough. It left the same questions I was asking unanswered for the viewer as well. A film that made me want to think is what I ended up creating. Isn’t that what art is for anyway?