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Tales of the Purple House (Hikayat elbeit elorjowani)

An epic documentary that's both video essay and panoramic portrait of Lebanon in decline, this is a massive lost opportunity — live from Locarno!


During lockdown I tried to learn Russian. It wasn’t a success. My wife tried to make her own bread. It was definitely a success. Abbas Fahdel made an epic three-hour documentary. It’s a mixed success.

Both a video essay depicting painter Nour Ballouk (and Abbas Fahdel’s wife) living during the coronavirus pandemic, and a portrait of Lebanon coming apart at the seams due to the legacy of wars with Isreal, the Syrian refugee crisis, and chronic mismanagement by the government, Tales of the Purple House is both a sweeping, ambitious panorama and an endless series of cutesy YouTube videos.

And just like YouTube’s popularity, a significantly large part of Tales of the Purple House, relies on Nour’s several cats. They chase after mice, scamper after lizards, attack each other and love lounging about. Cats are considered holy, clean animals in Islam, and a metaphor for humanity at large; we are reminded by the owner of a dog shelter that how you treat your animals will determine your fate in the afterlife.

But if the cats in Lebanon are treated well, the people are left behind by constant blackouts, ammunition depots exploding, a depleting currency and skyrocketing inflation. We see protests all across the country, and people getting incredibly frustrated. Everyone except for Nour, who seems to take the closing of borders and the constant presence of death all in her stride.

She is an incredibly passive person, constantly observing and painting the world while it goes on without her input. After all, painting a landscape cannot alter it, neither can filming it. Neither do the many anti-government songs appear to have pushed Lebanese society in the right generation. She even admits at one point, evoking Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011), that if the world was to end in a week, she would go about almost exactly the same routine.

She is upset with the way the world is, but this frustration never seeps into the movie, which almost seems to accept the status quo and the idea that things will only ever get worse. She is a privileged woman, able to get gas for her car on the black market and never suffers from a blackout. It’s surely one women’s philosophy, almost touching on Buddhist teachings, and it’s interesting to observe, but it gets exasperating and won’t make much impact on the state of things in Lebanon.

The film gets even stranger considering how staged some of the conversations feel — from Nour interacting with her Syrian neighbour, a young boy who likes to kill snakes and help his elders out for free, to her visit to a refugee camp, the likes of which feels rather self-congratulatory. Additionally, Fahdel himself, despite being Nour’s husband and probably experiencing lockdown and the refugee crisis and many other issues along with her, never inserts himself into the movie, making this documentary feel even more artificial.

Neither a fly-on-the-wall slice of observation, or a political polemic, Tales of the Purple House comes across as an arthouse video project that got out of hand and ballooned into 184 minutes. And while there’s nothing wrong with video diaries or movies over three hours, it lacks the kind of internal rhythm or perspective that would make the film sing. Too personal to be universal while too vague to be intimate, it’s a fascinating lockdown project, and a solid capsule of our current era, but it’s unlikely to make an impact outside of hardcore documentarian circles. All in all, a massive lost opportunity.

Tales of the Purple House plays in the Concorso internazionale section of the Locarno Film Festival, running from 3-13th August.

By Redmond Bacon - 12-08-2022

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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