Director: Karim Kassem
Stars: Karim Kassem, Zeinab Hind Khadra, Lyne Ramadan
For a new generation of global filmmakers, the lines that separate drama and documentary have become a fertile ground for experimentation and play. One might feel cautious; that the fidelity of the truth might have become watered down after Trump and everything else. But our artists have been muddying the waters between fact and fiction since cinematic storytelling began. For Karim Kassem, necessary touchstones can be found in the works of Samira Makhmalbaf or Abbas Kiarostami; auteurs who mingled the twin purposes of cinema not in an effort to obscure, but to illuminate.
Kassem’s languidly paced debut feature Only the Winds brackets self-reflexive documentary about the act of filmmaking with a brief yet intriguing drama set among the rolling Lebanese hills, one that places the remainder of the piece keenly in the context of Lebanon’s unfolding political strife.
Having recently arrived in the country from his home-from-home New York, we encounter Kassem in the process of receiving corrective surgery on his eyes. What might be construed as extraneous material preempts a number of themes that will ultimately develop. For one, Kassem’s temporary blindness prefigures the sensory deprivation of the sightless children that feature later on, engendering a sense of kinship. And, in another sense, said surgery pushes us to the heart of a documentarian’s most vital mission statement – to allow us to see better.
His vision restored, Kassem is in a position to look and to invite us to do the same. While Only the Winds details the sometimes mundane functionality of such chores as casting or location scouting (making it feel like the prequel or making-of for some future endeavor), it is equally interested in more liminal moments. The play of light from a window on an adjoining wall. A fragment of mountains seen like a slice between dark flanks of concrete. People lost in either work or play. These occasional cinematic haikus help doll out its measured pace, but are in themselves like little contemplative prayers for thanks. Reminders of the simple gifts in the world and the value of our attention.
At 131 minutes Only the Winds is a little indulgent, and the second hour sometimes feels listless. Still, this is the stretch in which Kassem’s own sense of being a stranger in a once-familiar land comes to the fore. This undertaking marked a kind of homecoming after spending an extended amount of time in America. There’s a sense of disassociation that compliments his temporary blindness; a disparity between what is and what’s imagined or expected, and an innate lonerism that develops as Kassem’s project (within the film) loses focus.
The dramatised scenes that flank the mid-section ask us to question authenticity when we might ordinarily have accepted much of Only the Winds at face value. To what degree are Kassem and his crew playing to camera? Isn’t everything a little staged? And what makes that different to a documentary that doesn’t so pointedly comment on its own potential artifice?
The finale, meanwhile, places the gallant efforts of the blind children documented in a lightly sobering societal context. We’re reminded that Lebanon is balanced precariously between progress and despotism; between its past and potential futures. We can’t help but wonder what place these children will have in the country to come. What roles they will play.
And if Only the Winds is an overly spacious experience, it’s also self-evidently the work of someone passionate about carving out a career as a serious artist. Discipline can come in time. Kassem is documenting his own evolution, and affording us a vantage on under-seen places and seldom-heard voices as he does so.