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Reema, There and Back. A Family Divided by Two Worlds

by Paul Émile d’Entremont, Director; Jacques Turgeon, Producer
National Film Board of Canada, 2007
51 mins., col.
Archive website: http://www.nfb.ca.

Reviewed by Dr Alex Rotas
Cardiff University

This is a sad and short film, less than one hour long, flagged up, I suspect, as being of interest to Leonardo readers because of its claim to examine the "double identity" of its young protagonist Reema. Reema was born in Iraq to an Iraqi father, Ali, and a Canadian mother, Elizabeth. Unable to endure the restrictions of family life in Baghdad, however, Elizabeth fled, taking baby Reema with her and bringing her up in rural Nova Scotia. Her sister Tamara, older by two years, was left behind to be raised by Ali’s family in Iraq. In 2004, after 16 years of silence, Ali suddenly decides he wants Reema in his life and a family reunion is arranged, where the sisters meet each other, as well as the parent they had lost, for the first time since the family was divided. The film documents this reunion and, in more detail, a two-month trip Reema made the following summer to Jordan to visit her father.

On the surface a film about cultural difference, this film transpires to be more about selfish parenting than the tricky and subtle problems of negotiating a hybrid identity. Canada and Iraq are presented unproblematically as two binaries in direct opposition to each other, with stereotypical melodies signalling location: an oriental lament preceding every cut to the Middle East and clarinet and strings when we find ourselves in Canada. No effort is made to investigate Ali’s very particular Iraqi identity, with his faultless American accent, his fondness for blue jeans and beer as well as for hookahs. Reema and Elizabeth’s simplistic understanding of (or, probably better, their antagonism to) those they refer to as ‘Arabs’ doesn’t deepen as the film progresses. As a result, both the cultural and the personal gap between the two sides of the family remains wide, and there is little attempt to disentangle the cultural from the personal in the problems that they all face, still less to examine the connection between the two.

Outgoing Reema struggles to deal with the situation with a mixture of bewilderment, tears and rage, while quieter Tamara, apparently settled and happy in her home environment, weeps and talks of her love for the sister she now misses. Both daughters are overshadowed by the personalities and will of their parents, who, despite their ‘cultural’/personal differences have probably rather more in common than perhaps they themselves realise. Certainly they share an extraordinary degree of solipsism and self-absorption, both in their different ways treating their offspring almost entirely as extensions of themselves.

Neither had married for love. For Ali, "Elizabeth was a way out". Marrying her meant he would not be sent to the front line to serve in the Iraqi army, then at war with Iran. Elizabeth married Ali for the $40,000 he offered her to pay her, in return, for her college fees ("I was lying through my teeth", Ali grins to camera now). Twenty years on, Ali showers Reema with expensive perfume, clothes and gifts in Jordan, admonishing her for only phoning him twice during the previous six months. Having not contacted her at all for 16 years, he blames her now for the fact that he "knows nothing" about her. "You have to show you care," he orders. Weeping in her mother’s arms on her return to Canada, Elizabeth comforts her: "Poor thing. Now you know how hard it was for me." Already troubled with issues of self-esteem – an opening sequence of the film shows a close-up of Reema talking about how ugly she feels she is – no wonder her T-shirt of choice at this juncture has ‘Trash’ emblazoned across its front.

Equally, Elizabeth detaches herself from any responsibility for her estrangement from her other daughter. Why is she shorter than Reema, she wonders, despite being two years older? "It must be from lack of nurturing on her grandmother’s side," she snorts, as she bemoans also the fact that "she doesn’t speak English well. I can’t even have a decent conversation with her." For her part, Reema observes that "it’s nice" to see her sister "but she’s tiresome and …she wasn’t raised like a Canadian child." This is not really a film that opens a pathway to an analysis of the subtleties of cultural difference or of putative hybrid identities. It does, however, encourage reflection about the difficulties and responsibilities involved in documentary film-making. It was unsettling to think that the two innocents in this family saga, Reema and Tamara, already confused and sorrowful, now have filmed evidence of insensitive words spoken to and about them that are certainly cruel enough to cause them further pain. Above all, this is a film that invites reflection on issues pertaining to adult fecklessness, the inability of individuals to think that the gratification of their own immediate needs might bring some difficult repercussions in its wake and the heavy price that their children pay as a consequence.



Updated 1st March 2008

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