Saudi director takes on father-son relationship in first feature film
'Masculinity is usually defined by its power. But in this movie we wanted to show when it was fragile,' says Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan
Before turning to filmmaking, Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan worked as a newspaper reporter and film critic in Saudi Arabia. “I wrote about what I saw, such as the movies we would see going to Bahrain at weekends, and then in 2008 I co-founded Talashi Films Group,” he says.
His love for cinema led him to a career as a filmmaker and his debut feature film, Last Visit, had its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic this week. Given that Saudi Arabia had until last year gone more than three decades without a cinema, news of directors from the kingdom getting into festivals is remarkable.
Last Visit features in the East of the West Competition, which focuses on first and second-time filmmakers from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It is a story about conflict between a father and son, and deals with the changing attitudes of a new generation of Saudis towards how society should function and what value should be placed on the traditions within it. It’s told in a realist style and begins with a road trip taken by Nasser and his son, Waleed, which they abandon when Nasser receives a call that his father is dying.
The film is the brainchild of producer Mohammed Alhamoud and co-scriptwriter Fahad Alestaa, whom the director first met at a cinema club in Saudi Arabia in 2006. When cinema was banned in the kingdom, they would get together and watch VHS tapes and DVDs of films they would not otherwise have had a chance to see. “We developed a taste for film through this forum,” says Alhamoud. “Fahad brought the idea for the film and we always have conversations when we start with a question and go from there.”
Last Visit was born with the question about what would happen if a reluctant teenager was forced to take a trip with his father.
“Masculinity is usually defined by its power,” says Aldhabaan, 35, about making a film about male relationships. “But in this movie we wanted to show when it was fragile. The society in which the story takes place is masculine and we explored what drives this.”
Masculinity is usually defined by its power. But in this movie we wanted to show when it was fragile. The society in which the story takes place is masculine and we explored what drives this.
Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan, director
When they reach the village where Nasser’s father lives, we see the old man on his deathbed. While the film is set in the present, the attitudes and conventions in the village seem to be a throwback to the past. Aldhabaan says the decision to tell a story of impending death was partly inspired by other filmmakers before him.
“This theme could be the only thing that unifies two very different films, such as Touch of Evil by Orson Welles and The Wind Will Carry Us, directed by Abbas Kiarostami. Also, death is something you expect and it actually happens and maybe this is why I chose it as a backstory. In a realist film, it’s important to have a theme that’s true to real life,” Aldhabaan says.
One of the other themes he explores in Last Visit is a divide between generations. Aldhabaan chose to symbolise this through Waleed and his ever-present set of huge wireless headphones. Waleed doesn’t seem to be wearing them to listen to music, but because he doesn’t want to listen to the older people around him.
“To understand the difference between the generations, the headphones are a good idea,” says Aldhabaan. “It’s visually symbolic and we also have the impression that the father has never had his own headphones in the past. It’s a tool to escape and protest, and Nasser never had this tool in the past.”
In a naturalistic scene that will resonate with many who have grown up in a religious culture, Waleed refuses to wake up early in the morning to pray at the mosque with his extended family, and even challenges his father about why he is being told to do things to show face rather than for any strongly held belief. “Definitely honour and shame are some of the most important morals that define Arabic and Muslim culture,” says Aldhabaan. “And definitely the father carries these feelings and morals, but it doesn’t mean that the teenager doesn’t have them. At the end of the day, he is also an offspring of this culture, but the son’s definition of shame and honour is different than his father’s.”
Aldhabaan strives to show how cultural heritage weaves from one generation to another and how it transforms througout that shift. “I have different cultural values from my father, but I don’t reject all his values and some of them I’d actually like to keep, caring for example and being emotional. If I have a son in the future I’d like him to have certain cultural values, but I’d respect his choices,” he says.
It’s a sign of changing times when a Saudi artist is able to put into a film a discussion between a father and son who questions the decorum around prayer. “I think we live in a different time and this topic used to be taboo,” says Aldhabaan. “I think the new generation has a much better understanding of themselves than the previous generation, not because of the way they are raised by their fathers, but for reasons that come from outside the house.
“A new generation of Muslims are not related to their identity through their own roots, but also through different media, such as social media, and so this makes them have a different understanding of themselves. Waleed in his mind compares himself not only to his peers, but to every other teen in the world, subconsciously even.”
The film’s selection was made possible due to a change in the festival’s submission criteria. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival changed its criteria in 2017 to accommodate films from the region. The festival’s Artistic Director Karel Och was instrumental in that change. “We see significant potential among young filmmakers from the Middle East and would like to offer them a helping hand at the beginning of their careers,” he says.
Last Visit screens on July 3 at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Updated: July 1, 2019 04:55 PM