Starting with a Skype conversation is a bold move: it doesn’t make for the most eye-catching cinema. But the choice is understandable as it lays the foundation for this film about three generations of immigrants: the French/Algerian father of director Lina shows her the new apartment of his mother who in her late eighties decides to separate from her husband (and Lina’s grandfather).
This revelation immediately stops you in your tracks and raises a lot of questions which Lina poses throughout the course of the film. She not so much interviews her grandparents and father as gets under their skin, confronting them with the choices they made.
We learn about the family history, which is intrinsically linked with the history of France and Europe. Her grandparents made their way to France after the Second World War, when the need for workers was foremost. They were to stay just long enough for the country to get back on its feet but ended up building a life and a future. And witnessing the independence of Algeria, which – as we learn through historic footage – came at a great cost for its people.
The documentary is extremely personal, with Lina portraying her family and her culture with curiosity, love and good-natured humour.
Grandmother is a feminist in her own right: home movies show her as a mother with short hair, dancing and having fun. As a young girl she got into an arranged marriage with grandfather – talking about the first meeting makes her break into a laughing fit, which she will continue to do every time sensitive matter is raised: “I can never tell whether you’re laughing or crying,” Lina comments.
Some things are better left unspoken, but actions speak anyway. She will talk about the separation: she’s had enough of her husband’s face and wants her own space. But it doesn’t stop her from taking care of the fragile old man who now lives across her street – she cooks, sits with him till he finishes his meal, gets the extra sugar which she forgot to put in his coffee.
Her conversations with her son, Lina’s father, draw a picture of her husband as a tough man of little words and emotions, and little lust for (social) life. But when Lina points her camera at him, she finds more depth in his character, in the way he moves, looks, sits and reminisces, talks about things gone by and almost sheds a tear. The scene where he is sat in an obsolete cutlery factory, now serving as a museum, amidst lights and noises recreating the work atmosphere, could easily have been overplayed, but has just the right amount of drama and stillness to really work.
The old couple still live in Thiers, where the old house is up for sale. Grandmother just moves on, no time for looking back as she has little time left, and wants to make the most of it. The pictures and home movies she watches with her granddaughter evoke emotions, which she hides behind her hands. Grandfather spends his days at the mall, in a cafe, talking about the past as he lets the remaining time slip through his fingers, accepting his fate stoically.
Her father talks about being Algerian: ‘You don’t need to be in Algeria to be Algerian.’ And apparently you also don’t have to be together to be a couple: he blatantly denies his parents are separated, which tells you a lot about this self-made man, who made a career as an actor and is still craving the love of his mother and the approval of his father.
Lina has made a subtle but strong movie about living between cultures, losing your country but hanging on to your identity, about traditions and progression, about love which comes in many forms: it is in the way her grandmother looks at her former husband when she is sat next to him – you can feel how she would like to touch him.
It is undeniably in the way her father invites his mother to sit next to him, ending up with his head in her lap, cuddling up like a little child. And it is in the careful and precise way Lina composed, directed and put together her film – the organic flow, the effective editing and the clever use of material – including the silent, current shots of the desolate village of her grandparents youth – and music.
A love letter without clichés.