Fatima Jebli Ouazzani's 'In My Father's House'
In My Father's House is a fascinating film because filmmaker Fatima Jebli Ouazzani shows us all her confusions, dreams and regrets, while remaining clear about the life from which she ran away. She had left her family as a young girl to avoid sharing the same fate as her mother and grandmother, who both had been married against their will and, although they struggled desperately, were powerless to change the plans that had been made for them. Fatima's film is a meditation on her life as she returns to her family in Morocco after 16 years' absence.
Normally, I don't like dramatic inserts in documentary films, but they seem to work extraordinarily well here. We watch a ten-year-old Fatima puzzling over the loss of her father's affection. She traces it to when she started to lose her child's body and become a woman. The pain of this loss gives the film an added richness because she still clearly loves her father and mourns his disappearance from her life. We feel that Fatima has never regretted her decision to fight against tradition, but we sense that she has had a lonely life, and that a portion of her longs to be part of an ideal family.
Throughout the film we watch a young couple going through the process of leaving their home in The Netherlands to get married in Morocco. They are a glamorous, successful couple, seemingly in love. It is the life that Fatima never had. The wedding scenes are full of color and activity, but we see that all the legal agreements are made between men. They shake on the deal in front of the deceptively meek-looking bride.
These wedding preparations are interspersed with scenes in Fatima's grandparents' house that are utterly compelling and shocking in a deadly quiet way. We watch scenes of mutual hostility, and we see the destiny that Fatima fled. The old man is waited on by a wife who has clearly never loved him, and we realize that he too is trapped in this loveless union.
The conversations between the two women are gentle and bitterly humorous. Grandmother tells Fatima how she desperately wanted to stay at school and that she ran away from the marriage but was forced to return. We see how her life has been an endless prison. We learn that the same things happened to Fatima's mother, who tried to starve herself to escape her destiny. And through all this, we see the ten-year-old Fatima following a constantly retreating father, haunted by the loss of his love.
Nevertheless, watching the film is a curiously uplifting experience. It manages to be a truly poetic documentary with great emotional clarity. It is a heartbroken, angry film that uses irony and wit to deal with regret. The staged scenes with Fatima as a young girl are never mawkish or sentimental and really add to the whole.
The film is retrospective, and dares to show us that change and struggle usually come at a price. We see how Fatima is longing for things out of her reach; she did what she absolutely had to do, but she is still suffering the consequences 16 years later. When she decides to phone her father at the end, the short conversation is very powerful. It is reconciliation, but it is tragic because it has come so late. This is a devastating film that takes us on an extraordinary journey.
Kim Longinotto is a documentary filmmaker living in London. She studied at the National Film School in the UK.
This essay originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of DOX Magazine. In My Father's House is available through Women Make Movies and MM Filmprodukties.