Monday, November 28, 2011

Fond Memories: Grandma, a Thousand Times

Now a place synonymous with violence and discord, Beirut was once the high-spirited party spot of the Middle East. Teta Fatima’s late husband was one of the reasons the good times were so good. Not just the love of her life, he was also an accomplished violinist who accompanied many of Beirut’s top vocalists. Though he has been gone twenty years, it is clear he is never far from her thoughts when she reminisces to the filmmaker grandson who bears his name in Mahmoud Kaabour’s Grandma, a Thousand Times (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

After raising six children, Teta Fatima now spends most of her days smoking Argileh and drinking coffee. She is still sharp as a tack though and very definitely a force within the tightly knit community in Beirut’s old quarter. Recognizing her advancing years, Kaabour set out to record his grandmother’s wisdom and experiences for posterity. Naturally, his namesake was a frequent topic of conversation. In fact, he led their interviews in this direction by playing a tape of his grandfather’s violin improvisations, recorded in that very apartment, for his grandmother.

Indeed, there is some lovely music in Thousand, which also boasts some inventive graphics. The two together arguably produced the coolest opening and closing credit sequences of any film in recent memory. It also has a sly sense of humor that seems to be the equal product of the director and his grandmother subject.

In truth, Thousand is far more engaging than its modest premise might suggest. For all we know, Teta Fatima and Kaabour might share many of the unsavory opinions rife on the “Arab street,” but they wisely avoid politics throughout the film. At only forty-eight minutes, it is relatively short by feature standards, but it is sweet and stylish one (a rare but welcome combination), nonetheless. Wistful and elegant, it is one of the real surprise pleasures of the year. Warmly recommended, it opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.