“Where are we headed?” asks Fouad, a mechanic with weathered features in Karim Kassem’s latest film, Thiiird. Fouad and a customer speak beneath the raised hood of the latter's car as the former tries to repair it.
“Where?” the customer replies. “No one knows. God help us,” he adds despairingly.
The essence of their brief exchange is reproduced in other exchanges. Set in Lebanon, prices for basics like bread, petrol and cooking oil have rocketed. One young mother breaks down while speaking to a friend on the phone, distraught that she was forced to withdraw her daughter from school as she doesn’t have the money for tuition fees.
Fittingly, the title has now been selected by three different film festivals, including the Melgaco International Documentary Film Festival, which ran last weekend in Portugal. Earlier this year, it was awarded best international film at the Beldocs International Documentary Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia.
Cinematically, much of the film unfolds at Fouad’s garage. Lifeless old cars on blocks, various parts, scrap metal and a run-down structure convey a clear sense of decline and poverty. The film’s pensive but poetic, black-and-white cinematography (until the film’s denouement, when it transforms into colour) captures this microcosm of Lebanese society against a persistently rainy backdrop. Bleak, sure, but there is an understated aesthetic, too.
Kassem says that he and co-writer Nadia Hassan wanted to create a multi-layered film that would capture an “egoic” journey.
“The psychology and the state of mind that most people are in today,” he adds. "But at the same time, it's what people have been going through for all of history: struggling with what the meaning of life is, why we suffer at all and what the purpose behind all of it is."
Choosing the garage setting was an easy one, says Kassem, noting that garages, taxis, barbershops and many other places in Lebanon are ones in which people gather and invariably share stories or talk about the state of things. “People need a way out, they need talk therapy,” he explains.
Cars become metaphors for the lives of those depicted – being repaired to enable basic daily necessities to continue, an approach Kassem feels is misguided and delusional.
“I felt this one location was almost a perfect place to ask those questions and lay out all the economic and political issues," he says. "We've taken the body today as something to fix, as though it's a car – that you can just somehow put a wrench to and tighten the screws. But the mind doesn't work that way, it’s way more complex and I think our culture has got this wrong.”
The film’s elliptical narrative and shifting scenes can be jarring, but serve its psychological exploration well; blurring past, present and future, as well as the lines between its characters’ external versus inner worlds. At the story’s core is a car journey that Fouad and an old friend take, which Kassem and editor Alex Bakri have artfully edited to draw the viewer deep into the characters’ worlds.
“It could have been a very one-dimensional, linear sort of film but Bakri is such a visionary and the way that I proposed the film philosophically, he adapted to what you see now," he says. "We had a long conversation about time – how do you stretch time and cut it down, and what is the present and past and future?
"This was the best way to edit the film and sort of move people in and out of the garage in time and outside of time. This makes it a dreamlike narrative, which I think works for the film.”
The character of Fouad is enigmatic. Much of the film focuses on him in his garage, between cars, customers and chickens, having his coffee and a cigarette alongside his assistant Mohammad; or else on his inner journey (the opening and closing scenes using Fouad’s garage pit as a subterranean doorway between inner and outer worlds). He is a man in quiet contemplation – his expression concerned, but never revealing much of what’s going on beneath.
The film also blurs the lines between fact and fiction; Fouad is played masterfully by non-professional actor and real-life mechanic, Fouad Mahouly, who also owns the actual garage used in the film.
“Fouad is just fantastic,” Kassem says. “He is actually the exact opposite of what you see in the film – he is arguably one of the most optimistic people I know, not in a loud sense. He's very much analogous to me except a better version of me – more humorous, more playful and, in reality, very, very optimistic.
"In the film he is in the mud, he is under pressure, he is also suffering but maybe hides it very well, therefore making him a brilliant actor.”
Filming Thiiird took one month. It was shot, as much of the script references, under the very strained political and economic circumstances that have gripped Lebanon in recent years.
“What were the most challenging aspects? We can make a very long list,” Kassem says with a laugh. “But the first one that comes to mind is electricity. It's like, where are we going to charge our batteries because we had electricity for only two hours per day. There were gasoline issues too; every day you could see queues that were almost 2km long for the gas station.”
Thiiird addresses issues of deep despair and hardship, but optimism, resilience and the meaningfulness of relationships are at its heart. In a similar vein, Kassem is determined as a young filmmaker (he's only 32) to embrace and overcome the challenges he faces in Lebanon to continue making films of substance, however lean his budget is.
“I've always made films from almost nothing, from just sheer will, discipline and some contacts here and there," he says. "I've learned how to shoot and edit myself over time, so I've just dedicated myself to becoming an independent filmmaker and not really caring about who is helping me from the bigger producers. What really matters is the will to make the film. Are you really going to go out of your way to do it no matter what?
"How do you make the simplest film possible but also the most effective one? And how many times can you do it? That's really the key.”
Last week, he and Hassan were about to start filming his fourth feature before things went badly awry – their director of photography was about to fly to Lebanon from Australia when his father fell seriously ill. As a result, his wife, who was due to be the lead star, had to withdraw.
“The whole film has imploded, collapsed and we are no longer able to make the film that we we’ve been planning for two years,” Kassem says.
He remains remarkably calm and upbeat about it and says they will continue without the lead and improvise the rest. Apparently, he’s a veteran of navigating calamities of this nature.
“This is the third time this has happened to me, where the film falls apart," he says. "I'm open to the universe telling me: ‘This might be your way and you might be this kind of person and an innovator in this direction’. It doesn’t all have to be so perfect.”