Aida Returns review: A Palestinian dream fulfilled in heartbreaking fashion

Carol Mansour's latest documentary, opening at Cinema Akil this weekend, follows her mission to bring her mother's ashes to her family's ancestral home in Jaffa

The destroyed police station in the Manshiah quarter, Jaffa in 1948, near where Aida Mansour grew up and was then forced to flee. AP
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In 1948, Aida Abboud, a resident of Jaffa, Palestine, was abruptly forced from her home, grabbing only enough for what she thought might be a two-week trip. She would never see it again in her lifetime.

“Now, there is no Jaffa, Palestine,” she laments in the documentary Aida Returns. “But there was.”

When she was forced to leave, the very idea that she would ultimately build a life abroad was unthinkable to her. After all, Jaffa has been around since at least 1800 BC, mentioned in Egyptian letters that are now about 3500 years old. In the Hebrew Bible, it’s referred to as the northernmost Palestinian city, bordering the territory of the Israelites. She wondered: How could such a city cease to exist?

When we meet Aida Abboud in the film, the latest effort of her daughter, director Carol Mansour, the life she’s built in Canada is nearly over. The return she dreamed of never came, and to her, all hope is lost.

She’s surrounded by blinking screens and beeping medical instruments. She’s dying, she’ll readily admit, even if her children and grandchildren cannot. She has had many blessings, such as the loving family around her, but as doctors check her charts, she’s still telling the story of what happened in 1948.

She's suffering from advanced Alzheimer's, but she can remember her home vividly. She recalls the names of her neighbours. She can describe in perfect detail the garden in her backyard, the walks along the sea she would take every day, and the tuxedo the British tenant that lived above them wore each night to dinner.

We hear all of this through the intimately recorded footage that makes up the film – some of it with professional cameras, some with mobile phones. At times, it doesn’t feel like we’re watching a film at all. Rather, we’ve been given access to Mansour’s personal records that exist so that she never forgets her mother’s stories, or what Abboud's voice sounds like when she says she loves her.

We’re not initially told that Abboud has died. Rather, a third of the way through the film, a title card appears on the screen with a new location: Jordan.

Now, we’re in the back of a car with a group of Mansour's friends and loved ones, all driving into occupied Palestine, passing checkpoints and pre-planning stories of what they will tell the Israeli officials.

These people are holding Abboud's ashes, we learn. They’re travelling to Jaffa on the north-west coast, which still exists as an area to the south of what is now Tel Aviv. Their plan is to give Abboud the return she always wished for – scattering her remains along the sea, and in the garden of her home. That is, if they can find it.

Mansour is not with them – she can’t be. For the rest of the film, we follow the perspectives of the group that are enacting Abboud's return, with Mansour video-calling in on the other side of the screen and the world, reacting to what she they manage to show her and guiding them to their next destination.

The film is at its most riveting when we’re immersed into their search for Abboud home – meeting the remaining Palestinian residents who still live in Jaffa, and make up around one-third of its current population. There’s an intensity in these scenes, not only because of the importance of their mission, but because of the implied danger of what may happen to them if they’re found out.

“I’ll just play the clueless American!” someone says at one point, as the rest fear for their safety. “I’m great at that!”

At times, the mere logistics of it all over-complicate the proceedings. Mansour puts into the film a lot of footage that others might have cut – discussions on the minute details of whether it’s okay to give her both Samsung and Apple iPhone footage, for example. A battery on one phone might die, so they will have to call her back. Cameras are pointed in the wrong direction. It’s a constant headache, and perhaps letting us in on that is the point – stressing the difficulty for Mansour, who can’t enter Israeli borders, to remain a part of this story at all.

Still, if all of that had been cut, the film would be equally as affecting. One of the most remarkable elements we learn towards the end is how wrong Abboud was. Jaffa is not gone. People that knew her are still there, and even her childhood home is still intact. It makes it even more heartbreaking to see her remains find their intended resting place, even as it offers her loved ones their bittersweet closure.

The weight of the tragedy, both for Abboud and the Palestinian people, is too much for any one film to bear. As they walk the beach, it’s hard not to think of the recent stories of mass graves that have reportedly been buried nearby, or the millions who never got a chance to return physically even in death.

AIDA RETURNS

Director: Carol Mansour

Starring: Aida Abboud, Carol Mansour

Rating: 3.5./5

This is the nature, and the importance, of telling Palestinian stories such as Abboud's. It’s hard to emotionally conceptualise the staggering pain of a mass grave from 1948, but a grandmother’s ashes is manageable. This may be a small film, made up of mostly home footage, but it packs a punch.

In Aida Returns, Mansour has successfully preserved her mother’s memory, and so much more.

Aida Returns is now playing at Cinema Akil, and will be screened globally Monday, which would have been her birthday

Updated: March 18, 2024, 9:10 AM
AIDA RETURNS

Director: Carol Mansour

Starring: Aida Abboud, Carol Mansour

Rating: 3.5./5