Since he began his film career over a decade ago, Egyptian-Luxembourgish director Adolf El Assal has successfully endeavoured to pinpoint the idiosyncratic nuances of the characters he portrays.
His latest film Full Memory is no different.
Now on show at Expo 2020 Dubai's Luxembourg Pavilion until January 30, the 12-minute short follows a Syrian refugee in Luxembourg, who, a decade after leaving his war-torn country, still has not dealt with a deeply traumatic event from his past.
“My first goal as a filmmaker is to create a cultural bridge of sorts between Europe and the Arab world and to break certain harmful stereotypes,” El Assal tells The National.
El Assal enjoyed international acclaim with his film Sawah, which delves into an Egyptian DJ’s experience while on his first visit to Europe, veering comedically into the action genre.
While showing Sawah at a festival in Denmark, El Assal met his partner in Full Memory, the Syrian-born, Danish actor-director Mazen Haj Kassem, 30.
Kassem plays the film’s protagonist, Ziad, who confusingly repeats the same experiences every day, in a neurotic effort to repress a dark event from his past.
Speaking to an unseen figure about how much better life is for him in Europe, Ziad recounts all the hardships of living in Damascus, such as the scarcity of gas and other resources. The viewer never sees who Ziad is talking to, only for it to become clear in the end.
“Ziad is the kind of character I love to play the most,” Kassem tells The National. “These complex individuals who are multifaceted and rather difficult to bring out. Not flat characters who are just filling a role in a scene.”
Though he has a comedic demeanour throughout the film, Ziad’s pain is showcased in snippets of lash marks on his back and his solitude.
The pair of filmmakers relate deeply to each other’s lives and experiences as naturalised European citizens with an Arab heritage.
Living in Luxembourg is a quintessentially multicultural experience, explains El Assal, on account of half of the tiny country’s population being of foreign origin.
He says people often think of Luxembourg as this obscure, rich country, with banks, big cars, mansions and luxury all around. But, as is usually the case, the reality is very different.
“There are people of every background living in Luxembourg, which I think makes it a truly unique place,” says El Assal. “And because of my Arab roots, I find it easier to tell that multicultural narrative through the experience of Arab immigrants in the country.”
When, a few years ago, El Assal was approached by the Luxembourg government to participate in a multidisciplinary art project set to be showcased at Expo 2020 Dubai, he didn’t feel that any of the films in his repertoire quite fit the bill. He decided to create something new for his submission.
Showcasing works by eight artists from seven different artistic disciplines, the theme of the project at Expo 2020 is Connecting Minds.
After spending a day co-writing the script with Kassem, who had already written an earlier version of it, El Assal also shot the film in a day before sending it to the project’s panel for review. They loved it.
“The film just fit really well with the theme of the exhibition,” explains El Assal. “The story is based on various experiences relayed to me by Middle Eastern refugees or immigrants who were living in Europe. I wanted to highlight how nostalgic they felt to the countries they came from.”
A central theme in the film is nostalgia and it is depicted as a psychological affliction that, for Ziad, has tragic implications.
“Ziad is afflicted with a severe case of nostalgia," says Kassem. "It’s something normal that affects all of us, not just Syrian refugees. It is just very severe in Ziad, because he refuses to see the truth and opts instead to live in a pseudo-schizophrenic loop that prevents him from confronting the horrible reality of the present.”
The film's title becomes apparent at the end of the film, when the viewer realises that, like a smartphone whose memory is full, Ziad can't save any new information past a certain point. He is tragically trapped by his nostalgia.
In the film, El Assal takes a varied and nuanced look at Arabness under different conditions, he says, which he drew on personal experience for, as he was born in Alexandria, Egypt and spent his early years in the UAE before moving to Europe with his family.
Meanwhile, Kassem drew on his experiences of being born in Syria and spending his childhood in Europe before returning to the Arab world as a teenager.
When he was 15, Kassem, his brother and his mother returned to Syria where they would live for seven years until the civil war forced them to flee back to Europe.
During his time in Syria, Kassem starred in a number of prominent roles in several acclaimed films and television shows.
The pair are currently in Dubai for the debut of their film at Expo 2020.