Western Arabs: when you belong to two cultures, which one takes precedent?

Omar Shargawi's latest documentary explores the personal angst growing up the son of an Arab in Denmark

epa01242063 The winners of the VPRO Tiger Awards (L-R), Danish film maker Omar Shargawi, who won for 'Go with Peace Jamil' (Ma salama Jamil), Thai film maker Aditya Assarat for 'Wonderful Town' and Malaysian film maker Liew Seng Tat for 'Flower in the Pocket', pose with their awards they received during the IFFR Awards Ceremony at the  37th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 01 February 2008.  EPA/GUIDO BENSCHOP *** Local Caption *** 01242063
Powered by automated translation

There is a lot of anger in Western Arabs, the excellent new documentary by Omar Shargawi, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday.

It’s a raw, emotional and personal film in which the director lays bare his ­confusion, resentment and the difficulties he faced growing up half Palestinian, half Danish, in Copenhagen, the eldest of three brothers.

It is a film about being torn apart when you try to belong to two cultures and don’t know which one should take precedent. It’s an incredibly relevant and moving documentary, all the more touching and effective because Shargawi doesn’t try to make himself a hero. He just relays his confusion and pain, which makes it touching, even though the 42-year-old ­director is not the most endearing protagonist.

The poetic film – made up of abstract images shot over a dozen years – starts with a voice-over from ­Shargawi as he recounts his time at school in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he would be treated as an outsider, and called "Pakistani". It didn't matter that his father, Munir, was actually a refugee from Palestine, who had come to Denmark in 1966 and married a local.

The story behind the film

After the world premiere of the documentary, Shargawi revealed that it was the death of his father that prompted him to make this feature. "The film almost happened by accident," he tells the audience at the premiere. "The death of my father was a turning point. After mourning for a few days, over the next two to three weeks, I got the chance to watch the footage that I had shot of him, and saw that maybe there was enough material to make a film out of it."

The film almost happened by accident. The death of my father was a turning point. 

Shargawi had this footage because he had featured his father in one of his previous documentaries, My Father from Haifa, which won two awards at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2009.

Many of his films, including his acclaimed 2008 debut, Go with Peace Jamil, have been about the battle people can have with themselves. ­Shargawi also made ½ ­Revolution, shot in Cairo, about the Arab Spring, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

His relationship with his father was complicated during his lifetime. The film touches on the notion that sometimes it's only after death that one can reconcile with the past. "When a person dies, you can't blame anyone, you can only reflect and look at yourself," Shargawi says.

One of the key moments of the film was when the director travelled to Haifa with his father. "It was a crucial moment with my father, a peaceful moment, which did not alter our differences, but was somehow calming for both of us."

A confused identity 

The new documentary details the months that went by where the father and son do not talk to each other. Those who recognise troubling relationships with parents, will find much to savour in Western Arabs.

The director believes his story and biography is shared by many other refugees and immigrants in Europe, confused by their own identity. This is why he gave the film such a general title, despite it being such a personal story.

It’s hard not to agree with him; being a second-generation Brit, with parents from Pakistan, I found much that I recognised in the feelings he presented. He has come to his own reconciliation of sorts with the national and cultural identity crisis that engulfed his youth. Nowadays, he doesn’t consider himself a Dane or an Arab: “I’m not totally peaceful, but I don’t care about nationalities anymore.”

The film is not just about his role as a son, but as a father as well. His mother and daughter, who also appear in the film, joined the director on stage before the premiere, and it was his daughter who made the most pertinent comment about her father, who is seen in the film having a violent confrontation with her grandfather.

She said: “It was hard to have a father with a lot of temper, but nonetheless, I feel happy and grateful towards him, because he gave me a double vision of the world, the Danish one and the Arab one.”