My Father is Still a Communist. Dir. Ahmad Ghossein, (Lebanon, 2011, 32’)
The transient circulations of bodies for labor constitutes a hidden history of the late-20th century world, with an accumulation of yet unspoken stories of abuse and struggle, exploitation and protest, inscribed in the letters that cross continents to speak of home.
In March 2012 in Bkfaya Lebanon, at a cardboard factory in a rough-scrub industrial area, 50 Nepalese and Indian workers engage in a strike over wages. Three men, identified as the leaders of the action, are arrested and deported by authorities upon the request of the factory owners. The remaining workers return to their jobs, surely realizing that being deported home, minus the fees and charges for work permits and travel, would be ruinous for their families.
In the late 1970s, a young mother in a village in southern Lebanon begins to record cassette-tape letters for her husband working in the Gulf. Over the years, while their lives are changed by the growth of their family, she records more and more audio letters. The cassettes are a compilation of monologues, some shorter and others longer, and the mother sometimes re-records over older parts of one tape which are no longer of interest because the time it has taken to complete the tape rendered the earlier information no longer current. During the years that these cassettes chronicle, years marked by long separations, she has more children, and lives through the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasion of 1982, and the subsequent occupation of the south. As she grows older, the contents and performance of the tapes change, but what remains are the painfully unfulfilled desires that separation from her beloved husband has imposed upon her life.
My Father is Still a Communist is a living chronicle of lives marked by the economies of migrant labor, and by the effects of war. But more than these, it is a work that documents the roles that women are often left to play in the face of men, sometimes beloved, who depart to work in other lands; women who remain with only the memories of love, and fading hopes for a future together. The audio of the letters, edited in shorter and longer excerpts in the film, provide an epistolary soundtrack to contemplative and sometimes heart-rending image sequences. At times, a long take of a nighttime landscape, perhaps of the remote area in which the mother lives. At other times, static shots of the mother in the present day, walking along a road toward the camera, or in bed asleep, or changing her clothes. Yet other sequences include photos of the fatherless family in bygone years, into which steps a middle-aged working-class man, who tries (often in vain but sometimes humorously) to find a place for himself within the action captured within the image. The present images of the stoic mother, set against the audio of her often impassioned voice from years in the past, evoke a gap of irreconcilability and loss. The father, who is only represented in the figure of the man who climbs into the family photos, is himself a ghost, a haunting specter that hangs over the film. We never learn his fate, but the continuing solitude of the mother indicates that his absence continues, due to death or other distancing factors.
A Filipina woman who works as a domestic worker in Beirut arrives in the country in 1991, just after the Ta’if accords. She walks through the airport and is shocked that people have urinated in the passageways. She works for years with a Lebanese family who treat her professionally. In 2005 she returns to Beirut after visiting her family, including her two young children, in the Philippines. Shortly afterward, the Philippine government bans its citizens from work in Lebanon, given the poor protections afforded them. She remains in Lebanon at her job, knowing that if she visits the Philippines she will not be able return to her only work, which is the primary sustenance for her family. Her children grow older, and she chats with them several times a week on the internet, not having seen them or touched them for years.
The audio letters of the mother provide copious details about the daily lives of the family and the society in which they live; the cost of basic goods, the rhythm of life in the sleepy village, what the local villagers did in the face of the arrival of Israeli troops in 1982, the difficulty of finding fresh meat or suitable school shoes during wartime. They report in a matter of fact manner on the birth of a new son, carried out in a neighboring village so expeditiously that the other children did not notice the absence of their mother. Despite the interest these details may hold, what is most affecting is the unvarnished desire that the mother’s voice communicates, the ache that tears at her as she suffers months of solitude from a man whom she undoubtedly loves. The pain of that distance is marked in the texture of her beautiful, intelligent, and unmasked voice.
Set against the backdrop of a love delayed, and of lives unable to find fulfillment, the title of the film refers to a fantasy that explained the father’s disappearance to his son -- now the filmmaker -- by imaginatively proclaiming the missing father to be a heroic fighter with the communist party. The south of Lebanon supplied many of the fighters with the communist party during the war (as Maroun Baghdadi’s documentary Kuluna lil Watan, 1979, so poignantly records). This alternative image, the coding the father in a more heroic mould than that which a life as a migrant laborer would accord, shines a light upon the distinct and often heroic sacrifices that the choice to travel for work would demand. But even more importantly, this mythos around the father occludes the day to day depravations and hardships that constitute the mother’s life, which accumulate to form a sort of unrecognized heroism on their own.
Knowing that these patterns of labor migration, which comprise the personal histories of thousands of families torn apart, have only increased in recent years, while watching the film one cannot but wonder, How many Skype calls or YouTube letters are transmitted today from Manilla to Doha, or Addis Ababa to Beirut, correspondences which are filled with the same lilting sounds of voices accented by loss, weighed down by lives suspended while awaiting the expected but always postponed return of a distant beloved?