The Dinner. Directed by Mais Darwazah. France/Palestine/UAE, 2012.
In Mais Darwazah’s film The Dinner (2012) a portrait of Amman is composed through the lives of its inhabitants: streets are bustling; stairways serve as meeting points; and doors lead to hidden worlds. As a life-long resident, Darwazah approaches her muse with a series of interviews that gradually unpack her own reservations about the small Levantine city. The filmmaker enters its environs with the subject of local cuisine, a topic that segues into associated concepts of memory, place, and community. Attempting to cook a specific dish for the first time, she surveys her hometown in order to find the exact ingredients and the proper instructions for its preparation.
The twenty-two minute short begins with shots of the filmmaker in her central Amman apartment as she tends to the minor tasks of home life while surrounded by an assortment of belongings, mostly mid-century furniture and embroidered linens. Views of the cityscape abound as daylight overcomes the space through accordion kitchen windows. In another scene, sunrays cut across a room over which a postcard of Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait (1926) presides. Throughout the film, Darwazah is careful to introduce settings that have absorbed the energy of busied residents as they come and go; each interview transitions to the next with sequences that situate her characters. The most dramatic scenes of Amman are taken at dusk or dawn; times that Darwazah tends to privilege, as the sky’s colors transform the tedium of its edifices, making the city feel renewed. Its rooftops are rendered particularly beautiful in an early morning reflection from her balcony window. Other shots functioning as cinematic pauses spotlight the Hashemite Kingdom’s brand of visual culture in which inscriptions and official portraits mass-produced for popular usage have laid claim to public space. The director skillfully taps into the concerns of post-war cinema as articulated by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni as she zeroes in on accents of the state that can be found in its urban fabric, including Jordanian interpretations of Brutalist architecture. The warmth of the city that is captured through the filmmaker’s camera is thus extracted from the handful of interactions she has with locals, such as the tailor who sweetly serenades her from the doorway of his shop as she passes by. Although she speaks to a number of residents, including her parents and friends, the film is primarily autobiographical as she recounts her experiences in a city that nonetheless remains foreign and distant.
“My city grew with every war,” Darwazah narrates as her camera travels down a quiet street cast in shadows. “Its people are refugees from everywhere. They closed their windows and sat inside houses built of stone.” The director’s mother, who is originally from Syria, is the first to articulate this sense of isolation. Having settled in Amman with her husband after a courtship that unfolded between Beirut and Damascus, their family home became a place of refuge, one separate from the topography of Jordan to which she has little attachment. In a way, Darwazah’s father shares similar views when describing an unshakable longing for his native Palestine; fastened by his memories of the West Bank, this connection has been passed down to their child. The conversations that unfold between the couple and their daughter are revealing, as they pinpoint the inherited feelings of dislocation that can surface in the experiences of second-generation immigrants, particularly those whose families have been forcibly displaced.
Contemplative detours between interviews provide the cinematic spaces that are needed for the film’s psychologically fraught back-story to be released in small doses. As she alternates between listing the components of a figurative meal and narrating a personal account of life in the Jordanian capital, Darwazah stitches together stories of survival against the city’s accepted banality. Behind what might appear mundane, however, are indications of discontent. The responses she receives from friends vary in sentiment. Those who have taken active roles in demarcating political space through recent protests express a socio-cultural investment in Amman; another observes its inability to reconsider its apathetic treatment of residents, citing a visible coldness that keeps its people from generating a sense of belonging. The short concludes with the director arriving home to the thick smoke of a burnt meal—the dish she had tended to throughout was somehow botched during the documentary’s span.
The Dinner was shown at the 2013 DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival (28 September – 5 October) as part of a selection of shorts titled Diasporic Landscapes. More of Jadaliyya’s coverage of the festival can be found here, here, and here.