Kawthar Younis’s A Present from the Past (2015) is captivating. So much so, in fact, that I went to see it twice last week at Zawya. This review shouldn’t be read as anything but an attempt to offer Younis the thoughtful engagement she deserves by putting forward such a wonderful documentary.
The film starts with a short introduction to its main character, the filmmaker’s father, cinema professor Mokhtar Younis, who is extremely likeable and carries the entire film. It opens with a shaky camera filming from inside the car, while Mokhtar closes the gate to what seems to be their house in Cairo. Throughout the drive with his daughter, Mokhtar sings old songs and pretends to shoot at people disregarding traffic laws. We quickly get acquainted with him, and their friendly father-daughter relationship.
The story starts when the 19-year-old director gives her father a 75th birthday present: two tickets to Rome so that the two of them can go find his first wife, Patrizia, whom he left 33 years before. Her father had always wanted to give her back her ring which he kept, and give her and himself closure to their time together – but like many things in life, he never got around to it. The documentary then follows their journey, from the struggle to get their European visas and the father’s cold feet about the trip, to arriving in Rome and trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Younis’s film was her third-year project at the High Cinema Institute, where her father also teaches. Her father apparently had no idea she was seriously making a film about their journey. She created the film mostly using hidden cameras: her iPhone, laptop camera and camera glasses. She also uses a regular handy-cam sometimes, but her father simply thinks she’s filming home videos when she does. This results in a poorly captured outcome in terms of picture quality, but it’s easily forgivable because the content overrides the form.
Younis told the audience at Zawya that her father only found out about the film two days before she was due to show it to a jury at the Cinema Institute. He initially refused, saying that he didn’t want his private life on public display, but eventually came round. Younis said she chose not to tell her father about the film because she wanted to capture him as a father. Mokhtar taught Kawthar at the institute, and she saw his more official and serious side as a professor. She didn’t want him to perform for the camera. She wanted to show him as he is.
I found this uncomfortable. Obviously Mokhtar, as well as Kawthar’s mother (who also makes an appearance to give her blessing for the journey) gave permission to make the film public, so it’s not an ethical issue that bothered me, but rather Kawthar’s lack of reflection within the film on the position she has put herself in.
Essentially, she is the only person aware that a film is being made. This means that throughout the film we cannot grasp whether she is taking her father to Rome to help him get closure with his old lover, to connect with him as a daughter, or to make her film. Likely the answer is all of the above, but not addressing or questioning these reasons create a sense of discomfort.
When Kawthar cries because finding Patritzia proves more tricky than she anticipated, it’s unclear whether these are selfless or selfish tears. When her father has second thoughts and tries to create excuses to get out of taking the trip, her pushing him to go ahead with it, we question the motives for her pressure.
The film’s main achievement is in its spontaneous and sincere portrayal of Mokhtar, and had he been aware of being filmed, it would have been a different, far dryer endeavour. But it would have achieved another layer of depth if Kawthar had somehow – perhaps through asides directed to the camera, or a voice-over – acknowledged and interrogated her position as an instigator of the story.
At one point Mokhtar and Kawthar have a fight because he is upset that she is controlling everything about the trip. It’s a typical father-daughter fight in which he wants to regain control from an independent-minded daughter and she feels under-appreciated. Kawthar storms out of the hotel. The camera is still on, and we get hazy, shaky footage of the streets as she angrily walks, but then it cuts to Mokhtar sleeping before they get up in the morning and continue having a positive relationship. This could have been a perfect moment to get a sense of how Kawthar sees her position, but by glossing over the incident without reflection, an otherwise superb documentary really falls short.
Aside from this, the film is charming. Editors Ramy Nedal, Mohamed Emad and Omar Aboelela organized the hundreds of hours of Younis’s “stolen” footage into a clear, well-paced narrative around the engrossing quest.
Young filmmakers seem to be increasingly turning the camera on their own families with much success. Dina Hamza’s The Past Will Return (2015) and Nameer Abdel-Maseeh’s 2012 film The Virgin, The Copts and Me come to mind. While both offered several layers of richness, especially the latter, Younis’s film stands out for its sheer simplicity as a raw, easily relatable piece of reality.
A Present from the Past proves that Younis is a talented filmmaker. She is currently crowd-funding her next short film through a collaboration with up-cycled bag makers Up-Fuse, which can be bought at Zawya. This upcoming film is about the last hours she spent with a friend who’s about to emigrate. It is to be fictional, but Younis hopes her friend will play herself and to film in that same apartment her friend lived in, blurring borders between reality and fiction.
A Present from the Past shows until December 20 at 5 pm and 10 pm at Zawya, behind Odeon Cinema, downtown Cairo.