Trigger warning: story includes rape (offscreen) and forgiveness.
Incendies is a Quebec film, in French and Arabic with subtitles, that has only recently been released in Quebec after playing at TIFF and the Venice International Film Festival. It has already been selected as Canada’s entry for next year’s Foreign Language Oscar, so hopefully it will see some sort of wider release and more people will get a chance to see it.
I was really blown away by this movie. It features four main characters: Nawal Marwan, her twin children Jeanne and Simon, who are roughly 20 years old, and the notary Jean Lebel who was Nawal’s employer in Montreal and responsible for executing her will. Nawal is a very strong character who drives the film even though she dies at the beginning, and Jeanne is the next strongest character. The film is mostly about women’s lives.
The film starts with Lebel reading Nawal’s will, in which she states she will be buried face down and naked, without a coffin or headstone, and the twins will not be permitted to add a marker until after they have delivered two letters, one to the father they thought was dead, and the other to a brother they didn’t know existed.
Simon is upset by this will and refuses to comply, but Jeanne heads to Lebanon to trace her mother’s past, armed only with a couple of old photos and a name. The story alternates between Nawal’s life from about 1970 to about 1990, shortly before she left Lebanon for Canada, and Jeanne’s search for her father in the present day.
Nawal’s story begins in a small backward village, moves to a university newspaper, then is engulfed in horror as she looks for someone in a war zone. Finally she ends up in prison, where she sings loudly to keep her spirits up and becomes known as the Woman Who Sings.
When Jeanne finds out that Nawal had been raped and made pregnant in this prison, in a last minute attempt to break her spirit before she is released, she finds it too stressful, and she insists Simon comes to help her finish the quest. With the help of a Lebanese colleague of Lebel’s, Simon is able to find out the current name and whereabouts of their father, and also the history, current name, and whereabouts of their missing brother. They deliver the letters, the letters are read, and Nawal gets her headstone.
Nawal is an incredible person. She is unable to protect herself from the war and its atrocities, but she nevertheless holds on to her dignity, and from beginning to end is a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. Her ability to hold herself together in prison is remarkable, given the conditions.
This story may be problematic for some people in that in the letter, Nawal forgives her rapist. I don’t think the forgiveness condoned the rape in any way, but was a result of an earlier promise and a determination not to live in hate.
I myself found the whole idea of the will and the quest problematic. I don’t think this is something Nawal should have dumped on her kids. I think instead she should have just told them what she wanted them to know. But she had had a shock, and perhaps simply did not have enough time to deal with things better before she died. Or perhaps she is simply a flawed human being, who doesn’t get everything right.
The story passes the Bechdel/Wallace test a number of times: Jeanne and Nawal have one scene together in the present; Jeanne talks to women who knew Nawal; Nawal talks to women in her environment. But where this story is really strong is how it faces the horrors of war and how war affects ordinary citizens. There is a lot of violence, but none of it is gratuitous.
The film is based on a play by a man (Wajdi Mouawad) and is directed by a man (Denis Villeneuve, who also made a film about the December 6 Montreal Massacre, so he may be someone to watch), but it is clearly focussed on the lives of women in war, and is deeply moving.