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.


    • Anemone says

      Yes, but forgiveness in general is a hot topic in some circles. It gets used a lot as a way of avoiding dealing with injuries to other people, as in “you should forgive so I don’t have to deal with it”. I ran into trouble on a forum for people who were fans of Alice Miller when I tried to refer someone to research on how it works in real life, because it was a taboo topic there, and they forgot to warn people.

      • says

        I’m glad you said this, Anemone, because for me, the concept of forgiveness tends to trigger some serious anger for me. Sometimes a story can overcome it, if it’s good enough, but generally, I’m like, “I want a refund. Stupid character forgave somebody.” It sounds funny, but I come from a religious background where people seem to think forgiveness actually remedies a problem. Been terrorized by someone who supposedly loved you? Forgive him and all your trauma will disappear! If it doesn’t, you must not have forgiven him well enough!

        And, you know, even in psychology, coming to some kind of peace with the past that can’t be fixed IS important. I get that, and I practice it. But forgiveness is toward the person who hurt you, not just within your own mind, and it’s often taken to mean it’s all okay now, and that’s just not true. Especially when people who hurt you aren’t even sorry, and actually think you should be grateful for how they treated you.

        See the anger I’m talking about? I can’t even describe what it triggers in me without going there. So, the trigger warning made sense to me, either way. :)

        • Gategrrl says

          I’ll keep this brief:

          I had a friend whom I met up with while traveling. She was with her fiance, I was the 3rd wheel. She ended up being really shitty to me almost the entire time I was traveling with them. At the end of it, I washed my hands of her and them. After I got home, she *wouldn’t leave me alone*-she’d call me, send me notes saying how sorry she was, etc etc.

          When I finally sent her a letter back saying, Okay, I forgive you. If you want to remain friends, let’s go slowly about this.

          I didn’t hear from her again. If I’d known all she wanted was to hear the *words* “I forgive you” in order to get her to leave me alone, I would have done it a lot sooner. But at the same time, I was almost ready to see if I could trust her again. Oops, I guess not!

          The point is, people use “forgiveness” the way they fucking want to, for their own purposes, and it usually has NOTHING to do with the person they injured in some way. It has *everything* to do with THEM, and not you.

          At this point, I try hard to forgive myself for getting to that point with that person. That is the hard part.

          • says

            Goes to the jerks who think ‘gosh, she’s angry about this, obviously she needs therapy to forgive and move past’. Sorry, but we have the right to by angry.

            And they make it obvious that ‘move past’ means ‘return to status quo rather than alter the circumstances that made you angry in the first place’.

  1. Cassandra says

    It sounds interesting, and perhaps it’s the nature of the write-up I don’t know exactly the events of the movie, but the fact that she only finds out where the father and brother are with her other brother’s help is odd to me. Like the main character seems to be bumbling around until she reaches out to her brother, who is able to locate the people they actually need to locate. Essentially, “saving the day” as delivering the letters is the climax of the film. But that is a question of what is more important, researching the mother’s past and coming to know her, or cutting to the chase and just giving out the letters. As I said, perhaps you have to see it to see how it’s handled.

    • Anemone says

      The terms of the will specifically said that both twins were supposed to find and deliver letters to these people. The brother refused to participate until his sister got too upset to cope. As far as him doing the leg work, though, he just did as he was told. Their notary found a colleague in Lebanon who arranged for the brother to meet with someone who had all the info. Neither twin would have found that info on their own, and the sister did pretty well considering all she had was an old photo to go on. So no, she wasn’t bumbling around.

      I don’t know what the mother had in mind in terms of the twins learning her history. Personally I’d have preferred it if she had just told them. But then it wouldn’t be the same story.

  2. Sara says

    For those interested and in the area, the play is currently being staged in Washington DC. I haven’t seen the production, but it’s been getting very good reviews.

  3. says

    Hmm, I thought I left a welcome comment on this post, but I clearly did not. Welcome, Anemone, long-time commenter who’s going to be writing some articles for us! She’ll be focusing on movie reviews, which have been neglected around here lately.

    • Anemone says

      Thanks, Jenn. And after all three of my write-ups get posted, I’m leaving the internet for a while. So if anyone else wants to write up new movie releases . . .

  4. Xalaila says

    I know this thread has been dead for a while, but I just had to comment. I saw the play before I watched the movie, and I found the movie left out some bits of the play that make everything clear.

    The whole forgiveness and Nawal sending his children on a quest thing. Nawal found his rapist’s identity about a year before she died and the shock was so great she stopped talking altogether. Plus, she had a strained relationship with the twins, so no, she couldn’t have just told them her story. Besides, the play makes the point, quite explicitly, that to really understand their personal stories, the children had to travel back in time and relate to what their mother had gone through. So they kind of did have to go on this quest, to find out exactly where they came from, and this helped them understand and relate to their mother in a way that her just telling them wouldn’t have done.

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