• International Competition


Khaled Abdulwahed

Khaled Abdulwahed is a refugee living in Germany. His father is in Syria, doomed to remain there, but in one of history’s ironies, he’d been a student in East Germany as part of a university exchange programme almost 60 years earlier. Using photos from this period, the filmmaker undertakes the meticulous task of manipulating the images to reintroduce his father’s face, eager, at the time, for the promises the future held, into shots of a grandiose, opulent Germany. The film records each stage of this delicate undertaking, coupled with his search for the rare traces of his father’s past presence. The son retraces the father’s steps from Dresden to Merseburg, guided by his distant, crackling voice as the father leaks memories of a previous world, flowing into the thread of a telephone conversation punctuated by poignant silences and interruptions, from which the anxiety of a definitive separation emerges. The technician’s stubborn ambition is both simple and powerful, using the intimate to create a historical montage to invent a missing archive to fill the void. Clipping his father’s body using basic photo retouching software brings to mind the work of a couturier making an alteration that reintegrates him into the fabric of history, into the foreground. In Backyard (FID 2018), manipulating the photographic image warded off loss. Instead, here, it seems to ward off fate, to reverse the trend that’s seen borders close and students turned into asylum seekers whose whereabouts are sought to show that things were once different.

Claire Lasolle

The film features a conversation with your father. When did this film project take shape? Can you tell us about its genesis?

In 2019, I recorded a series of telephone conversations as an interview between my father in Aleppo and me in Leipzig. The subject was his life as an exchange student in the German Democratic Republic from 1957 to the early 60s. I started looking for places he mentioned, such as his language school in Leipzig, the opera house he attended, etc. Later, a family member in Syria found some lost black-and-white photos of my father as a young man from that era and sent them to me. That was when the idea for the film began to take shape.

The photographic image was already at the heart of Backyard (FID 2018, CI). In your opinion, what does it enable in the field of cinema? Why do you meticulously reveal the various stages in its manipulation?

The photographic image offers a subject to be explored. Information to be extracted from its surface. A history to be rewritten from the time the photograph was taken to the present. And a surface that functions as a space for imagination and representation.

Revealing the stages of manipulation works as a visualisation and visual narrative of the changes in the subject’s history over time. It also reflects my involvement in the manipulation of the images and my intentions behind the apparatus.

The film is built around voices when bodies are totally absent. Can you tell us about this absence? Why did you decide not to embody yourself although your personal history is the matter of the film?

Absence is a major character in the film. Epochs, countries, politics, landscapes, places, homes, individuals and relationships no longer exist in the space and time of the film. Only traces of the missing are scattered here and there, broken telephone lines, faint sounds of war, coughs, short laughs, snippets of memories, little stories, a few traces in the archives… I think bodies have nothing to offer in such a deserted space.

Also, embodying myself would make me the film’s subject, which would contradict what I am trying to convey as an experience from my position, point of view and location, as seeing, hearing, doing, thinking and imagining.

You use the conversational mode but with a systematic principle of alternating between your respective speeches, which contradicts the instantaneity and simultaneity of telephone communication. Can you explain this choice?

Since 2015, I had been trying to bring my father to Germany after I was granted asylum, but due to many factors, nothing worked out. He died shortly after I started recording the phone calls. More than two years passed between the recordings of the father’s voice and the son’s voice, and the alternation of their speeches in the film space was the fulfilment of a wish that could not be realised in reality.

Interview by Claire Lasolle

  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Germany / 2023 / 64’

Original version: Arabic, German
Subtitles: English, German, French
Script: Khaled Abdulwahed
Photography: Khaled Abdulwahed
Editing: Khaled Abdulwahed
Sound: Khaled Abdulwahed

Production: Alex Gerbaulet (pong film)
Contact: Alex Gerbaulet (pong film)

2023 | BACKGROUND | 64 minutes (first feature length film as director)
2020 | PURPLE SEA | 67 minutes | co-director
2018 | BACKYARD | 26 minutes
2013 | SLOT IN MEMORY | 3 minutes
2012 | TUJ | 2 minutes