Danielle Arbid sheds a youthful light on migration
Beirut - At a time when migration from war-battered Arab countries is fuelling prejudice in the West, Arab film-makers are addressing the topic from a perspective of adversity. However, Lebanese director Danielle Arbid’s latest feature Parisienne shifts the focus, instilling a youthful approach and a more positive narrative of the entire experience.
The story picks up from Arbid’s 2004 feature In the Battlefields, which told the story of a 12-year-old girl named Lina, who plots her escape from war-ridden Beirut in 1983. Parisienne follows Lina at 18 as she navigates her way around Paris as a student after arriving from Beirut at the end of the civil war in the early 1990s.
The film is semi-autobiographical. Arbid’s experience, in which she fled at the height of the conflict in 1987 to also study in Paris, loosely parallels Lina’s story.
“All my films are autobiographical in a way,” Arbid said. “(Parisienne) is based on the shock that I have experienced when I first arrived in France, how I saw it in the first year and how one sees it differently after you get used to it.”
Drawing from her time Paris as a young foreigner, Arbid opted to pursue a positive angle.
“I wanted to make a positive film,” she said. “Usually when you approach the subject [of immigration], you make a hostile film where the hero is nostalgic about his country and not understanding what is going on around him.”
“I’m interested in showing that youth is in a way about freedom, when you can have options to make life better or not, when the door is open to the future.”
Touching on the sense of hopefulness one carries in a new place was an important concern for Arbid.
“I felt that I was discovering a new world and I feel that the Syrians who go to the Western world today are discovering it as well,” she said. “Some don’t get along in the country but usually you go to a [new] country with new dreams, new eyes. You don’t go there telling yourself I was better off before.”
The Lebanese director stressed that by adopting a new country, one does not really betray his or her country of origin. “It’s not that at all. It’s just a new experience that makes you richer and when you go back to your home, you can see it in another way. You don’t replace a country with another, you just discover,” she said.
The allure of Arbid’s multifaceted protagonist is that she is rough around the edges, fearless, yet resourceful. She discovers Paris on her own terms.
Absorbed on a path of self-discovery, Lina befriends an unlikely array of characters, from a royalist classmate and her skinhead boyfriend with less-than-welcoming views towards immigrants to a pair of students running a communist newspaper.
This learning curve is a crucial part of the process, Arbid said. “Lina doesn’t know who they are because she doesn’t know the codes in the Western world,” she said. “That’s the thing I liked most in the beginning of my journey in France. I didn’t know who was left or who was right and what they look like.
“In the Arab world, we have a different political culture based on communities and groups. There is no right and left. We don’t have this kind of dynamic. It’s an exotic way to discover France, where you’re equal. It’s not like I’m inferior to the French.
“I don’t say that there is no racism in France. Of course there is and I show it in the film but there are lots of nice people also everywhere.”
Near the end of the film, Lina finds herself outside a courtroom waiting for her visa to be renewed. She has a poignant conversation with another female immigrant about how living in fear in your home country drives one to seek a home elsewhere. Although the audience is never made aware of where the woman came from, it is suggested that she is from the Middle East.
“You have to be very strong to live in a country where you face fear every time you go out or even at home,” Arbid said. “This is a statement I wanted to say for Lebanon and the whole Arab countries.
“I don’t call these countries, no. There are people trying to make things better but unfortunately things are very bad.”
Arbid’s three features — In the Battlefields, A Lost Man and Parisienne — depict her experience. “The first one was very angry, the second was about being lost and with this film I felt like I arrived somewhere,” she said.