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Berlinale Bloggers 2019
Father and Son

Western Arabs by Omar Shargawi
Photo (Detail): © Omar Shargawi

In “Western Arabs”, Omar Shargawi tries to come to terms with the anger and bitterness of his father, a Palestinian immigrant in Denmark traumatized by war and exile, while documenting his family’s life in Denmark over the course of twelve years.

By Noha Abdelrassoul

Even before turning into the street to the Sony Center, I can hear whistles. Then I see a crowd of people wearing yellow vests marked with the letters “ver.di”, the name of the biggest trade union in Germany. “Moviegoers!” I hear, “We cinema workers demand wages that will guarantee us a life in dignity.” Then the lights of the Sony Center swallow up the agitated scene and the screening begins.

“I'm sorry about the chaos at the entrance and in the lobby. This film is about Arabs, so an opening without any chaos might even be inappropriate.” With this ironic remark, at which the audience laughs, Danish-Palestinian director Omar Shargawi introduces the premiere of his latest film, Western Arabs

Defend his Arabic name with his fists

In this documentary, Shargawi takes a critical look at his irascible, violent father, who has been living in Denmark for many years, but has never really got over the trauma of war and expulsion. He passed on the rage he felt during his youth in embattled, embittered Palestine to his sons, even though they grew up in very different conditions in Denmark. Shargawi takes not only his father to task, however, but also all the Danes who’ve been pointing their finger at him since his childhood on account of his different appearance and Arabic name. Even though he has a Danish mother and grew up in Denmark himself, he still sees himself as a foreigner there, as an immigrant: “Sometimes I’d use my fist to defend my Arabic name, because then my bloody nose earned me enough respect from everyone else.”

A different life without war

Shargawi shot his film over a dozen years, capturing important moments in the course of his family life. Even in the opening scenes, the tone used in exchanges between family members is gruff, immediately engendering an aggressive atmosphere. Western Arabs is about Omar Shargawi's search for the sources of the tension that has marked his family life ever since his childhood, a search that takes him back in time, and all the way down to the Middle East. He agrees with his father's assessment: “Without the war our lives would have gone the way they should have.” He accompanies his father to his hometown in Palestine, to the very site of the house he grew up in, which has since been destroyed. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, their conversations are sometimes humorous.

Suspense and lasting impact

Critics may fault the film for following several narrative trajectories without tying up all the loose ends at the end. What’s more, the use of excerpts from the director’s earlier works in his latest film may be an interesting idea, but its execution does not prove very convincing. Shargawi weaves scenes from 1/2 Revolution, for instance, his 2012 documentary about the Tahrir Square protests, into a conversation about the crisis in Palestine, which confuses the viewer.
And yet Western Arabs is definitely worth seeing. With its terrific soundtrack, interesting camera work and painstaking precision in capturing details of family life, it succeeds in building a suspense that never lets up, even