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Lama el Charif’s films of fiction and reality

“An eclectic list of films exploring topics as diverse as social structures, the ongoing search for love, familial relations, estrangement from modern society and our complex understanding – and rejection – of self”
words – lama el charif

During 2020, we reached out to our global community to curate a series of media recommendations to support and entertain those struggling with the experience of isolation and lockdown. Hugely popular, these features highlighted a wealth of film, music and book recommendations from all around the world – something we’re happy to continue highlighting for all to enjoy, and our members to hold onto as savable features to be revisited and passed on.

Stretching across the spectrum between fiction and reality, Lama el Charif’s Add to Queue curates an eclectic list of films exploring topics as diverse as social structures, the ongoing search for love, familial relations, estrangement from modern society and our complex understanding – and rejection – of self. Featuring selections from the father of cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel, alongside modern day masters such as Michael Haneke, el Charif’s curation demands attention across a range of captivating genres and themes.

01_The Holy Mountain. 1973. Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The Holy Mountain presents a condensed critique on social and economic structures in the world and the way they govern how we live in our societies. Jodorowsky presents eight caricatural portraits of the world represented as planets, and their respective leaders – each a personification of the planet they govern. By way of a spiritual quest and a satirical exaggeration, he examines the different aspects of humanity from its most primitive form to its more complex arrangements and/ or contemporary functions. Through an alchemist, Jodorowsky orchestrates a meeting between all these governors in a spatial frame that exceeds them all, and he proposes the ultimate dominance: eternity. The alchemist explains to the leaders of the planets that immortality is possible, but only through the loss of each individual’s existence, and the dedication to a collective entity consisting of one singular being. This, of course, leads to the abandonment of the search for supremacy, of the inflation of the ego and of each personal fortune – all in the hope of securing immortality, which is a lot more valuable.

Puppeteer, writer, musician and composer, sculptor, philosopher, poet, creator of tarot readings and cards – The Holy Mountain sees Jodorowsky combine all his powers to take us on a visually rich, philosophical journey.

02_Synecdoche, New York. 2008. Charlie Kaufmann

At the beginning of the film, Caden Cotard, a playwright and director, is presenting a finished play and will start another after receiving an honorable grant. Simultaneously, his relationship with his depressive wife is hitting a rod. Cotard’s interactions with the other characters and his design of the interactions between them become nothing but an introspection, to the extent that even when a timeframe is hinted at, it situates nothing in the narrative – serving only as an accessory to help get lost in his memories and projections. Time and space cease to be dimensions, and become elements in the portrait of his perception of the world and the way he lives within this. 

In a desperate search for “clarity and/ or purpose,” Kauffman presents this character – who most probably embodies him – and employs other characters as the conflicting voices in his head. Challenging the imposing banality of life with his passion for playwriting and his search for love, Cotard drowns in the search for the absent. His purpose becomes the purpose to search, the purpose to find: what is lost, what was never his, what could have been, what has been. 

The film is both linear and far from being linear. Tackling fears, passion and other complex emotions, the story is a mishmash of propositions, and its narration is a mimic of the consciousness and how it functions. As Cotard writes his play, the purpose of which is to attach meaning to his existence, he disappears into it. The play replaces him in his own perception. He communicates to his past through his own narration and succumbs to the many reformulations of his memories; all actions that Kaufmann mimics from the functioning of the human brain. He plays with how it registers and alters memories, how it understands the dimension of space and the dimension of time.

In his films, Kaufmann provides complete immersion in the main character’s reality as he lives it, not as his tale is or could be told. As Cotard writes a play about his life, Kaufmann writes this movie about his, employing absurdist metaphors to convey silent auto-critiques.

Extended viewing: Adaptation, 2002, by the same director.

03_Little Otik. 2000. Jan Švankmajer.

This film principally tackles the desperate need for some people to have children, the pressure that this need creates, and the unlimited empathy and the flexibility in moral judgment of children. Švankmajer attacks these very grounded themes through a surrealist character: a baby tree trunk. 

A couple eager to have children face difficulties getting pregnant. To buy some time and add an element of humour to the situation, the husband chooses a tree trunk from his garden and offers it to his wife to “raise.” The wife, becoming all the more obsessive, is convinced to live out her motherhood through this tree trunk. As their impotence becomes a certainty, it takes a much bigger role in their lives than just the hallucinations of the mother. While the father resists the temptation of living out this fantasy with the mother, it takes over their reality. As its violence increases, it tests the maternal instinct [or obsession] of the mother and the empathy the father has for his wife – later oninvolving the forming of a friendship with a little girl. A fantasy that starts taking up too much space in reality, or even literally usurping it, becomes extremely dangerous.

Extended viewing: Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996, by the same director.

04_Amour. 2012. Michael Haneke.

Amour is violent and difficult to distance oneself from. The majority of its violence is fulfilled by the influence it has on the viewer, and in between scenes, not in explicit visuals within the scenes – as with most Haneke films. In Amour in particular, however, no violence comes from an exaggerated reality; on the contrary, it is one of the most honest and realistic representations of the emotional challenges that physical change and paralysis present.

A retired couple who have spent many years in a loving relationship live through the deterioration of the conscience of the wife following a stroke. Each of the film’s few characters represents a reaction to this situation. The woman, herself, suffers from a complete refusal to accept losing her mental and physical abilities; feels shame in her body; and despair against the impossibility to protest this. The husband, repressing any protest of his own, immediately accepts the events. Not only does he have to take care of her mentally and physically, but also witness the deterioration of her condition. Secondary characters such as the daughter, who shares aggressive comments to counter the guilt her absenteeism provokes, and an old student shocked by the frailty of his once so impressive teacher, illustrate other reactions that surround the patient. In this film, Haneke researches the different implications and manifestations of empathy, especially in times of crisis.

Extended viewing: Funny Games, 1997, by the same director.

05_The Turin Horse. 2011. Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky.

This film starts with the narration of a horse being beaten by his owner: the story is told to be behind the mental breakdown of Nietzsche after which he became mute and never wrote again. The later ideas of the film are not too far from his philosophies on the agency of one’s life, either – more precisely, the idea that we only live out affirmations of the choices we have made, and that we have an active role in creating and preserving the cycle when feeling stuck within it.

In an unidentified, deserted area in Hungary, a man lives with his daughter and his horse. The three are grounded by a structured routine that allows the man to carry out commerce in the nearby village to bring in food, the horse to transport him on his journey, and the daughter to cook and feed them. Exhausted, the man’s horse decides to reach the end of his days. Consequently, he refuses to eat, categorically disrupting the routine. The family is then forced to accept the inevitable fatality of the situation: they will die when the food they have runs out. 

The father and daughter demonstrate different reactions to this ordeal. The daughter, gentle and submissive to what lies ahead, carries on with all the other habits of the day, incorporating one other activity – caring for the horse and trying to encourage him to eat again. The man, however, becomes cruel in light of the interference of the convenient cycle. In 2 hours and 20 minutes, Tarr invites us and enables us to inhabit the reality of the farmer and his daughter.

06_The Port of Memory. 2009. Kamal Aljaafari.

In an opposing act to the disappearance of Palestinian neighborhoods in occupied Palestine, which can seem quite silent to most areas in the world, Aljaafari records the everyday of a family facing eviction from their home. 

In a micro-portrait of the city, the film is anchored in the mundane daily events in the lives of the three characters living together – a married couple and the mother of the wife. It exposes the reality of these characters, and their struggles; from a passive acknowledgement of their powerlessness against the changing identity of their city, to the aggravating moments where protest is possible. This act of recording not only the Palestinian identity of the neighbourhood, but also the reality of these people, becomes itself the most evident protest – and sometimes the only possible one.


07_The Color of Paradise. 1999. Majid Majidi.

This film is anchored in the personal lives and realities of two children. It follows, so empathetically and patiently, a crisis that a brother and sister face: the loss of the sister’s shoes. Via both the search for means to obtain other shoes, and the management of their days sharing the shoes of the brother, Majidi dives into the depth and intensity of human emotions such as guilt, love, empathy, compassion and solidarity. Although we often find the concerns of children banal in comparison to the emotions of adults, in his films, Majidi sensitively examines them as a miniature of reality. 

Extended viewing: Children of Heaven, 1996, by the same director.


08_Dodes’ka-den. 1970. Akira Kurosawa.

In a film inspired by Shūgorō Yamamoto’s 1962 novel ‘A City Without Seasons’, an impoverished small society living in a landfill witnesses characters engaging in social taboos such as baring children out of wedlock, exchanging wives, incest and suicide, and/ or hostile activities such as domestic violence, exploitation and avarice. 

An adolescent with learning disabilities travels from house to house while yelling out “Dodeska’den” – the sound that a train makes. The character is stuck in this movement, as if desperately trying to travel away from his reality. His role does not develop the narrative of the storyline, but it personifies the absurdity that the only travel possible for a society confined in its misfortune is in circles within it. Fantasy transports many of the characters – some through alcohol addiction, others through religion and others simply through imagination, or even delusion. 

Kurosawa’s first full colour film, throughout Dodes’ka-den colour is thoughtfully applied and very symbolic. Revolving around different social themes at play within each house, the film presents like a chart or study on the society. 

Extended viewing: Ran, 1985, by the same director.


09_The Exterminating Angel. 1966. Luis Buñuel.

Being Lebanese, I strongly connected with the idea of being stuck in an impossible loop of entanglements fabricated by an illusion – and the entanglements themselves. Buñuel’s films are, more frequently than not, satires about the social class of the bourgeoisie. Filmed in his Mexican years, The Exterminating Angel is about a group of wealthy people enjoying an extravagant dinner party, who find themselves unable to leave it for no reason whatsoever. 

This surrealist film explores the escalation of the situation; critiquing the hypocrisy, personality traits and absurd reactions in the face of crisis via many ironic analogies and conversations. Buñuel envisions the day the upper class loses its cool and all social etiquette it imposes on its actions – the day crisis will challenge its manners and its superficially courteous relationships.


10_The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. 1989. Peter Greenaway. 

Aesthetic composition plays as much of a role as the characters in this Greenaway film. Almost theatrical, its visual language situates the story in introspection rather than the exhibition of a narrated fiction. The scenes take place in very few rooms. Each room imposes an atmosphere on the dialogue and the power dynamics of the characters, since each room is not only dominated by a different colour but also imposes that same colour on the wardrobes of whoever walks into it – wardrobes created by Jean Paul Gaultier, that is. 

As the title suggests, the film unravels relationships between different people of different social classes, dining or working in the same restaurant. All characters are exaggerated symbolic social profiles, and the most caricatured of them all is the thief – the owner of the restaurant. 

Through gluttony and an abundance of gastronomical references, Greenaway makes many social critiques on the greed and lack of introspection of the upper/ ruling class. This fictional narrative, that seems to employ real characters, becomes a fable – telling only metaphors and analogies.

Extended viewing: A Zed & Two Noughts, 1985, by the same director.


11_Dogtooth. 2009. Yorgos Lanthimos.

Inhabited by the fears of our parents – heights, strangers, etc. – we often have instinctive and illogical reactions to many subjects or situations that have never presented a direct threat to our lives. In this film, Lanthimos presents an overprotective father who takes the nurturing of these reactions to an extreme. 

Creating myths about the outside world, the father designs a sheltered reality confined within the parameters of a home, where his children will exclusively live. When necessary, he orchestrates interactions with selected beings or sounds from the outside world, or creates fictional events or characters which reinforce his reality. The children, now in the prime of their adolescence, grow up in this constructed reality and are led to believe that they are incapable of facing situations unfiltered by the father – until the loss of their ”dogtooth,” when they start to build up their curiosity and the need for experimentation. The more this tyranny slips through the fingers of the father, the more punishment and aggression plays a bigger role in the way he asserts the reality he desperately tries to protect.

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