An Encounter to Define Lina Alabed Through her Film: “Ibrahim: a Fate to Define”
6 / 5 / 2020

Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Lina Alabed’s journey in search of her father Ibrahim, culminated in a gripping documentary film, “Ibrahim: a Fate to Define”, which recently picked up the Jury Prize at the Gabès Cinema Fen Film Festival. Alabed discloses what lies at the core of her journey, in this revealing interview.

Your film “Ibrahim: a Fate to Define” is a personal, intimate, investigative and multi-layered journey in an attempt to come to terms with your father’s disappearance, and achieve a sort of closure. Do you feel you achieved this closure? Has the film played its therapeutic role? Are you a changed person after “Ibrahim: a Fate to Define?”

Lina: When I started working on the film, I was driven by my obsession to understand what happened with my father. The film was therefore, at its inception, in an investigative form. With time (as the film took 7 years to complete), more specifically after two or three years, following my research, I understood that I will not be able to hold the truth in my hands. My father being a member of the Abu Nidal organization, one of the world’s most secretive organizations, and still operating currently despite its depleted influence and power, greatly complicated things.
As to your question pertaining to whether I am the same person after the film: certainly not. Indeed, everything that occurred in these 7 years was instrumental in making me grasp better my childhood, and my trauma. There was a moment when I came to understand that the it is not the result of the journey that really matters, but rather the journey itself. In the end, after these 7 years and the completion of my film, I was satisfied, as I could tell my own story, instead of having someone else tell it in my place. After all this time, I had the feeling that I was now burying Ibrahim. This was certainly not easy, it was in fact somewhat harsh, however it was not a sad occurrence, as I was not alone in this journey. Rami Nihawi was with me throughout the journey, as my main partner; there was also Muhanad Yaqubi, Rola Nasser… A large group of friends worked with me, including funding institutions which supported me in achieving my goal. Even strangers I met during my journey and told them my story, would show their support.

The title of your film gives an “open-ended” feel: “a fate to define”. We feel the truth is too far to be reached, and the film opens up more questions than solving the initial ones. Can you tell us more about this journey, and the message that you wish to convey to your audience?

Lina: I find the word “message” too loaded. A few years after the start of the filming process, when I came to realize that it is not about where Ibrahim was killed – because there were various possibilities to the story, and every time I dug further, unlimited possibilities sprung, and these possibilities are apparent with each and every character in the film every time I asked where Ibrahim was – I realized that I will not be able to grasp the truth. At this moment, my research transformed into a more personal search, an attempt to understand the trauma that I have been through, to understand the meaning of “home” and how I view myself: Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, with a Jordanian passport, having lived in Beirut for 10 years, which greatly shaped and affected my personality; and now currently in Italy.
The film is therefore an invitation to ask oneself the questions that have been through the test of time. This confrontation, as an individual, as a girl who lost her father, and even as a Palestinian, was essential to me as a closure on two fronts: on the personal level and on the historical level. Such a closure was vital for me to understand what comes next, and how to be geared for it.

During the film, you address your father directly. We feel his presence through your words. We feel as if you use the camera to install some kind of dialogue with him, to give him more space to exist

Lina: Exactly. In some cases I felt it, such as in the scene with Farid, Ibrahim’s friend from school in Palestine, who joined the (Abu Nidal) organization because of my father but fled afterwards; Farid who currently resides in Amman. As I was interviewing him, I was thinking that my father could have been in his place.
Let me however point out the fact that we are five children in my family; the three older ones remember him, while my younger brother Jihad and I – I was around five or six years old at the time, and Jihad was three – do not remember him, knowing as well that he used to travel very frequently. I have two memories of him in my head, related to incidents that occurred with him; I am not sure these actually happened, or whether it is my brain that created them. In the first years, as I grew up and started to be conscious of the absence of a fatherly figure at home, I started asking my friends: what does it mean for someone to have a father? I felt that it would be different from having a mother. Apart from being connected to him genetically, what is the feeling of having a father?
I grew up without the image of a hero, without any barriers, since I did not know him. This was very different for my brother Iyad and my sister Najwa. This “freedom” allowed me to see Ibrahim in every character of the film. I was able to see how Ibrahim’s absence affected me and how it impacted every character in the film.

Another thing we notice during the film is how you invite the viewer into your cocoon; through scenes in the kitchen, intimate moments with your mother and sister, and scenes of knitting.. As if, through the course of the film, you try to build, as a family, a common narrative around this big absence that has affected you all, and has impacted on your life choices. Could you tell us more about how the film and its process has affected your links and connections to your family?

Lina: We never talked, as a family, about his story. The milestones of the film and its process are directly related to how much I was capable of deconstructing myself psychologically. Thus, I believe part of why the film took so much time to complete, was not the search for funding per say, but more for me to digest things. I know this was my choice; it was not any of my family members’ choice.
My mother was worried at first, and slightly afraid, always telling me “you are crazy for doing this”; to which I would reply: “I am trying to build a connection with him”. She would answer back “what kind of connection? He is not present!” However, with time, she became very supportive, always encouraging me to finalize the film. I believe every character in the film, and in every stage of the film’s process, was affected.
This impact was comforting for me; however, I am not so sure it was comforting for the rest. For someone like Farid, or his father, whom I met during the search, and who refused to appear in the film, it was different. I was not only asking about Ibrahim, I was asking about the entire period back then, a dark period that no one really talks about, as Palestinians. This is reflected at the personal level. My sister Najwa, for example, resisted for three and a half years, telling me “I will not take part in this, this is the most foolish thing you are doing in your life!” It took me some time to understand that my father’s absence impacted on Najwa very differently, as she was 15 years old when he disappeared.
I think that one of my defense tools was my imagination. At first, and until I reached college, I would lie, saying my father is present, he travels and brings me back this and that… Afterwards I understood that imagination was a defense mechanism for a 6-year old girl.
What was the film’s impact? Its impact was certainly substantial, and it brought hideous things to the surface. As if there was a wound trying to heal, and you scratched it continuously. However, I believe that with time, the film was cathartic for us as we tried, as a family, to build a new story; to dig out why, during all those years, we did not speak about him.
I must say that my family did not take me seriously at first. They did not grasp the fact that, after all these years, I was intent on continuing my journey and completing my film; if anyone felt like joining, it would be great, and if not, I would continue, at all costs. While I was filming in Egypt, and my sister Najwa had recently moved there, she told me “you have 3 filming days”. In that scene, it is clear to the viewer, that it is the first time Najwa and I open up the subject of my father. It was the first time I ask her about the impact of his disappearance on her choices with regards to men.
This confrontation and implication that I dragged the family into in order to complete this journey, resulted in the annihilation of many layers. One may not feel these, as one would be living their life as survivors, and not victims. This is the second, and most important, learning: not to live one’s trauma or ordeal as a victim. One would then view life through very different lens.
Continuing along the conviction that it is the journey that matters, as I was trying to complete the film, I was initially aiming to fill in the gap that I lived through as a child. However, upon completing the filming, I came to understand that this void would never be filled. The difference lies in the manner with which we deal with this void. When you narrate your trauma, or the worst incident in your life, its proportions shrink, and it stops being this monster that devours your guts. Fear subsides.

You mention in several interviews a turning point that occurred during the filming, when you visited Palestine. Could you tell us more about this pivotal moment?

Lina: This pivotal moment was primordial. I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, where I encountered 38 members of my family. While in Damascus, none of my family was there with us. I do not know what having an aunt means. These 9 days that I spent in Palestine were instrumental in liberating me from the feeling of “refugee”. While in Palestine, I understood how Damascene I was, and figured out my connection to Damascus. I was born and raised in Damascus until I was in my thirties, and left because I felt suffocated. I left to Lebanon 6 months before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
This moment, upon my return from Palestine, was when we initiated the work on the film, Rami and I, as I was totally convinced of doing it. Before, I held this feeling of anger towards Ibrahim within me, revolting at his choice of liberating his country while leaving a wife and five children behind, in a country that is alien to them.
However, I then understood fully, through various minor details, that this was my land. Simply. It was this moment where I understood that I was ready to open this door for myself and my family, and we launched the preparations. During the filming process, Palestine was the last stop, and I held the hope, based on minor incidents that occurred, to find answers there; tangible information about Ibrahim, in other words where he died, why he was killed, who killed him… Upon completing the filming in Palestine, I finally understood that it is impossible to fill the void. What mattered was how to deal with the story.
In the last part of the film, I ask each of my brothers and sisters what “home” means to them. When I ask myself this question, I realize that it was hurdle for me: where is “home”? I was born and I lived for 30 years in Damascus, yet everything points to the fact that I am not Syrian. Today, I realize that “home” is where those whom I love, live. After all, I can be at a certain, very specific place and moment in Copenhagen, and feel that I am somewhere I would like to call “home”. I could have the exact same feeling in a neighborhood in Tunis. It is not something tangible that you can point to with your finger. This is probably due to the fact that my life has been very complex, and my notion of identity even more complex, which brought me here.

Speaking of Copenhagen; “Ibrahim: a Fate to Define” premiered at CPH:DOX in 2019. It also played in IDFA, TIFF and El Gouna, where it picked up awards. What were the echoes to the film? How was the audience’s engagement? Did you feel their journey in watching the film differed from yours?

Lina: In Toronto, following the screening of the film, many attendees stayed to say hello and thank me; these hailed from very different parts of the world: Africans, Asians… What greatly pleased me, was the feeling that people, most of the times, shared this story with me. Indeed, many came over to confess to me that their father, although not disappeared, nor active politically, and even not Arab, was absent; regardless of ethnicity or nationality. It was a more human trait.
In the film’s screening at the Palestinian Toronto Film Festival, many Arabs from the older generation, among which some were Palestinians, could not easily accept the idea of me talking about Palestine, and the way I handled the cause. I, as a person, am of course for resistance, since our land is occupied. However, I believe one should go back, prior to judging another person on his/her behavior or faults, and reflect on their own defects.
When the film is screened in an Arab country, the audience reacts differently, whether to details, or the character of my sister, or the sarcasm of my mother…
However overall the echoes and reactions were highly positive.

Most recently, the film won the Jury Prize at the Gabès Cinema Fen festival in Tunisia. Receiving recognition in the current troubled times, what was your first thought or reaction?

Lina: The first award in confinement!
Honestly, I knew they had switched to an online edition, and I was very appreciative of this effort. I was supposed to participate in 7 screenings in the month of April; Rami was going to head to two of them, and I had five to attend. However, in the end, you realize that the issue is not personal; the entire globe is in lockdown. It is bigger than one individual.
Consequently, you do not experience despair. All screenings were canceled except Gabès; next month, the Munich film festival will also hold an online edition.
At first, I was very happy; in the sense that one could still celebrate cinema and life, at a moment in our lives where we feel – or I feel – that we are living a film. We thus have to be very careful and self-conscious, in order to avoid having this feeling.
I was happy because there were other high-level films, and since the competition was held between fiction and documentary films, I did not think the award would go to a documentary film. I had no expectations, in order to avoid disappointments. And then it just happened!

In light of the situation we are living in, and referring to your feeling of living in a film, is the current lockdown spurring any ideas or inspirations? How are you, as a filmmaker, handling the current situation?

Lina: Ideas are indeed coming my way; however, I am not taking any serious action, specifically because we are still confined in this situation, and I need to digest it. I believe many changes will occur moving forward. Not just social distancing – will I ever go back to theater? Or screen my film in a cinema?
This is why I am slowing down any ideas that emerge, trying to digest and dissect what I am feeling right now.