12:00 – 13:30
/ 64′ + Q&A 

Khaled Abdulwahed will be present for the Q&A.

This film has descriptive subtitles. The introduction and Q&A will have BSL interpretation.

Presented in partnership with Open City Documentary Festival.

Content warning: contains discussion of war.

by Jonathan Ali

background begins at a worktable, with close-ups of hands carefully disassembling and cleaning an analogue photo camera. We hear the whizz of the winding mechanism, followed by the satisfying click of the shutter: it works. Cut to black: the faint sounds of static from a phone line. ‘Hello? Hello?’ a man’s voice says in tremulous Arabic. ‘I can hear you.’ 

The hands belong to the artist Khaled Abdulwahed. The voice is that of his father, Sadallah. Khaled is a refugee living in Leipzig, Germany. Sadallah is in Aleppo, Syria, which continues to bear the brunt of an overextended civil war. Times have changed since the war began, and the spirit of openness and generosity that once led to Khaled being invited to seek asylum no longer exists for Sadallah – not even to get a visitor’s visa to see his son. 

There’s a pointed irony here. Sixty years prior, Sadallah had been an engineering student in the German Democratic Republic, a young man eager to experience all that a post-WWII era of utopian change had to offer. In a series of telephone calls, made poignant and precarious by the now-elderly man’s faltering testimony and the occasional sound of a background explosion, Sadallah reminisces. Memory is selective, unreliable: he mixes up places and dates. (‘I know a documentary needs documents,’ he says apologetically.) 

Abdulwahed – part film noir gumshoe, part scrupulous craftsman – reassembles and embroiders upon his absent father’s old German life. He visits and photographs the snow-blanketed locations Sadallah once lived in, corroborating names and dates with unfailingly well-kept archives. He painstakingly manipulates black-and-white snapshots of a young Sadallah in his possession, digitally placing them into period photographs: elderly cough-ridden man becomes dashing young flâneur, a subaltern figure in the foreground of twentieth-century history. 

The grim reality of present-day geopolitics, however, and of daily life in Syria cannot be denied. More and more, Sadallah’s testimonies and Khaled’s gesture of (re)creation feel like desperately futile attempts to avoid an inevitable fate, one in which father and son’s separation is no longer just a temporary matter, and in which the process of making can no longer bridge a yawning distance. An artist at his worktable is all that’s left.

Khaled Abdulwahed
63′30 – Germany – 2023

Banner image: background, Khaled Abdulwahed, 2023