Berlinale 2021 review: Miguel’s War (Eliane Raheb)

It’s always already been a tall order for biographers or documentarians to summarize a life: often they choose to recount the formative childhood moments that shaped their subjects’ adulthoods, while bearing the responsibility of trying to capture the overall spirit of their lives. It must be even more daunting for someone to attempt to honestly and personally filter the moments of their own life for a documentary that they’re directly involved in: “I didn’t expect this film to be like this,” Miguel Jelelaty tells director Eliane Raheb (who he randomly met while translating the debate after the projection of one of her films in Barcelona). “I thought I would be comfortable and cool, and just sit and talk. But no: I’m paralyzed and afraid; I just want to go back home and sleep.” At one point, Eliane asks Miguel if he’s afraid of his story becoming the property of others. “It’s not that I don’t want,” he admits, “I am terribly scared.” But for all the reasons why he would be understandably scared to share his story, Miguel overwhelmingly overcomes these doubts, openly and generously sharing his memories and insights in a way that beautifully looks beyond his own life, giving us a lot to connect to.

Aspects of Miguel’s childhood will feel reassuringly familiar to many gay people (or really anyone else who’s ever been ‘othered’): often described as ‘slow’ as a child (something that Miguel himself more or less agrees with), Miguel had always felt crushed by an inferiority complex, where he felt like a disappointment to his parents, and feels emasculated by perceptions of how he imagines his parents favoured his “smarter, wittier, stronger” brother Elie (but the resentment goes both ways: Miguel has always been ashamed of his mother’s Syrian accent and dialect). Even worse, he discovered his differences from the other people around him fairly quickly (one of his earliest memories is of going to the beach, and wanting to touch the bodies of the men that he sees), and these feelings are compounded by a lifelong struggle with feeling unloved, undeserving of love, and needing to be punished. In his adulthood, Miguel joined the Lebanese forces’ right-wing militia to try to prove that he’s “not a pussy.” There’s a long tradition of gay men feeling drawn to military service, whether attracted to the idea of a male-dominated environment, the chance to prolong or set back societal expectations to settle down and raise a traditional family, or indeed, to convince themselves and others of their masculinity. But finding that military life doesn’t turn out to be a good fit for him, and given a passport and 2000 American dollars by his mother, Miguel deserts the army to pursue a new life in Spain.

But life in Spain isn’t completely what he expected it to be. Certainly, he finds that he’s sexually liberated, and free to explore and feed the insatiable compulsion to “try new things” and test limits. “Life in Europe is very easy,” he reflects. “You can predict your life for the next ten years: it’s boring. I get uncomfortable from this boredom, so I look for excitement.” And though he’s experienced sexual encounters with over 2,000 men (which seems like an impossibly high number, until you consider that it roughly equates to an average of one tryst a week over the course of thirty-five years) with profile names on Grindr like ’23cm,’ these are encounters that haven’t led to any substantial relationships, and the times where he’s been introduced to more intellectually minded men, he’s found them to be ‘unbearable.’ He’s now at a point where he ponders the significance of the fact that “I’m in my fifties, and have never been loved,” and that for thirty years, he’s been looking in Spain for something to make him feel at home, and while there is a familiar Arab feel to the atmosphere, he still hasn’t found it. He’s beginning to realize that “Miguel is superficial because I am not comfortable. I don’t feel at ease anywhere. Everyone is running away from something; I don’t want to run away from Lebanon anymore.”

This last epiphany seems like the establishing context for the concept of this documentary’s framework, and Jelelaty’s voyages from Spain back to Lebanon and through the memories of his past (guided by a patient and supportive Raheb, often sharing his screen, and frequently keeping him accountable and the film cohesive and focused amidst the unspooling of the web of his musings), where he elaborates, “I want to accept my roots and explain to my roots what they’ve done to me.” And this journey is striking and exquisite, both thematically and visually. Raheb compensates for the lack of archival footage of Miguel’s own childhood in the construction of stunning sequences of animation, movie clips, and stills from vintage pornography. And while often staging superficially literal (they’re always wonderfully abstract) reenactments of scenes of Miguel’s childhood, Raheb eventually opts to also use storyboarding footage of actors auditioning on a largely empty soundstage to play members of his family or other significant people throughout his life, keeping the theoretical dialogue of where they try to understand and relate to Miguel’s stories.

One of the most probing elements of Raheb and Jelelaty’s exploration of Miguel’s life is a meditation on the curation and retrieval of memory. Descriptions of his memories of Beirut, Damascus and Barcelona are nostalgic Proustian madeleines that vividly evoke the scents of sumac and jasmine, orange trees, and delicious food and sweets. Furthermore, the exploration of Miguel’s life’s memories is used as a very human way to refract recent historical events through the perspective of one person that they affected, and cast doubt on our collective consensus readings of history (Raheb even argues at one point that not all Lebanese people agree on an account of the Lebanese Civil War). But Miguel’s War doesn’t treat one individual’s personal anecdotes as completely reliable, either: Miguel even admits to Eliane, “Everything is blurry, and I am mixing many things: sometimes I say things, and I’m convinced that they are true. Then, when you repeat them to me, I doubt myself. I’m scared that I might be lying to myself and things happened differently.” That’s fine, because Miguel’s War doesn’t seem to be trying to offer conclusive or preachy insights about any of these things: it seems to be more interested in how one person processes how he’s been affected, and it’s such an interesting life that it’s worthy of this kind of consideration.