I have only lived in Lebanon for a little more than two months and have spent the vast majority of that time in Beirut. Yet, when I saw Yara, whose eponymous protagonist has spent her whole life in the same isolated village in the mountains, I was struck by a feeling of familiarity. Abbas Fahdel, the writer and director, makes many explicit cultural and historical references in the film, but what touched me more deeply was something of a spiritual truth conveyed intuitively through its visual language, that gave voice to what I see (and this may be an outsider’s perspective, for like me the French-Iraqi Fahdel is a foreigner here) to be an emotional undercurrent in this country.
Yara tells the story of a pubescent girl, Yara, who lives alone with her grandmother and has very little contact with the outside world, beyond sporadic visits made to their house in the mountains by several individuals who keep an eye out for them. The narrative tracks her relationship with a boy, Elias, who passes the house by chance one day, and slowly a love story emerges. It is quickly brought to an end when Elias’ vague mentions of having to move abroad become a reality, and once again Yara is left alone.
Slow-paced films that tell stories through the eyes of almost-silent girls who are coming of age seem to be something of a phenomenon in contemporary cinema. In some of these films, such as the Chilean Dominga Sotomayor’s film De Jueves a Domingo (2012), which tells the story of a family camping holiday, the quietude is an invitation into the young female protagonist’s private worldview, while in other cases it is the result of an oppressive boredom, depicted at least in part with the aim to alert the viewer to the protagonist’s entrapment within the gendered roles of her society, such as in Tamar van den Dop’s 2014 film Supernova (Netherlands), which depicts a teenage girl who lives in the desert spending her summer holidays waiting for something to happen (what happens, near the very end of the film is, of course, a boy). Yara contains both of these aspects, showing Yara’s appreciation for the quiet beauty of her life, and at the same time the harsh reality of her reliance on the other sex for even the most basic necessities.
The opening shot of the film shows Yara’s grandmother, Mary, slowly descending the steps in front of their house in order to call a variety of animals to come to her. The extensive length of the shot and Mary’s repetition of a thickly accented “ta3!” (“come!”) to her unresponsive animals, set both the almost-static pace and subtly comic, affectionate tone of the film, and establish the grandmother as the point of departure of Yara’s story by introducing us to her first. From this moment on, little by little, we are introduced to Yara’s perspective. She observes things such as animal life -- their pet dog, a line of ants wandering along the railing -- or the light that dances on the wall when she holds open a pocket mirror at a certain angle, and fills her time with tasks such as hanging out her laundry and washing vegetables. It is these small activities that demand most of the film’s screen time, so that the plot unfolds like daylight breaking on a wall -- unremarkable until you look back and remember how things looked an hour before.
The viewer soon comes to realise that Yara’s only interactions with figures other than her grandmother, their animals, and the Virgin Mary (to whom she feels connected to via the many pictures that cover the walls of the house) are those with visitors to the house, over whose arrival she has no control. One man comes regularly with his horse to provide Yara and Mary with food, another comes just to check up on them, and sometimes a young boy, clearly enchanted by Yara and her long hair, comes to help her out with her various chores. Yara is curious but polite in all of these encounters, asking questions with genuine interest, but clearly holding back from her desire to hold an extended conversation with someone. However, when a young stranger on a hike, Elias, passes by asking for a drink of water, things begin to change. His chance appearance turns into a string of visits to see Yara, and a traditional courtship process ensues in which Elias takes an apple from Yara’s table, shouts her name into the mountains and sings to her. These scenes do not contain much more dialogue than any of the others, but it is clear from the quiet confidence with which Yara conducts herself that this time it is because not many words are needed to communicate. Fahdel depicts a rare beauty in the relationship between Yara and Elias far from the usual awkwardness and vulgarity of teenage relationships. Even the moment of Elias’ arrival when Yara holds the underwear she was about to hang up on the clothesline behind her back is too sensitively portrayed to make the audience cringe.
Nevertheless, Yara’s situation is not all romance and magic. The fact that she has no say in when she is going to receive a visitor is made more noteworthy by the fact that her only visitors are male. The only female she ever sees is her grandmother, who like her namesake, the Virgin Mary, watches over Yara but doesn’t give her any direct guidance. The dominance of males in Yara’s life means that she is always seen first as woman, then as individual (even with the young boy, who wants to brush her hair and kiss her cheek). The lack of a maternal figure in Yara’s life finally becomes explicit when she visits an abandoned house with Elias and cries over her parents, who died when she was small, and like everyone else in the region, have left her alone. While it is easy to see a domesticity between Yara and Elias as they wordlessly play make-believe that this is their home, he cannot replace what she has lost. This becomes all too obvious when later on, back at her house, she shows him photos of her family and his phone rings, calling him to another, noisier life (the motif of Elias’ phone ringing is repeated several times in the film to great effect).
Yara’s vulnerability and isolation culminates in one of the last scenes of the film, once Elias is (inevitably) gone for good, and Yara walks onto the terrace, wrapped in a towel, to brush her hair. This act mirrors when, at the beginning of the film, she hides her underwear from Elias, contrasting her modesty in the face of others relative to her freedom in her solitude. Unfortunately, this freedom is snatched away from her when the local man who has been checking up on her throughout the film appears and is horrified. He tells her that she mustn’t go outside like that at her age, or people will get the wrong impression of her. We have already heard him talking to Mary about the need to marry off Yara, and it is clear now that her fate is sealed. The message, of course, is nothing new, but Fahdel handles it with great care, making Yara a significant contributor to the body of existing silent protests that demand change for women. However, Yara is a successful film because it manages to convey this message, whilst also showing us the intelligence and compassion of its protagonist. We don’t see Yara as an oppressed shell without a personality, we see her as a complex being in love with life, regardless of the challenges she faces.
Yara means “small butterfly”, and like a butterfly, Yara proves herself to be fragile, but ultimately free, devoting herself to the natural world first and foremost. Hers is a Lebanon heavy with history, full of injustice, but with an endlessly rich heritage and a nourishing, caressing landscape. As I write these words, sitting on my balcony at sunset, the mountains in the distance reminding me of how small I am, I am comforted by the thought of Yara’s inner world, which like my own, will continue to unfold slowly, knowingly, and unstoppably, in the face of any and all adversity.