On the Damascus Road in Lebanon’s beautiful Bekaa Valley, an aging man with late-stage Parkinson’s takes one last journey.
My initial concept for 23 Kilometres was an experimental essay film about my father and his illness Parkinson’s disease. A journey film, driving with my father to Zahlé, the nearest town, and along the way stop to visit all his machines, our favourite childhood locations like the cinema and bumper cars, paralleling the journey to his illness and the state of Lebanon. But by the time the film was finished it took several different shapes, and it gradually took a unique life of its own. Throughout the five years in the making, the film evolved into something that broke new ground in cinema. And by that I’m not referring to the mixing of genres (essay film, documentary, silent drama), rather I’m specifically referring to the way the story unfolds through a device I termed Silent Dialogue.
Barkev, the main character of the film could not speak. Parkinson’s disease took away his ability to converse. My challenge was to craft a feature film with no dialogue, no interviews and no narration that could still carry a story and engage audiences, taking them inside the life and mind of my character to experience what it feels like to suffer from Parkinson’s disease. At first it seemed like an impossible task. Parkinson’s patients are slow, non- responsive, lack facial expressions and go in and out of hallucinations. It is extraordinarily difficult to get the audience to connect to a face that is blank and voice that is silent. I had to figure out a way to give Barkev a voice, a voice via his inner thoughts.
In traditional cinema, the inner thoughts of actors are heard off screen via voice over as if the character is talking to himself and we are privy to it. But to be true to his character, Barkev’s inner thoughts have to remain silent. Therefore I put his thoughts on screen in an innovative text format. As far as I know, this has not been done before and so I found myself looking for terms to describe this new “Silent Dialogue” to the myriad of post crew including sound designers, colourist, and visual effects artists who collaborated with me on the film. It was confusing. I had to clarify that this Silent Dialogue was in fact an important part of the film: it was in fact dialogue but just unvoiced. Therefore, it had to be included in the foreign-language versions of the film that normally stipulate no on-screen text. It is inherent part of the film and it is the one true “voice” of the character. It is part of the image of the film and therefore it can be translated, but never referred to or seen as a subtitle itself. And so the name stuck as Silent Dialogue.
Children believe their parents will live forever. It’s difficult for a child to imagine that their father or mother will eventually cease to exist. But sadly one day we do wake up and notice our parents are old and frail. The shock is painful because it not only suggests we will soon face the loss of a person we love, but that we no longer are young ourselves, bringing into stark realization our own very real mortality.
I was hit with this painful reality a few years ago. In 2009 I gave birth to a baby girl. I named her Lara after my father’s love for the movie Doctor Zhivago by David Lean. The first meeting between my father and baby Lara had a profound impact on me. I saw that my father; the man I love and admire, was not only old, but his illness, Parkinson’s disease, had advanced exponentially in the past years. I watched him cry holding in his trembling arms my infant baby Lara and I realized how short time was.Parkinson’s patients are not able to ‘make’ facial expressions; their faces become blank, devoid of any expressions that paint joy or sadness, smiles or fears. It was painful and difficult to see him try to speak, to express an emotion, to try to help us get what we needed for the shoot. He was super patient and he knew the value of what was being recorded. He hated his situation and wanted people to know how horrible it was to have Parkinson’s. He hoped that one day a cure would be found for this disease.
My vision for the film was to create a beautiful, touching and non-traditional film, where my father’s daily life – both physical and mental – revealed itself to the audience; to see, to live to feel and to get inside his head. To find out what it really feels like to suffer from Parkinson’s. I wanted to voice back to my father’s silence: to let him speak the words he’s longing to say, words of fear and words of joy… Through the use of images I wanted to give movement back to his trembling limbs: to help him break through the blockades that confine him and drive down the road of freedom. Although this film is an homage to my father, I hope that when the credits roll, the audience would take a moment to think of their fathers, cherish a childhood memory with them, and even “pre-live” a moment from their own futures as parents at the end of life’s journey.
The premiere of 23 Kilometres and a Parkinson’s Awareness Discussion takes place on December 15 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.