I have been watching films from the Amsterdam Documentary Festival online, it is a heavy and varied diet; they are all very different, with so many languages and so many subtitles, some of the latter illegible on the small screen.
The best film so far was Iranian, with a voiceover so clear that I actually understood some of it, as well as little snatches of French. It was called Radiograph of a Family, directed by Firouzeh Khosrovani, and it is the story of her parents’ marriage, told with family photos and extracts from films, some documentary, some home movies. Her father was a radiographer who worked in Switzerland and would have liked to stay there, but returned to Tehran for the sake of her mother who, once she was home, became more and more pious, even fanatic. Khosrovani tells their story without taking sides, returning over and over again to changing images of a house to indicate the different stages of the lives of these two very different people. She avoids describing clashes between them; she just tells how they lived, how she grew up, and how what was going on in Iran in that time affected them. Actors voice the parents, and the father’s voice saying her name is so tender that you wish you were called Firouzeh too; ‘I never understood the words of my mother’s prayers,’ Khosrovani says, and at the end of the film her mother reads – without subtitles – from the Qur’an.
Another good film was Le temps perdu, about the Proust book club in Buenos Aires: mostly older people, sitting in a café, silently watched over by a waiter, who have been reading Proust for 17 years. When they finish they start again. One man had read it four times, he also, suitably considering the theme, said this at least four times. They read the text in Spanish, there were English subtitles, and my fruitless attempts to reconstitute the the French text beneath the Spanish made it sometimes hard to follow (one of the characters being referred to as Albertina was also a little estranging). But the film had a kind of intimacy, as if one were looking into these people’s lives, which made it quite fascinating.
It was also inspiring; there is something about Proust makes one want to read him again, or perhaps just never stop reading him, and a lockdown winter seems to me the ideal occasion, this time skipping the dullest bits (as one of the readers said, ‘Proust can be very boring.’). I have tried it before and read the first parts several times, so I started now with A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, and read myself straight into a tiny bit of lost time.
It was the voice of an old friend, dead for many years, who also, on retirement, reread Proust. He spoke excellent French and, having lived in Cairo, could also imitate the Egyptian accent in French; whenever I hear such an accent I hear him explaining that one had to use the word ‘vraiment’ a lot, as in ‘vraiment très souvent’. But what he said now, as clearly as if he had been in the room with me, was, ‘Vous avez un chef de tout premier ordre, madame.’ Words from dinner parties, long ago: he was quoting M. de Norpois, the diplomat, whose every long-winded pronouncement the narrator’s parents believe. Having been a diplomat himself he particularly appreciated M. de Norpois; I had remembered that, but I had forgotten these words. He spoke them, as I read them, with a characteristic laugh in his voice, partly delight in the absurdity of the character, partly pleasure in saying exactly the right thing to one’s hostess. There are other sounds from the past I would like to hear again, but this one will do very well for the moment.