My Palestinian dad

As a child, every time director Omar Shargawi asked his father about his life and his family's flight from Palestine in 1948, his father invariably closed up. After he became a filmmaker, Shargawi vowed to get his father to tell his story in a documentary. "My Father is from Haifa" turned out to be a therapeutic process that allowed the director to explore his own roots, too.

Munir Shargawi, the father of filmmaker Omar Shargawi, was eight years old in 1948 when he fled with his family from Haifa in Palestine to Syria, shortly before the state of Israel was founded. Growing up in Syria, Munir Shargawi arrived in Denmark in 1967, where he married a Danish woman and had three sons. Though Omar's father made Denmark his adopted homeland, he carried in him a pain and a longing that was transmitted to his sons.

"I was interested in finding out why I feel the same way my father does about so many things, though I never shared his experiences"

"I was interested in finding out why I feel the same way my father does about so many things, though I never shared his experiences"

Shargawi made his directorial debut in 2008 with the critically acclaimed feature film "Go with Peace Jamil". His documentary is propelled by a wish to understand his father and his father's pain. By turns touching and funny, the film depicts the close, but hardly untroubled, relationship between father and son, and the son's struggle to convince his father to return to Haifa and visit his childhood home for the first time since he fled there with his family.

Omar Shagawi

Born 1974, Denmark. Raised by his Danish mother and palestinian father in Copenhagen. Self-taught director, working previously as a still photographer. Shargawi made his debut as director with the feature film "Gå med fred Jamil – Ma salama Jamil / Go with Peace Jamil" (2008) and was rewarded generously at several international festivals – winning the VPRO Tiger Award in Rotterdam, the Church Prize and FIPRESCI Award in Göteborg, Best Director in Transylvania and the Grand Prix at Warsaw. 2009: "From Haifa til Nørrebro / My Dad is from Haifa" selected for CPH:DOX competition for Best Documentary.

"It was always in me that we never made that trip, that he never picked us up and took us there," Shargawi says. The director filmed his father for five years but only got him to go Syria and Israel this May. "Still that was less my premise than how I had never really got to know his story. I only knew the bare bones of his background: that he fled Palestine in 1948, grew up in Syria and ended up in Denmark. That was it."

"Every time I asked him about his life when I was growing up, he always just shut down and didn't want to talk about it. The only details I knew my mother had told me. So the film came out of my wanting him to tell his story. I wanted to delve into his psyche and find out why he reacts the way he does. What's at the root of his personality, his character and his mood swings, his sorrow and his pain, which I always knew was there and which has marked me and the rest of my family."

Unwilling subject

Shargawi and his brothers were, so to speak, fed the Palestine-Israel question with their mother's milk. It's an issue the family has to live with for good and ill. "I was interested in finding out why I feel the same way my father does about so many things, though I never shared his experiences," Shargawi says. "You could say it was therapeutic, because I was also digging into my own roots and background. I didn't know where the feelings I had came from. It couldn't just be because my father was always talking about these things. I almost feel like it's genetic. So the film is a parallel study of him and me.”

Shargawi started filming interviews with his father, who was sometimes a rather unwilling subject. He had to catch him at the right moment, so the film is shot on DV, mobile phones, HD and 16 mm, sometimes even using a concealed camera. Making a virtue out of necessity, Shargawi highlighted the uniquely cinematic look of all the different formats. And he always told his father when he had been secretly filming him.

"By and by I got the idea that it would be fun to visit the house in Haifa – if it was still there and we could find it. I started asking him to make the trip with me, and just getting him accustomed to the idea was a long and hard process. The subject had never been discussed before. The trip then became the impetus for the project. Nothing that happened before we left was planned or designed or scripted. It was all about keeping the camera rolling. I filmed non-stop for five years, which also put a strain on our relationship, of course."

Representing a generation

Over the course of the project, Munir Shargawi, 69 – a temperamental, bright and often very funny acquaintance – changed his mind about the trip several times. His health is an issue, something is always getting in the way. "I was trying to understand this struggle inside of him," Shargawi says. "Why the resistance? I always knew that, in his heart of hearts, he had a desire to go back. But why is it so hard for him to do?"

This is a crux of the film. The filmmaker wasn't just interested in telling his father's story, he wanted to tell the story of his father's whole generation. "What is it that hurts so badly that they don't go to Palestine? When we finally did go to Haifa and were looking around for the house where he used to live, everyone came over to talk with him, Jews and Palestinians. He made friends with everyone in no time. Within a day, everyone knew that there was a Palestinian who had returned. They weren't used to that, neither the Jews nor the Arabs there, and they were all interested in hearing his story," Shargawi says.

Nor is Munir Shargawi your typical Palestinian. In his view, Palestinians aren't just victims, they're idiots, because, unlike the Jews, they have been unable to change their situation. In one of the film's funnier sequences, he says that if he was a young man today, he would marry an Israeli girl. "When Arab marries Arab, the hash clubs result," he says.

"That's also why it was so interesting for me to make this film," Shargawi says. "If my father were just a beaten man who sat around complaining about his situation all day, going 'Jews and Israelis are to blame for all my misery,' he would be a lot less interesting to portray. That angle has been covered so often it sounds like a lament to a lot of people. What was exciting was that he both represented his generation and had these opinions you don't expect to hear from a Palestinian. He doesn't say the things we are used to hearing."

No longer just a notion

Now that father and son have visited Haifa, their relationship has calmed down a bit Shargawi says. "Now we don't have to discuss it or fight about it anymore. I sometimes feel it as an absence that we don't have that to talk about anymore. It bonded us, having this joint mission. It was his mission, too, even as he changed his mind about it so many times."

Returning to his childhood home has not changed Munir Shargawi's nature or reconciled him with the past. "But something has changed," Shargawi says. "Now he knows what it's really going there. It's no longer just an idea of a place. Palestine always meant a lot to him, but he never went back there, and I feel he's found some sort of closure, though I also think he's still dealing with it. We made the trip in May and, curiously, we haven't really talked about it that much since we came back. But that's our relationship in a nutshell. We don't sit around and talk about it afterwards – how does he feel, how do I feel? None of that."

For Shargawi personally, the Haifa trip was not only a good experience he shared with his father, it also gave him a new homeland. "I’m not a hundred percent sure what the trip gave me – I'm still processing it," he says. "Mainly, I shared a good experience with my dad that I would not have had otherwise. That we did this together gives me a sense of peace and joy that I will be able to draw on at dark moments. There's a sense of satisfaction that we did this. That it wasn't just a thought – 'Imagine doing that!' We really did it, and it gives me a warm feeling when I think about it. I also feel this is a place I would like to return to – even if it is difficult to get there and a difficult place to be – mentally, too. My mother is Danish and I was born in Denmark. Denmark is my country, but something down there is tugging at me. I belong there, too."