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First Look Review - ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE

ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE movie review
A Lebanese housewife and a visiting American become partners in a violent crime.







Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Noor Gharzeddine

Starring: Tess Harrison, Marwa Khalil, Nadim Deaibes, Wassim el Tom

ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE movie poster

Are You Glad I’m Here (note the curious lack of an eroteme), the debut feature from Lebanese-American director Noor Gharzeddine, opens at the recognisable desolation of a Middle East border: a car crammed full of family, bored looking dudes with machine guns and bomb detectors, the tense checking over of ‘papers’. At the inevitable request to ‘check the trunk,’ worried glances are exchanged between leads Kirsten (Tess Harrison - v.good) and Nadine (Marwa Khalil - utterly magnetic) … It’s a familiar scene but no less gripping for it (after all, some family or another is probably being subject to the same discomfort as I write), which is why it’s especially jarring when the film flashes back a couple of months and settles into a mundane, soapy bildungsroman which focusses on white American fish-out-of-water Kirsten, cutely negotiating the unfamiliar cultural currents of Beirut.

ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE movie

Kirsten wants to be a writer, and she’s relocated to Lebanon to teach English. It’s a tough old gig for our Kirsten; when she’s on the phone to her mom she complains that she’s "surviving on Imodium," and she really has no idea about how to speak Arabic, either. An unlikely friendship begins with Nadine, a lady across the hall who is married with a little lad. Nadine’s husband is a heavy drinker, and, as soon becomes clear, is a mean drunk with it, too. Have no fear, though, as Kirsten is here, with her touchstones of Western feminism in the form of a Jessica Jones DVD (honestly) and a copy of 'The Bell Jar'. They’ve both got their problems these ladies. In between flitting about in Lebanon en route to France, Kirsten wants to be a writer "like Virginia Woolf," and is feeling the pressure; as if the other woman was a small child, Kirsten explains to Nadine that Mary Shelley wrote 'Frankenstein' when "she was just 19" (Plath, Woolf, Shelley - she’s got the Women Writers 101 trio). Nadine, on the other hand, is trying to raise her child in a household where a drunk bully beats them both to a pulp upon his whim.

In the first act, the story is told from Kirsten’s point of view, with us seeing the grim events across the hall from her perspective, and the film putting as much narrative weight upon her writerly aspirations as the domestic violence. At this point Are You Glad I’m Here made my skin crawl: Kirsten’s idea of liberation is listening to Meredith Brooks' 'Bitch' (!) at top volume and telling Nadine to give her fella the elbow (pro tip: telling someone who is in an abusive relationship to end it is the worst thing you can say. As if they haven’t thought about that. As if it’s that easy, especially in this instance where cultural expectations and children figure). The idea of a white saviour is completely offensive, especially in the form of Kirsten, whose general ignorance of Lebanese culture makes you wonder why she went there in the first place. There are hints at Gharzeddine’s long game though: Nadine says to Kirsten that "this is your bildungsroman" with a hint of sarcasm, and then, around 30 minutes in, a shockingly violent moment occurs which binds the two women inextricably together. As Nadine laments, with a hint of irony (Khalil’s performance is fantastically mercurial), "Here’s your story: murder."

ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE movie

The entire tone of Are You Glad I’m Here changes with this act of (real, nasty) violence, as Gharzeddine pulls the rug from beneath us. Even the look of the film alters significantly: the camera draws in closer and the lighting takes on a sharper edge which is less 'rose tinted.' This is Nadine’s world we’re in now, a realm of brutal practicality (capital punishment is still a reality in Lebanon) and hard-earned feminine strength, both physical and mental. It is as if the first 30 minutes setting up Kirsten’s entitlement and glib attempts at rescuing Nadine are revealed to be a satire on two levels: narratively, the idea of an American dilletante as a redeemer is completely rubbished, and on a meta-level could there be an implied criticism of Western audiences who are perhaps more likely to view such material (a Lebanese drama) if there’s a character identifiable to their own culture? As if to compound the point, midway through the film the dialogue switches from audible English to subtitled Lebanese, as Kristen is progressively side-lined (a dark soul, I kept hoping that the increasingly amazing Nadine would fix her up for the crime…).

ARE YOU GLAD I'M HERE movie

You hear about chancers like Lars ‘Lads’ Von Trier winding up Cannes audiences with animal cruelty (don’t torture a duckling, etc), and his defenders who argue that his increasingly silly films are cinematic confrontations of bourgeoise manners (I do actually like Lars’ films, just not the people who take them seriously), but Are You Glad I’m Here is an actual masterclass in confronting Western prejudice and liberal simplicities (I speak as a simplistic liberal, btw). The thickening of cinematography is matched by the sweat and blood reality of getting rid of a body, of dealing with the fallout of murder, of finding strength through family and love. It is interesting that it is Nadine’s male relatives who unquestioningly come to her aid, gentle and strong men who take care of the physical aspects of the cover up, suggesting that it was just Nadine’s husband who was the nob, not the entire male population of Lebanon. In Are You Glad I’m Here, Gharzeddine manipulates cinematic forms and narrative archetypes not only to confound expectation but to fashion a film that is as entertaining as it is thoughtful and as thrilling as it is surprising.

Are You Glad I'm Here plays at the Brooklyn Film Festival June 9th/10th. A release has yet to be announced.



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