Every year sees the release of documentaries about their filmmakers’ families that were made on miniscule budgets, but few are as satisfying as Grandma, A Thousand Times. The film has been crafted with a deceptive simplicity; achieving a tone so steady and confident that it could be taken for granted, as there isn’t any of the naked striving for profundity or pathos that can strike one, at best, as ham-handed and desperate or, at worst, mean and exploitive. The film is somehow tough and nostalgic at once and in equal measure, and in that fashion it recalls such Olivier Assayas films as Late August, Early September and Summer Hours.
That tough nostalgia honors the film’s subject Teta Fatima, an 83-year-old Beiruti grandmother who brings to mind the wise, indestructible old broads we all meet and secretly respect at one point in our lives if we’re lucky. Fatima is the kind of lonely survivor who hides her love for her friends and family under a slightly terse demeanor that appears to suffer few fools. But it’s that inability to weather nonsense, that continual challenging of proper perception and platitude, that’s the ultimate compliment. Fatima is the sort of woman, though she might reject this reduction, who expects her loved ones to be capable of more than empty chipper compliments on clothing or cooking.
Director Mahmoud Kaabour is Fatima’s grandson, and she instantly seizes on—lightly, in her way—the guilt and panic that’s inspired him to make this film. Mahmoud spent a number of years in Canada in film school and has returned to his grandmother’s home to document her daily routine leading up to his marriage to a white woman he presumably met in Canada. While that sounds like enough incident to fuel a perfectly forgettable and melodramatic document of the skeletons that might come tumbling out of a real-life closet, Kaabour keeps his camera trained on quiet routines that grow in significance as one grows old enough to intimately understand their own fragility. Fatima yells across the street at a neighbor (Kaabor has clearly staged some of these scenes, but they so intimately and succinctly establish setting that it’s worth it). She smokes from a hooka. She negotiates the price on potatoes. She watches Turkish soaps with the aide she pretends to criticize.
Fatima is actually (and Kaabour, in another display of decency, understands this) trying to adequately fill the role of family Elder Statesman after her husband’s death 20 years prior, while also making peace with her own prospective passing. Fatima’s husband implicitly haunts much of the film, and his presence keeps the film from slipping into the kind of sentimentality that cheapens the hardship of growing old and alone. Fatima is a woman that Kaabour has long revered, and Grandma, A Thousand Times is meant as his gift to her and more especially to himself. Kaabour made this film because he doesn’t want his grandmother to die. It’s that simple and it’s also everything.