Using the folk music of a remote land as a tool to recreate the image of a difficult, departed father is the agenda of The Hand of Fatima. It’d be tempting to call it ambitious if the large emotions felt by its subjects were transmitted in terms other than the increasingly common tropes of the family-therapy doc. (Tarnation has a lot to answer for.)
Director-narrator Augusta Palmer exhumes the history of her father Robert, a prominent rock critic and part-time bandleader and clarinetist until his death at 52 in 1997 after what one ex-wife calls a “profoundly self-centered” life of musical and narcotic indulgences. In the early ‘70s, following in the footsteps of idols like William Burroughs and the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones, Robert made several pilgrimages—journalistic and passionately personal—to the Moroccan village of Jajouka, where he achieved a spiritual rediscovery of self through the primordial sounds of the local master musicians. Familiar for decades with her dad’s accounts of how the “trance rhythms” of exotic double-reed horns induced a fulfilling bliss that no spouse or child could compete with, Augusta takes her infant daughter, husband, questing stepmother Debbie, and video camera to Morocco 35 years later, hoping to break through the “mystical male stronghold” of the Jajoukans and forge a more complete identity for her elusive patriarch, while trying (a bit too strenuously?) to be adopted into his “family formed by music.”
Augusta employs pulsing animation (by Hongsun Yoon) and testimony by musician-anthropologists, but vérité footage provides the crux of her journey; watching a sheep’s throat being sacrificially cut for the Muslim ritual they’ve come to participate in, both Robert’s daughter and ex weep at an intuited connection to the void left by their lost loved one. Hand of Fatima relies on, and is limited by, putting such specific personal moments before the audience without enabling it to share fully in the family epiphanies. It might’ve profitably included a wider, less myopic scope on Jajouka and its hypnotic sounds, as when the middle-aged leader of the native artists confesses that he has to travel to keep this music vital because of the village’s young, still impoverished citizens have grown indifferent to it.