The Screening Room: old age, loneliness and cinema

 

Loneliness, and Belonging in the Age of Photoshop

Short film, directed by Amjad Abu Ala

 

Review by Professor Robert C Abrams, Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York

There is a world of life portrayed in the few brief minutes of the poignant but joyous short film, ‘Studio’, by Amjad Abu Ala (in Arabic with English subtitles).  The film is an affecting portrayal of loneliness in old age and the restorative grace of fantasy.  Through its brevity and intensity it delivers the kind of impact one feels from a tightly crafted short story, where there are no extraneous words or gestures and everything tells.

‘Studio’ opens as a man in late middle age stares intently ahead:  More on him is to follow later.  The scene shifts quickly—as it must, since this film runs for barely 8 minutes–to a view of a photographer’s portrait studio, followed in rapid succession by several of the photographer’s clients posing against a neutral background. They comprise a random but somehow representative sample of humanity. The photographer himself is introduced as a kind of hipster-businessman, a young man immersed in the photo-technology in which reality can be wondrously manipulated.

First on deck is a young woman anxiously fretting over her appearance, followed by a shy little boy, with abundant budding confidence, who seems destined for a happy life surrounded by a loving family.  The subsequent characters are mostly young people.

Eventually the older man returns, this time with a peculiar request.  He asks the photographer to replace the patriarchal figure in a family group portrait with an image of himself.  The wife, son, daughter, and grandson in the original portrait are now to become, with a couple of clicks on a mouse, his new “family.” But the old man encounters a technical problem: for such a momentous transformation, the background of his own ‘family photo’ must have exactly the right color and texture before it is ‘photo-shopped’ into the collage. Like everyone else, however, he must settle for what is available.

That the loneliness of old age is the principal theme here is readily apparent, and one appreciates how it can surpass in its depth of suffering the anxiety of younger adulthood, exemplified by the self-preoccupied young woman. In his innocent appeal, the old man manages to persuade the skeptical young photographer to go along in altering reality.

The older man’s stance evokes a particular passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel, Never Let Me Go, where the protagonist asserts that if, nearing death, you have no happy memories upon which to reflect, it is justifiable to “borrow” them from someone else and regard them as your own.

‘Studio’ is also a story of the photographer—revealing as much about the observer as the observed.  The photographer does not seem to think of himself as an artist, and that he is primarily in business is emphasized by shots of the window of his studio featuring advertisements for his services.  The photographer, who starts out with a brisk “time is money” stance, evolves over the few minutes of the film, moved by the pathos and urgency of his client’s request.  When the photographer is able to identify with the older man on a human level, the request to construct an imagined family no longer strikes him, nor ourselves the viewers, as outlandish.  Perhaps the photographer considers whether the older man could be widowed, grieving, estranged from or abandoned by his “real” family, and there is nothing laughable or ironic about created families.

The young photographer also appears to have realized that his work, whether intended as art or as commerce, has the potential to console. The healing effects of art are thus implied, as is the possibility that the old man can be immortalized in the finished photo: that product now exists, it is real, and it will stand forever as proof that he was once the progenitor of a loving family.

By end of the film the photographer’s smile (now he’s part of the portrait too) reveals his feeling of kinship with the older man. They are both in the business of life, though at different phases. Two lives have now been altered by the clicks of that mouse.

After the old man carries his treasure, the portrait of his “family,” through deserted streets with high, whitewashed walls that further speak to loneliness, the film closes with a few unforgettable lines about the principal dread of old age, loneliness. In common with physical pain, it is felt most keenly at night when there are no moderating distractions.  “When sleep refuse…/my eyes stay awake. /even that shadow. Left me alone, /Please shadow. don’t leave me alone.”

To view the film, please access https://vimeo.com/52411016

Address for correspondence: rabrams@med.cornell.edu