Beautiful/ Dutiful Anhedonia

Film review: ‘My Father’, directed by Mohammed Adel, Egypt 2015

Reviewed by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell University, New York

‘My Father’ is a subtly crafted short film of unusual finesse that portrays the reality of caregiving for the elderly, particularly its emotional burdens and costs.  An older man, wheelchair-bound and with a below-knee amputation, propels himself slowly and apparently painfully; he is cared for dutifully but joylessly by his daughter in a flat that is far from clean.  The film appears to have been shot at daybreak, and much of the action takes place in semi-darkness, with an emphasis on sounds other than words — the early morning traffic of the city; the drip-drip of water; dogs barking outside; the firing of the water-heater as the caregiver-daughter attends to her morning ablutions; the crackle of eggs frying in a pan. Two worlds are awakening, large and small — the city beyond and a household inside. We watch the daughter as she proceeds, mostly in silence, through the rest of her routine, a round of obligations that includes preparing her father’s breakfast and changing the bandage of his stump.

The daughter’s facial expression is impassive throughout.  One senses that she is experiencing what has been increasingly recognized as caregiving depression.  This term refers not to the melancholic aspects of depression with obvious tearfulness and sadness, but rather to a kind of dutiful anhedonia, a sacrificial erosion of pleasure in living.  It seems that this caregiver’s only gratification may be the application of beauty cream to her face and arms after her morning shower; for this the camera initially displays a close-up, a montage of what could easily be taken for an Abstract Expressionist oil painting, with thick dabs of white against a complex multi-colored background, but then pulls back suddenly to reveal what is actually happening.

Only the daughter speaks in this film, and very sparingly at that. (The father, equally unanimated, is seen smoking a cigarette, which intentionally or not on the part of the film’s director, could be a reference to what might have contributed to his amputation in the first place).

In a most affecting sequence, the daughter, fully dressed and her morning tasks for the moment completed, sits reflectively.  It is difficult to read her emotions at this critical juncture in the film.  She is inscrutable—composed, stolid, stoic.  She is still young, and one naturally wonders what else she would be doing with her life if not caring for her elderly father.  What had their earlier relationship been like?

‘My Father’ is not necessarily an easy film to watch, but I have felt drawn to see it many times. On each occasion I have come away with greater admiration for Mr. Adel’s understated technique and thoughtful selection of detail in making his audience feel the harsh truth of care giving.  I also have come to recognize the love and willing sacrifice that run through the entire film, characteristics in fact shared by so many familial caregivers.  However it is gained, this kind of emotional understanding should, I believe, be almost a rite of passage for all physicians, but for geriatricians especially, who often encounter patients whose daily care is provided by a family member.  I was later moved to learn from Mr. Adel that this project was not only conceptual and artistic, but deeply personal for him.  The characters in ‘My Father’ are none other than his own sister and recently-deceased father.

You can read Mohammed Adel’s commentary on his film here.