In camp of despair, a life rooted in love

Fadia Loubani in Fadia’s Tree

Fadia’s Tree, directed by Sarah Beddington (2021)

Fadia’s Tree is the culmination of more than 10 years of work by a pair of unlikely friends: Sarah Beddington and Fadia Loubani.

Beddington is a visual artist who grew up in rural England and was privately educated.

Fadia is the mother of two children who was widowed at 19 and lives in Burj al-Barajne refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, where she runs a kindergarten.

Early scenes in the film show Fadia sitting under a scrawny, dusty tree in a cramped courtyard in the camp. It is hardly a place of respite in a camp where wires and cables hang in heavy bundles throughout alleyways barely more than a meter wide.

The feeling of enclosure is palpable yet Fadia smiles. This is where she comes to find calm, to find peace by the tree.

Burj al-Barajne was established in 1949 to provide temporary shelter for 3,500 Palestinian refugees.

Four decades later, during the War of the Camps, Burj al-Barajne was blockaded and besieged by forces from Amal, a Shia political grouping backed by Syria. Residents starved and conditions were brutal.

At least 40,000 people, including many refugees from Syria, live in the overcrowded camp and conditions remain desperate.

Big dream

The film opens with a view of the sea, waves lapping as canvas awnings flap in the breeze.

Sarah narrates in the first person: “I was sitting in a cafe, when a woman leaned across and asked, ‘Are you happy?’” And so she met Fadia Loubani.

Fadia’s family was forced to flee the village of Sasa in northern Palestine in 1948. Her “big dream” is to return to her village, to see their house on the hill and the tree that grows by the eastern gate.

Fadia asks Sarah to make a film and to find her tree. Sarah is doubtful that she can do either.

Three hundred hours of footage later, something exquisite and profound is achieved.

Fadia’s Tree unfolds simply as a dialogue between two women who share an inherent love of nature and a deep sense of justice and fairness.

Cautious and polite, with an accent and nationality imbued with all the associations of empire, Sarah is unseen in the film and determinedly so. She reveals Fadia to us with respect and sensitivity.

Fadia’s personality makes this film what it is. She has been forced to make choices that a heroine in a Greek tragedy would shy away from, such as keeping her children with her and jeopardizing their future or letting them leave and risking never seeing them again.

Through Fadia, the viewer feels a deep – almost spiritual communication – with birds, trees, the sun and the moon. This is felt more acutely when contrasted against the dull and imprisoned atmosphere of the refugee camp.

Fadia’s Tree unsettles the audience by guiding them how to look, how to pace themselves, how to appreciate what is valid, humane, beautiful and true, without ever making the viewer feel that they are being preached to.

Birds and trees score the film like the lines on the etched glass of Beddington’s artworks, but here nature is far from static.

The force of the birds’ migratory superhighway that crosses borders and checkpoints beats throughout the film. Imagery of avian migration is juxtaposed against footage of Palestinian laborers climbing over the railings of checkpoints to get to work.

Wherever walls and blockades are presented, people, nature and animals surmount, resist and try to wear them down.

Exile and return

Fadia’s Tree is a poetic meditation on exile and return, themes recurring throughout Palestinian literature and film.

Curiously, the two massacres carried out in 1948 by the Haganah, a Zionist militia, and the Israeli military, to depopulate Sasa of Palestinians, are only obliquely alluded to in the film.

One can only speculate as to the reason for this omission which blunts the film’s potential political impact. A strong, gorgeous and uplifting film like Fadia’s Tree could have included this information without coming off as didactic.

The viewer’s sense of Fadia’s forgiving and compassionate nature would only be strengthened by referencing the violence carried out against her family and her people.

And for those viewers who believe the Palestinians left of their own volition or by accident, rather than by design, the inclusion of the reference could have gone some way to disabusing them of this fallacy.

Otherwise, the film is a triumph in depicting in an original, heartfelt and beautiful way the story, too often ignored or forgotten, of the several million Palestinians whose lives remain confined by their refugee status.

Selma Dabbagh is a writer of fiction and a lawyer.