Filmmaker Raed Andoni has a severe and agonizing headache, a debilitating headache that will not go away. Turning the camera on himself, he decided to make a film exploring his headache and his efforts to rid himself of it. The result is the documentary Fix Me (2009), recently screened at the 2011 London Palestine Film Festival.
Medical tests show that Andoni is normal, so he decides to have psychotherapy for what he has dubbed his “tension headache.” Fix Me — simply called “Headache” in Arabic — is structured largely around these therapy sessions at Ramallah hospital, filmed through a two-way mirror by people who don’t understand Arabic so that Andoni does not feel constrained in his expression and honesty.
The methods of the therapist are fascinating as he guides Andoni on a journey exploring the sources of tension in his life and his sense of selfhood. They don’t just sit and talk — the therapist gets Andoni to draw pictures, write poems and look at old photographs. What emerges through these sessions, and Andoni’s conversations with others — including family members, an electrician with cancer and a man he shared a prison cell with as a teenager — is a witty exploration of the intersections between politics, day-to-day life under occupation and mental well-being.
Again and again the film returns to Andoni in his car, driving to and from therapy, waiting at checkpoints and driving aimlessly. There are several shots of Andoni’s car parked outside his home, where he lives with his family, as if he is always ready to leave. At times he drives fast, almost recklessly, further reinforcing the sense of being suffocated and needing to escape. And a sense of suffocation is one of the themes of his conversations with his therapist. Indeed, this is precisely what makes Fix Me interesting — the way that it resonates on two registers: physical and psychological.
Palestinian filmmaker’s burden
As we accompany Andoni on his journey, we are witness both to his searing self-reflection and his sometimes petulant, childlike aspects. When he is asked what the film is about by his different interlocutors, he struggles to reply because he does not want it to be put in a “frame.”
In one of the funnier moments of the film we see his mother at a demonstration with Andoni filming. A fellow demonstrator asks her what the film is about. She clearly does not want to say “a headache,” and, visibly grasping for a satisfactory answer and mumbling something about the damage you suffer under occupation, instead calls her son over. This repeated mantra about not wanting to be put in a frame is somewhat trying; it’s as if his desire to be special and unique trumps all other concerns, and yet at other times he is acutely aware of his limitations, his difficulties at being sociable.
Throughout, Andoni seems somewhat flat, distant, ambivalent even, but he is at his most animated when he talks about what it is to be a Palestinian filmmaker. Almost without stopping for breath, listing the demands on Palestinian filmmakers, from the Palestinians who want his to be a Palestinian film, “to the Israelis who want us to recognize them, to Europe wanting us to be bridge between cultures.” Andoni says his film cannot be any of these.
“I just want to raise a few questions in my film, that’s it,” he says. Here, Andoni explores the burden of representation that all Palestinian filmmakers face, both in terms of audience expectations and funding — he should have a particular set of concerns, his film and project is best viewed through the lens of political struggle. It is this tension that Andoni is trying to navigate, to make this a “Palestinian” film, without losing himself in it. But what makes this tension so pervasive and saturated in every moment and shot of the film, is that it is the tension that also characterizes his life.
Andoni struggles with the standards he believes his life and behavior are measured against. Precipitated by a conversation with an electrician with two cancers who was left for dead several times by the Israeli military throughout his life and is determined to survive his cancers with willpower, Andoni is ashamed of his weakness in contrast to this man’s steadfastness. He feels that the refrains they have always repeated since they were kids — “we are the Palestinians, we are the tough guys, we will return, we won’t be beaten” — set up a standard of strength against which he can only fail. He wants the right to feel weak.
Surviving through compromise
We all have mental habits or mechanisms that help us make sense of the world. Andoni calls these his compromises. For instance, he asks himself if he were reborn, which side would he be on, the Israeli or the Palestinian. Affirming that given a choice he would choose to be Palestinian, he feels dignity as he waits at the checkpoint. Whether he goes through or gets turned away, whether he waits for minutes or hours, is decided by others — despite this, he ultimately feels like a decision-maker. These compromises, Andoni says, give him a kind of peace that helps him survive. The trouble is they collapse easily.
Both in conversation with his therapist and with others, Andoni’s time in prison as a teenager emerges as a pivotal moment in his life, and yet he remembers very little of it. As part of his exploration, guided by the therapist, he arranges to meet Bassem, with whom he shared a cell. Visibly distant and aloof from most, including his family, Andoni greets Bassem more warmly than anyone else in the film.
Their conversation is one of the most compelling of the entire film, and in it Andoni’s emotional quandaries come through with particular clarity. The tension of whether a film he makes is a film or a Palestinian film reproduces itself — is Andoni living his life as a man or a Palestinian, are his dreams his dreams or Palestinian dreams?
These are tensions that people around him appear to have reconciled, and it is in this conversation with Bassem that we see the contrast between one who has resolved them and one who continues to struggle with them. Unlike Bassem, Andoni seems to have a constant worry that his personal dreams and freedoms and the dreams and freedom of the nation might pull against each other. He frets that he might be submerged in some great soup of Palestinian dreams.
In this conversation, Bassem and Raed Andoni’s perspectives stand against each as two questions. Bassem asks, “can I talk about my personal freedom when my country, my people’s freedom is lost?” Meanwhile Andoni queries, “but can I think only about my country’s freedom and forget my personal freedom?”
As the film frames it for us, this tension emerges as a tension between the individual and the collective, a tension that Andoni struggles with daily. Perhaps if he could go beyond seeing the personal and the collective as competing with one another, and could ask instead, “how do my personal dreams link with our collective dreams?” he might be able to have some peace.
Naira Antoun is a youth worker and occasional writer.