A slow fade up on a serene shot of the desert gradually pulls back to reveal a room full of armed men shaving the heads of young boys who are literally being groomed to become soldiers. As the evocative song ‘You and Whose Army?’ by Radiohead swells on the soundtrack one of the boys glares directly into the camera to create an extraordinarily arresting opening image. This boy is not a character who features much throughout the film but the significance of who he is and what he does will impact upon the lives of all the characters whose lives are about to unfold.
This French Canadian film by writer/director Denis Villeneuve, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is about identity and the links between the past and the present. One half of the film’s dual narrative structure is the present day story about Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) attempting to learn the truth about her recently deceased mother’s background. The second narrative strand in Incendies is about Jeanne’s mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), and her experiences as a young woman living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during a time of violent conflict.
Incendies very successfully explores the residual effect of past trauma on contemporary lives. As one character comments, ‘Death is never the end of the story. It leaves traces.’ There are several moments in the film when Jeanne is warned about finding out too much and she even experiences prejudices that are still being kept alive as a result of her mother’s legacy. Ultimately the case is made for the need to reconcile with the past even if the process is painful and Incendies effectively argues that this is necessary so that contemporary generations can break the cycle of violence that has plagued their predecessors.
The decision to not name the specific Middle Eastern country that Nawal comes from allows issues associated with religious conflict to be explored without causing offence or trivialising much broader issues. Instead, it is enough to know that the violence being done in the name of religion results in atrocities against human rights such as honour killings, genocide, torture and sexual violence. Incendies is a film about how people are affected by violence rather than being a film attempting to explore the cause and nature of that violence.
It is to the extraordinary credit of Villeneuve how well the various acts of violence are presented on screen without feeling exploitative or compromised. Villeneuve is extremely careful and sensitive about what gets shown on screen, what gets shown from a distance and what occurs off-screen. Some incidents happen suddenly and with a horrifying casualness while some are built up to with considerable dread without the camera revelling in explicit details of suffering or degradation. Sound, editing and camera placement are skilfully harnessed to ensure that the impact of various moments are felt without turning the scenes into morbid spectacle.
Incendies is a tough film but a sensitive one that never feels like an ordeal to watch. It ingeniously dispenses information to the audience and the characters at different times in a way that facilitates its most significant revelations in the most powerful ways possible. A degree of coincidence does come into play with this film, but it is there to serve the grand narrative that evolves throughout. In this way the story and its characters are archetypes representing generational differences between a generation who lived during a time of peace and a generation who lived through war. Most importantly, it establishes the power that contemporary generations have to facilitate the healing process for events that occurred before their time.