Only the Winds: Blindness, cinema and loneliness
Presented in the Burning Lights section of this year’s edition of Visions du Réel (15-25 April 2021), one of the world’s largest film festivals celebrating non-fiction cinema, Karim Kassem’s first documentary feature Only the Winds is a piece characterised by complex, hybrid storytelling, in which the director’s biography and personality play a crucial role.
Born and raised in Beirut, Kassem has been living and working as a musician, photographer and filmmaker in New York since 2012. In Only the Winds, the young man is back in his native country and looks for some good sources of inspiration for his new film. We find out that Kassem suffers from a chronic illness that has temporarily blinded him, owing to the effects of blepharitis and the presence of two small cysts located in the lower eyelids.
In one of the first scenes, an easygoing, fifty-something doctor – who, in another life, dreamt of becoming an engineer – reassures him by saying that, in order to get his health problems sorted, he just needs to undergo a quick routine procedure. He suggests he heal one eye at a time to keep part of his sense of vision active, but Kassem demands to perform the surgery on both eyes in one go.
Meanwhile, he tries to reconnect with his old acquaintances and asks them to update him about the country’s current socio-political situation. He experiences a strong feeling of displacement while trying to readapt himself to his native land. During a long chat with a friend on a motorbike, he finds out that, while he was away from Lebanon, even though “nothing has happened”, paradoxically “things have changed for the worse” and “if there would be a war, at least something could happen.”
As you may notice from this dense premise, there is already a lot on Kassem’s plate. But that’s not all. In his wanderings aimed at finding an appealing subject for his next film, the young director ends up visiting a special needs school for the blind. Here, he is allowed to visit the classrooms searching for his characters and makes several interesting encounters among teachers and pupils.
Throughout the film, three of these are particularly noteworthy, namely a sixty-something resilient teacher who, despite her blindness, achieved her lifelong ambitions and landed her dream job; Lyne, a lively, playful ten-year-old girl, and a teenage boy called Rafic, who loves singing and making impressions.
In the last third of the feature, Lyne’s role, in particular, gains more and more prominence, as the man gradually befriends her and teaches her the basics of photography.
Here, photography becomes an effective means to create a deeper connection and instil passion in the young girl’s life. Their growing friendship, plain to see on screen, gifts the viewers with several moments of genuine love and candour. This part of the picture acquires a major narrative coherence and possess a clearer focus, as it follows – almost exclusively – Kassem and Lyne’s bond.
Only the Winds boasts a consummate, masterly crafted cinematography... Most of the framing work and camera movements are carefully planned, and contribute to enhance the overall hybrid form – and spirit – of this piece
However, the significant strength of said part makes it even more evident that the whole film could have immensely benefited from a tighter scope. We can realise the picture’s huge potential as soon as Kassem steps into the special needs school and meets Lyne for the first time.
One might wonder why other external “subplots” and themes – Lebanon’s political turmoil, Kassem’s interactions with family and friends and other scenes from his everyday life – have been included in the final cut, as they just add little, mostly contextual information, far from being indispensable in advancing the director’s reflection on real or metaphorical blindness.
Kassem’s temporary condition is the supposed connecting point between the helmer’s life inside and outside of the special needs school. Despite this intuition, said link remains underdeveloped as the man’s bandages disappear rather quickly, and this is not exploited or rendered meaningfully enough to create a solid raison d’etre.
Talking about technical aspects, it is worthwhile to mention that Only the Winds boasts a consummate, masterly crafted cinematography (courtesy of the director himself and DoP Mohamad Hissi). Most of the framing work and camera movements are carefully planned, and contribute to enhancing the overall hybrid form – and spirit – of this piece. In his directing approach, Kassem combines controlled interviews, staged scenes, more observational sequences and, occasionally, photographs.
Thus, Only the Winds’ fragmentary, wandering nature becomes its most distinctive trait but also its weakest feature, probably failing to keep the viewers constantly engaged for over 130 minutes. That being said, Kassem’s debut feature brings home undeniable wins; a strong, compelling visual taste; a tactful approach in filming and interacting with his subjects – and, especially, children – as well as a profound interest towards exploring a more philosophical dimension of human conditions that still need to find a better refined cinematic form.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni