Abbas Fahdel’s 2015 film Homeland: Iraq Year Zero is one of the great, essential documentaries of this decade. Described as a “choral saga,” it chronicles the daily life of Fahdel’s family in Baghdad, immediately before and after the 2003 US invasion. Fahdel records as his society’s stability evaporates, dramatically replaced by grief and confusion as the country (now without an operating government) plunges into chaos.
Fahdel’s new film, Bitter Bread, is now premiering at the New York Film Festival. It’s another accomplished nonfiction work, but in many ways the opposite of Homeland. Where the former is an immersive five-and-a-half-hour epic, this is a contained 87-minute portrait. Homeland dealt with keeping up a domestic life that’s been irrevocably damaged; Bitter Bread is keeping up a life while estranged from home.
Fahdel studies the Syrian refugee crisis through a camp set up alongside a busy road on the outskirts of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. There, families live in tents they rent for $500 a year from the landowner. This is a film brimming with faces and voices, creating a polyphony of people telling us about, or simply living out, their lives. An engaged 18-year-old tries to bring his partner into the camp, despite officials forbidding extra tents. In between casually watching a tube TV on the fritz, a relatively calm man runs the local general store, supplying essential goods based on a tab system, since everyone there can barely earn enough (mostly from picking crops) to scrape by. An endless gaggle of children smile and pose for the camera.
Bitter Bread turns a compassionate eye on the hardscrabble lives of people who have been violently uprooted from their homes, and still yearn for them. The refugee crisis is frequently depicted as a serious yet abstract issue, but Fahdel brings it into focus on an immediate, human level.