Grandma, A Thousand Times: Docu about Beirut Grandmother

 (Teta, Alf Marra)
“Grandma, A Thousand Times” (“Teta, Alf Marra”) is a sharply observed, poignantly shot documentary about a feisty, larger than life Beirut grandmother. Made with passion, commitment and love by her grandson, Mahmoud Kaabour, the film is a highlight of the second edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Fest, where it received its world premiere.
Rich in text and subtext, “Grandmother” is the kind of humanist film that, despite its particular personality and historical setting, bears universal meanings, thus appealing to any viewer who had been close (and wish to be closer) to his or her grandparents.
Short running time (48 minutes) might present some problems for theatrical distribution, but an entrepreneurial company should be able to release this emotional (but not sentimental), highly and enjoyable docu, perhaps with another one-hour feature.
Replete with anecdotes and humor, “Grandmother” chronicles at the life of an elderly woman, who is a bridge between diverse worlds, past and present generations, and shifting political contexts. In many ways, she is an icon of and testimony to the old Beirut, a bygone culture that inevitably will be erased by the passage of time and her eventual death.
At 83, Teta Kaabour comes across as a strong family matriarch, a sharp-witted queen bee of an old Beiruti quarter, which has gone through many changes. She’s been gripped as of late by the silence of her once-buzzing household where she raised sic children (three consecutive girls, and then three consecutive boys) and grandchildren.  
Resigned to Argileh smoking and day-long coffee drinking on a now-empty balcony, Teta invokes the deepest memories of her handsome violinist husband. Though he has been dead for 20 years, he is very much present in her life, and just the thought of him brings tears to her eyes.
There’s another story, which runs parallel to Teta’s. Filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour, Teta’s favorite grandson and the bearer of his grandfather’s full name, has also been pre-occupied for years with the memory of his grandfather.  Prior to his death, the late violinist had audio-taped heart-wrenching violin improvisations in the privacy of his room in that same flat.  
Through Mahmoud’s visits to his grandma, who is well aware of the filmmaking process but seems unfazed by the presence of the camera, we begin to construct what was apparently a lovely marriage—and rich lifestyle.
That music, along with the details of his grandfather’s long career playing with the Arab world’s most famous divas, still remains unpublished, and you feel Kaabour’s sadness as well as feeling of urgency to record his grandmother’s treasured memories before it is too late.
The filmmaker’s anguish is compounded at the thought that this personal and cultural heritage, as well as his grandma’s own stories will go with her when she parts this life.
In the course of the film, she recalls episodes from her youth, courtship, love and marriage, discloses rare food recipes, and reveals a naughty sense of humor as she determinedly defies her children’s wish that she stop smoking, or when she expresses her feelings about his grandson’s fiancée, soon to be his wife.
Though the focus of “Teta, Alf Marra” is on the relationship between the grandmother and the filmmaker, the film also brings together grandfather, grandmother, some of their children, and other characters, such as neighbors, or merchants with whom she interacts from her terrace.
What enriches the docu is the fact that Kaabour constantly switches functions, between his role as the film’s silent creator, Teta’s grandson in front of the camera, and a reenactor of his late grandfather, to whom he bears strong physical resemblance.   At ne point, Teta says to him: “Damn you! Why are you so handsome, you remind me too much of your grandfather.”
Stylistically, the docu is fresh and innovative. In some scenes, grandmother and grandson sit on a sofa in front of a window, behind which we get re-enactments of episodes of Teta’s life, accompanied by the music of the deceased grandfather, such as violin improvisations that serve as the impetus of the film and its soundtrack.
Director Kaabour should be commended for choosing a light and playful strategy, which relies on direct and immediate recordings of his grandmother, as she lives now.   In its good moments, which are plentiful, the docu achieves a sense of magic-realism as well as elegiac lyricism in capturing the character of a woman who’s larger-than-life and yet is utterly realistic in anticipating what awaits her beyond death.