CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 17 . . . . April 29, 2005
A Scent of Mint defies easy description. On one level, it is Montreal-based filmmaker Pierre Sidaoui's loving tribute to his father, a French teacher turned principal who led his family into exile from the village of Abey, Lebanon to Beyrouth/Beirut and eventually to North America in a search for peace. Emigration and immigration are central themes of the documentary, but it is the relationship between father and son that emerges most clearly. One narrator gives voice to the father's letters to his son and to his diary of 1958 in which he records the challenges presented by his young son "Pierrot." A second narrator tells Sidaoui's story.
Wandering through empty fields and laneways of Montreal and passing old stone buildings, Sidaoui, now around forty years of age, finds visual images that remind him of his childhood in Lebanon. Sometimes the superficial resemblance of a scene in Montreal corresponds directly to a photo from Lebanon; at other times Sidaoui contrasts images from the world of his youth with that of the city that welcomed him with open arms: a big soccer ball on tv versus a small hockey puck; the sea and salt water versus rivers and fresh water; grey rainy winters where snow might arrive for only one day a year versus a land cloaked in white for a long five months of the year. More haunting are images like a deserted street in Montreal, or the electrical blackout and cracking blast of shattering tree limbs during the ice storm of 1998 that reminds the filmmaker of gunfire and fear experienced during the sectarian violence that the family tried to leave behind in Lebanon.
When the Sidaoui family left Beirut by ship in June 1988, they embarked on a three-week journey to Chihuahua, Mexico, land of the filmmaker's paternal grandmother. Mexico welcomed the parents with dual citizenship but denied the children permanent visas. They eventually sought new beginnings in Canada. Efforts to reunite the family provide another strand in the film's narrative. By 1995, the entire family was in Canada, but efforts to navigate the bureaucracy of immigration ultimately proved unsuccessful: an appeal for permanent residency for the parents on humanitarian/family reunification grounds was unsuccessful and the elders were repatriated to Lebanon.
Sidaoui draws upon a shoebox full of photographs, a box of his father's papers, and a bundle of letters written by father to son for much of the visual and narrative content of the film. These are appropriately blended with filmed images of the filmmaker in Montreal in summer and winter and interspersed with snippets of authentic Lebanese music that capture elements of remembered family history. The pace of the film is slow in part due to the reliance upon narration and still images. Nevertheless, the narrative contains some metaphoric gems such as reference to the preparation of tabouli as culinary yoga, or the image of his father as a dwindled down by the burden of war and fear for his family like a melted candle.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the film is the reluctance of the filmmaker to document more of his own experiences as an immigrant to Montreal. We learn that he happily shaved off his despised moustache in an act of westernization and abandoned his wardrobe of pleated pants in favour of more casual denim wear. Careful or multiple viewing of the film may uncover other tidbits such as Sidaoui's pursuit of university education and his parents' concern that he is not eating properly due to financial difficulties, yet we learn little about his new life in Canada apart from his quest to reunify the family that is so important to his own sense of identity.
A Scent of Mint was originally released in French as Comme une odeur de menthe. This English version includes some subtitles, but the narration written by Sidaoui is translated and spoken in English, as is the narrative components based upon his father's letters and diary.
Recommended with reservations.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and member of the Collection Services Team at the Ryerson University Library in downtown Toronto, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.