Gaya Jiji’s My Favourite Fabric, on MUBI, is about a young Syrian woman who’s fighting her own war
My Favourite Fabric is one of the most delicate and strange and daring films set during a war: it finds a way to equate a country’s devastation with a woman’s desire.
It begins with a young woman in a cab, one of those van- or minibus-like vehicles used by many passengers at the same time. The vehicle stops at one point. The young woman gazes up at a man by a window. He switches off the lights. He draws a curtain, with no evidence that he is aware he’s being stared at. Inside the vehicle, a middle-aged mother with a child asks the young woman to close the window by her side, because the baby is cold. The young woman says no. Is she always sullen, or has the sight of the man upset her? The mother asks again. The girl turns and snaps. “Why don’t you cover her up? It’s only March.”
The month may not mean much, but when you add the year to it, you know what’s happening. It’s 2011: the start of the civil war in Syria. The young woman is Nahla (Manal Issa). She has two sisters. After the scene in the vehicle, we shift to Nahla’s home, where the family has decided to marry her off to a US-based Syrian named Samir. “Why can’t he find a girl in the US?” Nahla’s youngest sister asks. Their mother replies, “Because he wants a girl from home.” Syrian expats, apparently, are a lot like Indians. Nayla’s second sister says now they can all go and live in the US. That’s when we see things are not normal here. They wish to flee, and Nahla’s arranged marriage is the ticket.
This desire to flee is the first sign that things are not “normal”. My Favourite Fabric (Mon tissu préféré), directed by the Syrian filmmaker Gaya Jiji, played at Cannes in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section in 2018. I missed it that year and found the film on MUBI LIBRARY’s “Women with Movie Cameras” collection, devoted to female filmmakers.
The question with this film could well be: How does a female filmmaker look at war? In a promotional interview clip from Cannes, the director said, “We’ve had more than enough war scenes. We see footage of the war every day. I didn’t want to show that.” Accordingly, the unrest is felt more than seen. On the radio, someone talks about the “use of force against demonstrators”. On another local trip, the passenger beside Nahla says, “I hope there is no trouble in your neighbourhood”.
It’s only at the end that we see recordings of the violence — again, only recordings, not cinematic re-creations — unleashed by the civil war. Until then, the outside is contained: it’s seen on a TV screen or a computer monitor or, in one instance, as a bunch of people fleeing from gunshots as Nahla walks down a street. But even this scene ends very quickly, because this is not about the rebels outside.
This is about the rebel inside Nahla. She smokes. She puts on black lingerie and admires herself in front of a mirror. And she dreams: passionate dreams, starring the same man. In one, he’s worshipping her bare thigh. In another, they’ve just finished making love and are making small talk. So Samir, despite his residence in the US, holds little interest. When they meet, he tells Nahla about his job and what he does on weekends. He goes out for picnics with his brothers and sisters and nephews. Her response: “Boring.”
My Favorite Fabric is inspired by Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), which was about a housewife trapped in a “boring” (as Nahla might have put it) marriage, who sought liberation by becoming a sex worker. Here, Nahla’s life changes when she realises her neighbour, two floors up, is running a brothel.
Like Belle de jour, this is a kinky story. One customer at the brothel is a soldier. We know this because he is always in uniform. (It’s another example of how the war, until the end, is only hinted at.) He wants to keep his shoes on. He wants to be told a story, something about a man who had 11 brothers who all wanted to kill him. There is no why!
Roger Ebert said about Belle de jour that “ it understands eroticism from the inside-out — understands how it exists not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination”. This is similar to what the madam tells Nahla, “My clients don’t arrive and leave on schedule. They all have their problems. But they all come here for the same reason. To forget.” If this soldier wants to forget the world outside for a while, and if that means keeping his shoes on and listening to a wild story, then… why not!
The director, in the same promotional clip, said, “What Syrians wanted at the beginning of the conflict, in 2011, was freedom, to have a future.” It’s this freedom she explores in Nahla.
A young woman’s sexuality becomes a metaphor for a country’s desire to break free from oppressive constraints.
Nahla asks the madam of the brothel for a room to see her lover. We might ask: Um, doesn’t he exist only in her imagination? The film says: So what? When Nahla takes off all her clothes and plops onto the bed in this room, we sense a kind of freedom. Finally, this is her space. It’s not shared with her two sisters and her mother. And this liberates her.
My favourite scene is a meeting between Nahla and Samir, after his family has said they’d rather have her sister as their daughter-in-law. With her newfound sexual freedom, Nahla invites Samir for a chat. She dips a finger into the coffee in her cup and extends it to Samir. He licks it. Very early on, the madam of the brothel tells Nahla that men often cheat on their wives and it’s not their business to judge these men. Nahla has just begun to make Samir cheat on his wife-to-be, Nahla’s own sister. What a powerful feeling it must be. And no, we mustn’t judge Nahla, either.
And we return to the man at the window, the man at the beginning of the story. Who is he? Rather, who was he? It doesn’t matter. He’s a symbol. Every one of us has someone or something like that, someone/something out of reach that we wish we had. Syrians want freedom. Nahla wants liberation from convention, though she can’t quite articulate it yet. My Favourite Fabric is one of the most delicate and strange and daring films set during a war: it finds a way to equate a country’s devastation with a woman’s desire.
My Favourite Fabric is available on MUBI LIBRARY.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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