In filmmaker Bassam Tariq's new short film, Wa'ad (The Promise), little is what it seems. Its centerpiece, a conversation between a father and son, isn't actually taking place. When the son speaks of his siblings "doing well" after their mother's death, they aren't really. And when he says he'll continue to write, right before the film's heartbreaking denouement, it's TBD.
Deft in its execution, the four-minute short seeks to evoke the feeling of what isn't said—"what you can write when you have a limited amount of space," according to the filmmaker. Shot in two days last summer in Beirut, it's a stark look at life for one detained refugee and a tragic ode to family that demands multiple viewings.
Interested to know more about the small project with a big message, VICE spoke to director Bassam Tariq.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
VICE: What's the story behind your short?
Bassam Tariq: I’ve been obsessed with letters by prisoners. For me, there is always something special about the emotion you can’t express in a letter. A friend of mine told me about the International Committee of the Red Cross. They’ve been doing letter exchanges for 150 years. They really help people, like prisoners in Guantanamo who only get one phone call a year with their loved ones. My friend was like, “I know somebody who works there [at the ICRC]. I can get you access to letters from all these people who are migrating around the world because of climate change, famine, wars…"
From reading the letters, I was able to put together a story. I was specifically thinking about how you can tell a story about somebody who isn’t around, and how much you actually hate that they’re not around, and how much you miss them.
Tell me about your writing process. Did you write the script on a tiny sheet of paper?
The ICRC’s wasn't willing to give me any of the pages that people wrote on. They had to read them out loud to me. So I was like, “Send me a picture of what these look like?” Then I literally cut out a piece of paper the same size and I was like, How much can you fill this in? These notes are so fucking detailed. There’s this one woman who basically told her husband who was in prison what the kids eat everyday. It’s all these details that to us mean absolutely nothing. But when you’re in prison, you want to feel like you’re still a part of a family. These letters become a form of escape and that's what this film needed to be.
When you’re reading one of these letters, you’re not stopping, which is why the short is done in one shot. And memories are always fragmented or not quite right. That’s why the main character imagines his son with a backpack, even if his son doesn’t go to school anymore. There also needed to be a point in this letter where the father starts reading between the lines and realizes that shit isn't going well. That tension is where something really exciting can be built. It’s universal in the sense that we all have this desire to be connected to our families. But it gets particular when you think of the situations happening around the world right now. And when you’re particular, it can allow for things to be more universal.
Is that where the title comes from?
Yeah. It came from this idea that there’s this desire a son has of, “Look, I don’t remember much about you, but I do remember that you were a man of your word.” It’s this promise that the father can’t really keep because it’s not up to him if he’s going to get out or not. But the son has to believe that his father will come out and the father will do whatever is in his ability to come out.
How did the script become a short film?
It was something that I wrote and brought to my friend Michael, who runs a small production company in Brooklyn. He was like, “Let me see if I can get something together out in Beirut and we can maybe work this out.” Then there was a production company called Reframe and they were like, “Yeah, we can do this. It sounds like a good cause.”
I contacted a DP friend in New York and literally everything was given to us for free in Beirut. They hooked it up. People just want to do good work, so I was very lucky. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Arabic, but what I was able to do was have one person from the ICRC there with me who could help translate things and make sure that everything was being communicated correctly.
How did you cast the film?
The main guy in it, the father, he’s a known for acting in soap-operas. He was friends with one of the people that was helping us make the film. He came out and did us a favor. The kid was from a local acting school…
What was the filming like?
This was filmed over the course of two days. We have all these people working and then the young actor shows up and he doesn’t have any of his lines memorized. We basically had this crew working—they’re sweating their asses off, it’s the middle of the summer—and he’s getting all his lines messed up. We stopped production and I was like, “What’s wrong?” He goes, “Look, I don’t know if I can do this.” I was like, “Fuck.” We’ve got all these people here working and we don’t have much time to get this right, and it’s one shot. So we stopped production and I told him to sit with somebody and get his lines memorized. That’s when I realized the day was gone.
We had to make sure the sun was at a certain point, because the film walks this fine line where it’s very pedestrian and documentary-like, and also still has a filmic, professional quality. We were losing light that day and it just wasn’t going to work. We got there the next day and I was ready to not do the one-shot—not because it wasn’t working, but because I wanted to honor everyone working to make the film. Thank God he had his lines down.
What are your plans for the film from here?
We haven’t submitted it to many festivals yet. What I really would love to do is keep exploring letters. I have so many more letters and I don’t want to stop this. There’s so much to explore on how people communicate and the urgency of communication, particularly with people who are dying or people who know that this will be their last letter. There’s something really powerful with what words you leave behind. For me, this is just an experiment in that. I’m so happy that we had the cooperation of such incredible people.
UPDATE 7/12/18: An earlier version of this piece featured incorrect information about the area in which Wa'ad was filmed and the production crew’s relationship with Hezbollah. The inaccurate information has been removed.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Emerson Rosenthal on Instagram .