As conflict was unspooling in Gaza on our television screens over the summer months, another version of the conflict altogether emerged in serialized form over 8 weeks on BBC One and the Sundance Channel. It was of particular interest to me, as it mirrored a film we had released thee years before. Both the British series, The Honourable Woman, and the Canadian film, Incendies, share an odd, bold narrative premise: to literally embody conflict in the Middle East in their central protagonist – through the incarnation of insufferable, dizzying pain in equally strong, determined and deeply traumatised women. These women are not only victims of terrible circumstances but also victims of their own actions and ultimately, of their flesh.
In Incendies, directed by Denis Villeneuve, Nawal Marwan, superbly played with a combustive mix of sensitivity and fierceness by Lubna Azabal, is a young Christian woman in a non-descript Muslim country (supposedly Lebanon) who turns against her community after witnessing unspeakable massacres and suffering abuse at the hands of her kin. What she encounters is far worse than she could have imagined, until eventually the line between both factions, as they both confound in endless brutality, is not so much blurry as seeming to have ceased to exist at all.
In the BBC miniseries The Honourable Woman, written and directed by Hugo Blick, Nessa Stein is the idealistic heiress to a Israeli armament group who is intent on creating peace in the occupied territories. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as cool and detached but teeming at the edges, her efforts have disastrous consequences, both for herself and those around her.
In both pieces, a woman is both the source and the means of waging war. What makes it particularly troubling is that in both dramas the bare, physiological essence of womanhood, the ability to carry a child, is turned into a weapon of genealogical destruction. Both Nessa and Narwal are made to bear the progeny of their aggressors, children they must love while deploring the conditions that brought them to exist; children of war who will themselves become weapons one day. Both women are locked into a terrible secret and shame with no one to turn to. Though The Honourable Woman’s Nessa, at least, has a confidante, Attica.
Attica is a refugee robbed of her family, her home, her past. She is the only one to share Nessa’s secret, and, ironically, the one Nessa really shouldn’t trust. The eerie link between the two dramas takes another dimension, on the realisation that the actress playing Attica is Lubna Azabal – Nawal from Incendies.
Both dramas, critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the world for Incendies, which received numerous awards and nominations, place fundamental trauma as the origin and unconscious perpetuator of war. Conflict has no meaning, it is part of the DNA. Children are born with it ingrained in them, and women are the unwilling carriers of it. They put the Greek back into modern tragedy and force us to reconsider events we fail to fully comprehend.
As if to entrench the connection between the two productions further, the director of Incendies, Denis Villeneuve, has now become the director of choice of Jake Gyllenhaal – the brother of Maggie. They have made two films together (Prisoners, The Enemy) and a third is announced. But that surely, is just a coincidence.
Cedric Behrel is the co-founder/ director of film distribution and production company Trinity FiIm.