Lebanese director Rawane Nassif’s short film Turtles Are Always Home (originally titled Sokun Al Sulfuhat; 2017; 12 min) is a self-portrait of a transient artist exploring the meaning of home, and ultimately settling on a more abstract definition of the word. The short film, set in Doha, Qatar, was featured in the Forum Expanded section at Berlinale 2017.
Rawane Nassif has directed several documentary shorts that address anthropological topics such as “space, traditions, identities, displacement, and memory.” Nassif has also published a book, in which she analyzes the reconstruction of downtown Beirut after the Lebanese War and its effects on the city’s residents.
ScreenPrism spoke with Rawane Nassif about what inspired her to make Turtles Are Always Home, the intention behind the shots of reflections, the power of connective experiences in film, and more. 

ScreenPrism: What inspired you to make this film?

Rawane Nassif: I have been living for over a year now in Qatar, in the place where I shot the film. It is a beautiful fake Venice, perfectly built, constantly cleaned and watched, and covered with billboards on the windows that mimic life inside of the houses. As I mentioned in my synopsis: “I left Lebanon in 2006. For the past 10 years, I lived in 7 countries, 10 cities, and 21 homes. I packed all of my life into two suitcases and a backpack. The rest stayed behind.”

I have been uprooted and longing for a home for years, and it was that need to transform my house into a home that inspired me to make this film… I believed that if I spent enough time and energy observing and filming [the place] I live, I would eventually get attached to it. And it worked. It also allowed me to dig deeper into my feelings of homelessness and question the concept of home all together.

"Turtles Are Always Home" (2017)

What is the meaning behind the title Turtles Are Always Home?

Turtles take their homes with them wherever they go. I have been looking for homes in many places – hoping for a door to open and for a familiar smell to welcome me in – but I have not found that in a physical place yet. The first time I left Lebanon, I lost the sense of home and it is very difficult to gain it back. I even forgot what being at home felt like. But I developed the capacity to carry my home with me and to just drop it whenever I land, with my two suitcases, one red and one blue. So like a turtle, I am always home. Home ceased to be a place: it became a movable concept.

There were several gorgeous shots of reflections in the film that seem to render the impermanence of place. Was this your intention? What other camera techniques did you use to achieve this?

All the shots are a result of careful observation of my surrounding and a particular attention to the timing of routine activities, such as the crossing of a plane on a distinct axis or the routine patrol of a security guard. I was also observing the reflections of the buildings on the windows of empty shops. Behind them were billboards that “reflect” the desired happy and wealthy society that supposedly lives in this place. So it became a place of reflections upon reflections where you never know what level you are at.

My intention was to go beyond those images, and cut through the reflection both in a physical and an emotional sense, to find myself and the real image behind the glass. On a technical level, I wanted to mirror the action of coming close to a window to see what is behind it, and then by physically cutting the light that is reflecting the city behind me, I could cross over to the other side to see the inside of the city and myself. As a camera technique it was a very simple travelling made on the axe of the tripod. No editing or layering was involved.

"Turtles Are Always Home"

What was your experience like at Berlinale? Did you get a chance to see any other shorts or features?

It was beyond great! I felt like a student all over again, going to all of the carefully curated screenings at Forum Expanded and then discussing the films with other directors and feeling part of a community. I learned a lot about experimental cinema, watched many features and shorts from both the Forum and the Forum Expanded sections and went to talks and parties. I sometimes had 18-hour days! Time stopped. I felt I was there for months since I watched so many films and met so many people that I was in different emotional states. It was an incredible experience.

Watching your film made me think about people who are being affected by immigration crises worldwide - those who aren't treated as individuals, but as masses. They must have such complex, fragmented ideas of home. Was this something you were thinking about while making the film? I know you emigrated from Lebanon yourself.

I am an anthropologist by training, and I am used to telling the stories of others, but this time I wanted to tell my own story instead to communicate how displacement feels. I have a firm belief that all stories are connected, and thus I hoped that spectators would feel what it’s like to not have a home and [that they would] think on a global scale about the refugees and immigrants’ crisis. Many who have left, willingly or not, carry an emptiness inside and a desire to find a home. This lingers on even after settling in a new house.   

Filmmaker Rawane Nassif and Forum Expanded Curator/Filmmaker Khaled Abdulwahed at Berlinale 2017

Your film made me want to visit Doha, Qatar. What is it like living & filming there?  

Well, my film is not a reflection of Doha – I am using the space as a palette to express my feelings of a global transient looking for a home. My life in Doha is really creative: I have an interesting job, I’ve met great minds from all over the world, and I’ve found both a supportive film community that I am living and working with and a quiet mental space that lets me reflect on my life and on my art. I have been in Doha for 2 years now, and it was a welcomed change to the rhythm of my life.

What do you think makes a great short film? 

I think what makes a great art piece is the way it communicates thoughts and feelings and lets others reflect on their own. It’s also about the dialogues that open up after [an audience watches] the piece.

"Turtles Are Always Home"

What advice would you give other short filmmakers?

The biggest surprise [at Berlinale] for me was to see that other people liked my film, and it was amazing to feel heard and understood by complete strangers. There are always shared experiences, nothing is new, so I prefer to work fully from the heart since then I think it will touch the hearts of others. Also, a short film (with a very low budget and thus very low risk) can give you the freedom to go fully and carelessly into your vision, until you distill from it your own essence as a filmmaker. And that is the magic of art. [It lets] us discover ourselves again – our limitations, dreams, fears and doubts – and then we can open them all up and put them in different forms on the screen. There is so much joy and an alchemy in the process for us to thrive on, regardless [of whether] the film is picked by festivals or not.