Funnily enough for a movie about memory, I am writing this a full five days after seeing it. It is perhaps not the best practice for a film review, but A Present From the Past is less a narrative, and more an attack on that vulnerable spot where relationships build up, each leaving a mark that fades with time but never quite disappears. The details may have dulled, but this is not the kind of film that makes a stealthy escape—I feel the rush just as much as I did when the credits rolled.
The documentary revolved around a father-daughter duo: Kawthar the director, and her septuagenarian dad Mokhtar. For his upcoming birthday, she surprises him with a trip to Europe to track down his “one that got away”—an Italian by the name of Patrizia, who, in 33 years of silence, misplaced totems and fading memories, he had built up into romance and passion incarnate.
A dramatic duo with a shared stubborn streak, the two have a bond that lights up the screen. He hums, she teases; his temper flares, she responds in kind; he trails off lost in thought, she lives the secondhand memory just as vividly as he does. Kawthar—in a feat of filmmaking, shooting using her phone and handheld camcorder—wedges the audience right there in between. Each shot in the movie was stealthily captured without her father’s knowledge, and unhindered by self-consciousness, the film hits at the heart of the give and take between the unreliability of memory and the altering effects of raw emotion.
Dwelling on memories has us polishing our pasts, magnifying our roles in them, orienting ourselves in the centre of their orbit. In Mokhtar’s case, there’s no one around to challenge his take on the relationship, no reality check to the narrative of Patrizia being the love of his life. He has built himself up to be her Arabian knight and, as much as she teases him with her scepticism, Kawthar’s just as smitten as the rest of us are.
The strength of his emotion though, and the amount of energy he has put into keeping the memory of this relationship alive, gives the film an overwhelming feeling of honesty. Caught up in the current of the story, there is no questioning that Patrizia could be any less invested in the relationship than he is. How could she, when the memories they made were powerful enough for not only Mokhtar, but also his daughter from another woman, to prop up this short-lived relationship on a pedestal for over three decades? Their love was one for the books, and by virtue of sheer determination, we believe it just in time for Patrizia to make an appearance.
I will not go into her reaction. For one, I do not want to spoil the film, not that I believe that it is possible to do so. And for the other, even though this meeting is what the film drives to throughout its runtime, Patrizia’s largely a footnote to the central father-daughter relationship. The film explores the stories we choose to remember; the moments we decide to imbue with significance when crafting our personal narratives. Through these characters and the way the documentary was filmed, we are blessed with two leads largely unencumbered by notions of propriety. She is an idealist, caught up in a fantastical project; he is all too aware of the power of a person’s final act.
During a post-screening discussion, the director mentioned the 300+ hours of footage she had shot to make this movie, and the subsequent whittling down and tweaking of timelines to reach a swift, compact 80 minutes. It is no secret that films are crafted in the editing bay, and while this one may dive into Mokhtar’s past and features him in almost every frame, ultimately our eyes are Kawthar’s. A Present From the Past is not a film about a man following through on a fanciful dream. It is an example of a young woman defining the values that make life worth looking back on, taking a hold of her past and sharing the journey with the man dearest to her: her dad.