Turtles Are Always Home, an experimental short documentary by Rawane Nassif, travels around the globe to be featured in several film festivals and win a couple of awards. The documentary tackles many themes including history, identity, memory, nomadism, and mostly the matter of belonging to one particular place we call home. The movie is a crucial project in Nassif’s life as it contemplates her current “artificial” life and surroundings in Qatar and her struggle to belong to this place that eventually compel her to look within for answers. From such hollowness, Nassif explores new perspectives on her own life and decides what home is for her.

To relate to the feelings and struggle expressed in this short experimental documentary, it is worth knowing about Nassif’s long nomadic journey. To begin with, Rawane Nassif was born in Lebanon in 1983. She is a Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker and anthropologist. She has a BFA in Filmmaking from the Université Saint Joseph in Lebanon and an MA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Alberta. Her anthropological studies were quite in line with her nomadic lifestyle that carried her to 7 different countries, 10 cities and 21 homes. It must not be surprising then that she has slept in 21 beds, cooked in 21 kitchens, cleaned 21 bathrooms, wrote on 21 desks and locked 21 doors behind her, in the last 10 years alone. While she may be left with countless memories, Rawane’s academic and professional work does as well deal with memory in addition to space, tradition, identity and displacement. She has directed several documentaries and written a book on the politics of memory in Lebanon, worked with immigrants in Canada, conducted visual research on nomadic traditions in Kyrgyzstan, taught anthropology in Tajikistan, and written children’s books based on the oral histories of Roatan, an Island off the coast of Honduras. Along this journey of nomadism and anthropology, Nassif ended up with two suitcases and a backpack that pretty much contain all her life. She notes:

The rest stayed behind. Somebody somewhere uses my bed, somebody somewhere has my shoes, somebody somewhere maybe remembers me in those fragmented traces of mine. I was there. But now I am here. In Qatar. In a fake Venice with colorful houses. Houses have memories too. They hide them under their windowsills, tuck them in layers of paint and sometimes whisper them to birds passing by. I wonder whose memories these houses will keep. I live here but I am unable to leave a trace. I try to attach myself to the walls, dirty them, mark them… but I fail. They are constantly cleaned, watched, and protected. I caress them instead. And I film them, lest I forget.”

Those feelings and this mood led Rawane to venture into the journey of creating and filming Turtles Are Always Home. The movie is a sequence of static shots taken in in Qanat Quarter, a fake Venice built on a reclaimed land in Doha, Qatar, depicting the artificial element invading this place and the lack of human interaction everywhere. You can hardly distinguish whether it’s a dream or reality. Most shots are shift of focus from display windows that slowly and eventually reveal the reflection of what is behind the camera, thus juxtaposing background and foreground or observer and observed. Just as the place itself is an imitation of something else, the camera similarly delivers a secondhand image, thus widening the gap between observer and observed. This gap mirrors Rawane’s struggle to connect to her environment and surroundings. For her “the place is constantly cleaned, watched and protected,” thus cannot be genuinely experienced. As much as the place does not affect her, she seems unable to alter it or leave a trace. There is a constant barrier between herself and her surroundings that cannot be crossed. The place and the person are nonexistent to each other. It is this alienation that triggers Rawane to reflect on what home is and the importance of connecting and interacting with where you live.

Despite her years of nomadism, her endeavors to connect to her new host city, Doha, were in vain. This artificial Venice that exists in “non-place” was lacking any emotions or memories to make it a home. The process of bringing this film to life was thus an inner journey and a search for roots. The lifeless stillness of the different settings shot in Doha is countered with bursting inner reflections on years lived away from home. Rawane left home 10 years ago by choice and had a firm commitment to her roots ever since. Surprisingly, the year spent in Doha yielded a new truth. Throughout the 10 years, these roots grew upward rather than downward, and her country became a mere suitcase she carries along wherever she goes. The pain of letting go of home turns into peace; the peace of realizing and accepting that countries are but a transient environment and a spiritual place that travels where we go just like a shell. As much as it is a personal experimental movie, this theme of place and identity is an experience shared with every traveler. The home they leave is never the same again just as they are never the same. Rawane notes: “I felt that I kept in me a seed of the Arabic Lebanon that actually is not there anymore, this seed survives with us who left and who cherish it.”

While the camera is focused outward to capture the emptiness of the present moment, Rawane ponders within on the memories of a vibrant past. The connection between memory and camera becomes nothing more than motionless reflections on window displays. This personal journey yields new perceptions and a new definition of home, it brings peace and a sense of freedom pursued for years. Rawane explores a personal journey through this documentary, yet her experience relates to many travelers and to an ever growing diaspora around the world.

Home is where the heart is, they say. I disagree. My heart is everywhere. Like a turtle, I am always home.” Rawane

• 2002: Draw Me Palestine (2 min)
• 2004: Leaded Unleaded (35 min), Serheldan (18 min), Dalil (18 min), On the Road (18 min)
• 2005: My Ball (18 min)
• 2007: No Coke (2 min), Bike Love (15 min)
• 2009: Zoukak Migration (32 min)
• 2012: Three Women in the Jailoo (31 min)
• 2016: Turtles are Always Home (12 min)

• 2012: The Politics of Memory: Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut, Lambert Academic Publishing
• 2014: The Magic Conch - A McCoy Of Course - Toby And Puffy, Cultural Literacy Books Series Honduras, Global Affairs Canada

About the Movie
• Written and directed by Rawane Nassif
• Cast: Rawane Nassif
• Director of Photography: Rawane Nassif
• Editor: Rawane Nassif
• Music: Rawane Nassif, Sasha Parsons
• Sound Design: Victore Bresse
• Sound: Rawane Nassif
• Assistant Director: Idris Al Hassan
• Producers: Rawane Nassif, Doha Film Institute