Credit: Nour Ouayda/Cinéma du Réel
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

The Secret Garden — Nour Ouayda [Cinéma du Réel ’23 Review]

March 31, 2023

Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 film Shirin is constructed entirely of closeups of faces as spectators react to a film playing in front of them. But the film they are watching is never actually shown — it’s alluded to only via snippets of dialogue and sound effects that transpire entirely offscreen. Playfully idiosyncratic and with a wry sense of humor, Nour Ouayda’s The Secret Garden fashions a sci-fi epic in a similar design to Kiarostami’s experiment; shooting in and around Beirut on what appears to be 16mm film, The Secret Garden recounts a takeover by plant-like alien invaders who are encroaching further and further into the city. But this surprisingly complicated, expansive scope is relayed only via voiceover narration while accompanied by otherwise staid documentary images. In other words, a fictional narrative and non-fiction images butt up against each other in a kind of amalgamation of the two modes, each informing but also contrasting the other (not unlike Ben Rivers’ Slow Action, come to think of it). In the case of The Secret Garden, Ouayda’s images consist of various plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers, some growing naturally in the landscape, some bursting through the concrete sidewalks and brick walls of the city, and still others potted and hanging from balconies and window sills. Natural light coupled with the fine film grain of the 16mm gives the patina of an aged home movie, like an unearthed relic from the 1970s. 

Sectioned into eight chapters, the film charts the strange appearance of and the gradual accumulation of these “never-before-seen” plants. Shots of vines emerging from drain pipes and canal walls reinforce the idea of a violent emergence, while the voiceover narration suggests the intonation of a breathless news report. “Chapter 2” introduces Camelia and Nahla, our ostensible protagonists (even though no human figures are ever seen during the film). But we do hear their voices via the narration, creating a kind of harmony between multiple commentators. According to that narration, the two women have discovered a box filled with notebooks and a map. One of the notebooks is titled “At the Edge of the City, a Garden,” and it contains sketches of all the plants that have ‘infiltrated’ the city. A woman’s voice reads excerpts from this mysterious document, which detail a series of extraordinary creatures and fauna that occupy a space beyond the city. All the while, images of plants continue to flash across the screen, a diverse array of nature footage creating an oddly immersive quality. 

Ouayda has a talent for casting the familiar as unfamiliar. Occasionally, as the narration builds to a dramatic beat, Ouaydawill violently shake the camera or increase the speed of the editing, rupturing the otherwise lulling quality of the recitation. Shots of nature eventually give way to a more urban milieu, broaching the idea that the plants are either being domesticated by humans or are silently waiting for a moment to strike. It’s a lo-fi War of the Worlds, a fantasy epic conveyed via the simplest means. Critic Alex Fields has suggested some deeper readings than mere genre film pastiche — that Beruit is difficult to divorce from its context as a site of years-long civil war, and a palpable yearning for a return to beauty (the transformation of bomb impact craters into flower beds is a key part of Godard’s Notre Musique, and the plight of Sarajevo feels pertinent here as well). There are hidden depths to this short film, a lovely and mysterious object that seeks beauty in the everyday. The world is wonderous, we simply have to look carefully, and, importantly, differently. 

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.