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A Rotating Search for a State of Harmony

A talk with filmmaker Taymour Boulos about anxiety, laundromats and cats

interview by Bo Alfaro Decreton

Taymour Boulos

Taymour Boulos is a Lebanese filmmaker based in Beirut. At age 13, Taymour picked up his father’s handy-cam and started documenting the daily life in his home. Consequently, he did a Bachelor of Film Directing at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. Taymour graduated from the DocNomads Joint Masters Degree. The program has taken him throughout Europe, making documentary films in Portugal, Hungary and Belgium. His short films include 'It’s Just Another Dragon' (2021), 'Sounds of Weariness' (2021), but also 'Anything Can Happen Now' (2020), 'A package and a crane' (2020) and his first medium-length film, 'Encounters on An Uncertain Spring' (2021).

There’s this thing about laundromats. They are both uninviting and attractive. Perhaps because time feels to have taken a halt there and never considered marching on, not even impulsed by the whimsical turning of the washing machine drums. Perhaps because it makes one think that upon being there, time might make that same generous gesture for them too? In ‘Sounds of Weariness’ (2021), Taymour Boulos visits a laundromat in Brussels to find anchorage and rest during an anxiety attack, which he describes in the film as “ideas piling up in my head, an icky feeling appeared in my stomach, chills ran through the body, my heart was beating faster and faster, and I was short then out of breath.”

Lebanese filmmaker Taymour Boulos ‘Sounds of Weariness’ is part of the programme 'Current Issues: Mental Health - (Not Sorry, This is a Coping Corner)' at Go Short International Short Film Festival Nijmegen this week. A talk about anxiety, laundromats and cats.

The Overwhelming Plurality of Things

“Anxiety, the way it is meant in the film, is not only to be understood as a series of concrete fears or constraints of everyday life. Anxiety is also to be understood as a mental state, in which landmarks feel fragile and things are constantly questioned and doubted.” Boulos substantiates this with his own past and present experiences with anxiety: “I often feel like I am not at the right place, not doing the right thing or not making the right choice. I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of life, or let’s say, in a less pompous way, by the plurality of things.”

“I don’t often have anxiety attacks but, in general, I’m very anxious as a person.” Boulos chose to use an anxiety attack as the starting point of his film because of it being a moment of great intensity. “Saying that one is anxious is one thing, and experiencing an anxiety attack is another. The reason why I decided the narrator would experience one is purely related to the storyline. I cheated in that sense but perhaps not so much, precisely because of anxiety being a big part of my life. On the anxiety spectrum, I lean more towards the people who experience it more often. But many people have anxiety, we all do to a certain extent.”

When asked about the cause of his anxiety, the filmmaker says: “It’s related to many things. It can be caused by concrete things, like work for example, but its causes can also be much less tangible.” He also links it to another feeling, which is particularly present in these times and aroused his (professional) interest. “Anxiety is a discomfort towards uncertainty. After ‘Sounds of Weariness’, I ended up making a film about uncertainty, which I am still working on. As an extension of that uncertainty and fear there’s also a need for control. I guess that's something every anxious person experiences.”

This raises an important question about the essence of Boulos’ filmmaking and the necessity to regain control over a slippery, frightening reality. However, the filmmaker quickly recoils from the word “control” in favor of the more subtle “clarity”. “Because filmmaking, and more particularly the documentary approach, implies the exercise of crafting reality, rearranging its elements until it deeply resonates with you, until you feel like you have reached some sort of truth.”

States Of (Paradoxical) Comfort

The search for solace is one of the cornerstones of ‘Sounds of Weariness’. Once one embarks on that quest, the longing for home is not far off. When Boulos talks about home it is never to be understood in a singular way. “On the one hand there’s the physical home: me living there in Brussels. At the same time we understand that I am Lebanese and that my home is somewhere else. More precisely in Beirut, because that is where I grew up and where my family lives.” He confronts this rather traditional, though complex, understanding of home with the idea of home as a sentiment, which is stated towards the end of the film. “Home as a non-physical place, as a state of comfort or, rather, harmony. That wonderful feeling that one is exactly where they are meant to be.”

At the core of ‘Sounds of Weariness’ there is a beautiful paradox: though we are taught to tackle our mental health problems quite secretly, Boulos confronts and deals with them (partly because there is no other way) in the public space. It makes him question how “public” public space really is, considering the digital era in which most of the time we are too distracted or entertained to want to interact with strangers. In the evolution of human interaction in public places, Boulos believes there’s an interesting train of thought that could lead us to different ways of coping. “The film suggests encountering people (or not closing oneself off to encounter them) as a possible response to some forms of anxiety in modern society.”

The filmmaker deftly integrates the laundromat as a space of interpersonal connection in his film. “Quite by accident, I ended up living in a neighborhood in Brussels surrounded by other people who also come from the Arab world, people I would meet in the laundromat. In Lebanon there’s no such thing as laundromats, so I was very intrigued by them.” It’s not evident to choose the laundromat as a research site for its apparent social meaning these days but Boulos’ fascination made him go back to (recent) history to get a sense of the social importance of the laundromat and how the attitudes of people who use them have changed throughout the years. “It used to be more of a communal space with more life and warmth.”

Besides a fascination that arose from a practical fact, the attraction of laundromats equally lies in their meaning as crossing points. “Public spaces and crossing points, such as airports, are magnetic to me because they are both comforting and cold. You end up feeling that nothing matters all too much, because there’s so much movement there. Everything is ephemeral because people come and go.” According to Boulos, this should not lead us into despair but we should rather embrace the very present paradox inherent to those places: “Once you can sit down and accept this coldness and face the fact that people come and go, at some point you will catch a glimpse of warmth.”

Unusual voyeuristic viewpoints

In ‘Sounds of Weariness’, Boulos has different conversations with other laundromat visitors. People whose faces we never see, to respect their privacy. Conversations we follow from within a washing machine, an artistic choice which was inspired by the work of Steven Pippin, a photographer who took a series of photographs from different washing machines as a study of motion. Although the inside of a washing machine is a rather unusual voyeuristic viewpoint, the circular peephole does recall the image of a key hole from which you unlock stories that you normally miss out on out of sheer habit, sluggishness or shame.

The inside of a washing machine can also inflict a sense of claustrophobia, reminding us of our not so distant past of lockdowns and collectively contained ways of living. “Some people told me that the film initially made them feel naturally anxious but that it then managed to comfort them. To talk about anxiety but at the same time to bring some reassurance is the double effect I precisely was aiming for.”

In order to achieve this double effect, Boulos opted for the spectator to be in a very defined and delimited space. The idea of demarcation even takes the experiences of other species into consideration. “I have been observing my cat and how it jumps on my laptop case. It stays there and I have been wondering why, but I think it is because my laptop case delimitates a particular space and I think cats love that. So, in that sense, perhaps this film was made for cats,” he laughs. “That search for delimitation is also present in my creative process because its fuel is to find the frame: not only for the audience but also for myself. It’s a search for clarity in which there’s not one answer, but many of them.”

These answers also come from an essential element in Boulos’ films: the search for the other and their experiences, which is also very present in his previous films such as ‘It’s Just Another Dragon’ (2020). “Personally I like documentaries in which the filmmakers state their very personal struggles and confront them with other people. Documentaries in which the light comes from the movement towards the other.” Upon describing the cinema he is fond of, he brings us as close to his poetics as we can possibly get. Though one might be tempted to add that besides capturing the light coming from approaching the other, Boulos also takes us on different paths, guided by different voices, to show us the as necessary as relatable darkness for that core light to be visible.

'Sounds of Weariness' will be screened at Go Short on April 9 and will be available online until April 20. The film is part of the programme 'Current Issues: Mental Health - (Not) Sorry, This is a Coping Corner'.

© Images

1 Portrait picture of Taymour Boulos
2 Still from 'Sounds of Weariness'