The Length of the Alphabet (2013)
Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 1st to May 11th. For more information please visit tjff.com or follow the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on Twitter at @TJFFtweets.
Joe Balass’ The Length of the Alphabet is a short doc (under an hour) that celebrates the life and career of Jewish Iraqi writer Naim Kattan who made a name for himself after moving to Quebec in 1954. Kattan is an interesting fellow, one who hails from Iraq and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, French and English. After WWII, he moved to France and from there to Montreal.
After arriving in Montreal, he was surprised at the ethnic division in the city. He loved the French language and discovered that most of the French speaking people were Catholic and the local Jews wrote their pamphlets and information in English. So, he started a Jewish publication in French to try and bridge the gap between the people.
Throughout the film, Balass gives us a lot of information about what Kattan did and why it was important.
He also started writing novels and became a local literary figure too. He is credited with bringing together the intelligentsia of the city across languages and forming societies that were not limited to culture or language.
Throughout the film, Balass gives us a lot of information about what Kattan did and why it was important. The biggest trouble is that he spends very little time on anything in particular and that gives us an unclear picture of Kattan. He seems to be a man that should be admired, though I’m not exactly sure why. To keep the film moving, Balass assumes knowledge of Kattan on the part of the audience that is not likely to be there. He peppers in passages from Kattan’s books in text over picturesque landscapes in an effort to let the audience in on the beauty of Kattan’s writing. This works, but only to a point because the passages are without context to the rest of the books.
More of the film follows Kattan himself, now in his mid-80s, around the city of Montreal where he tells us about the places he used to live and work and how they aren’t there anymore. With that, we also get talking heads telling us how important Kattan was to the formation of the current cultural climate of the city.
The film is well put together, and is interesting as far as it lets itself be. The thing holding it back ultimately is its 53 minute length.
All of this leads to the point the film is trying to make: Kattan should be and is an admired man. The trouble is the film keeps people who are not already fans at a distance. For those who are familiar with his work, I’m sure this plays as a love letter to a great man, but to someone who isn’t a fan or even previously aware of Kattan it is an interesting if truncated account of the man’s life. I wanted to know more about him and the broader impact of his work, if there has been any. As it stands, the film focuses on Montreal and his import there which is fine for those in Montreal but for someone like who lives elsewhere it feels incomplete.
The film is well put together, and is interesting as far as it lets itself be. The thing holding it back ultimately is its 53 minute length. There is more of a feeling that Balass is trying to squeeze in as much as possible in a short amount of time and if he’d expanded the film by half an hour or even a little more and not rushed the personal details of Kattan’s life, the film would have felt complete and people unfamiliar with him would have a clearer picture of his life and work and may come away with an appreciation of him and even seek out his work to more fully understand him. Instead, you’re left with something that could have been much better and informative, a beginning and middle without a real end.
For those who are familiar with his work, I’m sure this plays as a love letter to a great man, but to someone who isn’t a fan or even previously aware of Kattan it is an interesting if truncated account of the man’s life.