Thiiird: this portrait of an elderly Beirut mechanic is rich, strange and profound

Reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 1997 debut ‘The Small Town’, this documentary hybrid evokes the strange poetry of the downbeat and the ordinary as it follows a grizzled car mechanic at work in Beirut.

3 February 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Fouad Mahouly in Thiiird (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam

Combining close observation and imaginative dream-narrative, Lebanese feature Thiiird is about an elderly car mechanic named Fouad – in real life, presumably the man we see on screen, Fouad Mahouly, although we can’t be entirely certain. This quasi-documentary hybrid work by US-based director Karim Kassem – following his Only the Winds (2020) and Octopus (2021) – shows daily life in the car repair yard that Fouad runs outside Beirut, seemingly at the bottom of a ravine where it rains almost continually. Kassem’s group portrait takes in Fouad’s middle-aged assistant Mohammed and the various customers who find themselves waiting around the yard for service, as Fouad tends to insist on a sit-down and more coffee before he does anything.

As they wait, the customers get on with whatever else is consuming their lives: two young men rehearse a play, a woman has a tearful phone conversation in English, a man shakes constantly from long-term anxious sleep loss. The pressures of the outside world are constantly invoked: money problems and the state of Lebanon, but also the effect on everyone’s lives of the war in Ukraine.

Kassem and editor Alex Bakri make time elastic and fragmented: episodes start and stop, customers appear and vanish abruptly. At one point, Fouad’s shop catches fire, and an overhead shot shows him and Mohammad rushing with buckets; then suddenly we’re outside, it’s raining again, the crisis has passed in the blink of a cut.

For the first half of the film, we are given no sense of Fouad’s private self: we simply see a lanky, laconic man striding purposefully about his domain, regarding his small world with a gently pained expression. But then Fouad accompanies a friend on a car journey to the coast. Along the way, the friend tells Fouad not to isolate himself from his family – which may shed some light on the brief, elliptical scene where Fouad tenderly embraces a solemn-looking younger woman in a schoolyard.

Talal Khoury’s photography – black and white until the enigmatic final sequence – is equally precise mapping the textures of people’s faces and those of the yard’s rust, stone and ragged foliage. Capturing the tender, strange poetry of the downbeat and downright ordinary, this haunting film is perhaps most reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s similarly reality-inspired 1997 debut The Small Town. You can well imagine that, in his regard for the poetic and emotional value of the everyday, Kassem might well share the Turkish filmmaker’s enthusiasm for Chekhov, for whom the most specific experiences were always the most universal, and the most mundane the most resonant.

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