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NewFest Film Review: ‘Miguel’s War’ Documentary Navigates a Rocky Personal Battlefield

As much as human beings evolve throughout their lives, there’s no escaping the impact of our childhoods on our ultimate identity. We may change our names and our places of residence, but our birthplace and upbringing will always be an essential piece of the puzzle. For the titular subject of Eliane Rehab’s Miguel’s War, that truth is undeniable as he struggles to reconcile past and present in this documentary that is at times frustrating but always rooted in relatable honesty.

Miguel’s life story begins in Lebanon, where he was born in a conservative household headed by a Catholic father. Growing up with an awareness of his homosexuality, his persona clashed with his parents’ beliefs and expectations. Eager to prove his toughness and escape from the shadow of his more traditionally masculine brother, he decides to enlist in the army during Lebanese civil war. The experience further traumatizes him, however, as he bears witness to a myriad of horrors including sexual, ethnic and armed violence. While his humanity is under threat, his sexuality is further emboldened. And in the aftermath, he decides to migrate to Spain to finally get a chance at freedom. Reinventing himself, he changes his name from Michel to Miguel and indulges in a life of sexual debauchery. But as his past continues to haunt him, he agrees to revisit his pain through the medium of film.

Indeed, Miguel’s War is a prime example of filmmaking as therapy. Under Rehab’s direction, the film excavates Miguel’s past as he recounts the experiences that shaped his life and psyche. Utilizing animation and audition scenes for a biographical production to supplement Miguel’s painful testimonials, Rehab crafts an eclectic portrait of her subject. Both explicit and guarded, Miguel’s revelations give us a keen sense of his love-hate relationship with family and home, his lingering inferiority complex and the ultimately empty sexual exploits underpinning his newfound identity.

Like a vulnerable therapy session, however, the big picture isn’t always readily forthcoming. While Rehab’s poking of Miguel’s old wounds is ultimately effective, his hesitation to divulge particularly important moments of his life sometimes feels limiting. Furthermore, the mixed media approach often muddles the storytelling and our understanding of the characters involved. And while Miguel’s present day rebirth is evident through his moments of unbridled laughter, the specifics of his current life aren’t always clear. We see snippets of him as a drag queen, a singer, a filmmaker and an interpreter, but we are largely left to assume whether these are hobbies or career interests.

Ultimately, Miguel’s War may not be the most coherent or satisfying documentary. But its erratic and sometimes dubious – Miguel’s recollections aren’t always based on fact – nature feels true to both the subject and life itself. Miguel’s War certainly picks its battles.

SCORE: ★★1/2


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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