“This knob here is a radio switch, but what I see in it is an exploded engine,” says Mohamad Hafez (previously) in the opening of a new short film. The project of Jimmy Goldblum for The New Yorker Documentary series, “A Broken House” is a heartbreaking glimpse of the artist’s life and work and the horrific impacts of the Syrian war.
Born in Damascus, Hafez originally came to the U.S. on a single-entry visa to study architecture. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, travel restrictions changed, and he realized that he had to stay in the U.S. or risk not being able to return to complete his degree. Hafez missed weddings, funerals, and births and an immense homesickness grew. At one point asked himself, “If you can’t get home, why don’t you make home?” That prompted what’s now a mainstay of his practice, which involves constructing architectural miniatures of his native city using found objects. “I wanted to build the Damascus of my memories,” he says.
Although “A Broken House” begins with the artist’s studio in New Haven, Connecticut, the majority of the documentary follows the aftermath of the civil war. Goldblum and Hafez visit a refugee camp and speak with a father living there, and they spend time with the artist’s mother in Beirut, who refuses to leave her home in Syria, because it’s the closest city Hafez can travel to without being ensnared in the war.
Ultimately, the film highlights how the war has caused an immense loss of life and destroyed important cultural and historical sites. Hafez reflects this damage in his miniatures, which often feature dust-coated rubble, chipped paint, and fragments of bombed-out buildings. “If something did not look right,” the artist says about his work, “I took a hammer to it, and I snapped it, and I would throw ash on it, and I would burn it.” Although Hafez is intent on humanizing refugees, he tends to leave the ruins devoid of people to instead focus on the grim aftermath of war without blood or bodily harm.
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