Life & Culture

The Camera of Dr Morris: A film made entirely from home movies

It features a family who moved from Birmingham to the Gulf of Aqaba


Families can be dangerous: walled-off little societies with their own rules and unbreakable bonds, small wonder that cults and repressive governments are forever trying to split families apart, or replace family structures with their own.

A few decades’ worth of home movies, preserved by the dry hot climes of southern Israel, form the bricks and mortar for The Camera of Dr Morris, a flickering and fascinating glimpse into the lives of others.

The doctor himself, a Birmingham-born GP with a love of lenses and a taste for adventure, is perhaps the most mercurial presence throughout the film, not least because he’s the one behind the camera.

It’s an old, old writers’ trick, to build a tantalising character by rarely showing them, putting slivers and hints into the mouths of the people we do see, the people who love and fear and loathe them.

Dr Morris’s longest screen appearance comes courtesy of his son, Andrew, unwittingly capturing the old man on his camera phone, three days before he passes away.

I say “unwitting”, but that’s not the full story. “I’m sorry to be leaving,” says the old man, drily aware of his fate, it seems. “This is the end, the show is over,” he adds, sipping an imaginary glass of champagne.

It’s a fitting exit scene for a man and a story that is effortlessly unconventional from the start. “I’m a bit of a cold person,” says Fay Morris, the doctor’s wife and mother to three of his children.

She is commenting on her lack of remorse over the death of a family pet: a Nile crocodile, in fact, one of a pair gifted to Dr Morris by grateful Bedouin patients.

It would be more accurate to say that Fay Morris, like her husband, like my own parents and like many, I think, of that generation, seems to blow hot and cold, all the time.

The household in which I grew up had a similar flavour: presided over by almost-Victorians who tipped the milkman and disapproved of pop music, at the same time as keeping demi-johns of home-made gin bubbling away behind the sofa and making serious plans to buy a lighthouse.

A wondrous trove of grainy Super 8 film documents the Morris family’s exodus, by car, from Birmingham to the Gulf of Aqaba to begin their new life, for a while living in tents on the sand-dunes, as if the last 2,000 years haven’t happened.

Far from turning into hardy sabra-types, though, the Morrises go on to set up a little British enclave on the edge of the desert, with roses in the garden, tea served at four and the speaking of Hebrew expressly forbidden.

All families have their eccentricities, but some of the other stuff that unfolds in Morris-land seems downright bats to the outside eye.

Such as the family driving through Syria on their British passports, with every trace of Israel cut out of their clothes and the kids dosed up on tranquilisers, in case one of them should forget, and start speaking Hebrew.

The ruse works, to the point where the Morrisses are not only unmolested by the regime, but invited to camp the night in the back yard of a Syrian police station.

At other times, the prevailing emotions are sadness and pity. Fay recalls the silence in the hospital room when her daughter Aviva is born with Down’s syndrome, then going to look the condition up in a textbook, because speaking about it — with her medic husband, with anyone— is impossible.

You wonder, sometimes, if that entire generation was just too busy to deal with its feelings.

It certainly seems like that when you look at the Morris-archive, in which work scenes alternate with family gatherings, death-defying trips abroad and endless, endless, boozy, grown-up parties.

In the background, Eilat itself turns from a fly-blown frontier to a city, port and resort. It’s only rarely that something interrupts the carnival or slows things down; like the moment when Fay recalls her reaction to the sudden death of a family member.

There’s no coffin, and something about the sight of a tiny body going into the vastness of the desert shocks and stills her.

“It was traumatic, but we didn’t talk about it,” she says, pretty much summing up the experience of a generation, about everything it went through.

The Camera of Dr Morris is showing as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival November 19 to 29 in London, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford

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