The Beirut glimpsed retrospectively in Randa Chahal Sabag’s 1995 documentary Our Imprudent Wars is a city of see-through neighborhoods where the apartment buildings are no more than masonry shells punched through with holes; a city where downtown high-rises slowly vanish within clouds of smoke, which roll up from the streets to engulf them, and the public sculptures—those embodiments of civic aspiration—lift up metal hands that are leprous with bullet scars. To see this place is to wonder how a living city could ever rise here again. To meet the primary witnesses in Sabag’s film—notably her sister the political activist, once a leader in the OACL (Communist Action Organization in Lebanon), and her brother the former gunman, instinctively distrustful of politicians but for years willing to fight in their "little wars"—is to wonder how the people of Beirut, no less than the urban fabric, could ever again be made whole.
These dual questions are at the heart of the series "The Calm After the Storm: Making Sense of Lebanon’s Civil War," organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and ArteEast and presented at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, May 5-15. (A selection from the series will later travel through North America.) A handful of the twenty-one feature-length films in the program date from before the civil war, to give viewers a notion of an earlier Lebanese cinema. A significant number of others were made during the years of fighting. But more than half are postwar pictures, in which a semblance of normality seems to have returned to the present-day cityscape, if not to the people who pass through it. Except for the uncommon number of construction sites, Beirut in these films looks like any traffic-choked Western capital, full of shops and food stalls and neon-lit clubs where young people go searching for one another. But in these films it seems as if there’s always a missed connection between the characters, with a hint of something disturbing and irrational lurking in the gap; always a trace of violence, or more than a trace, and the emergence, as if by fate, of a handgun.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige give this postwar tour of Beirut a brooding, melancholic form in A Perfect Day (2005): the story of twenty-four outwardly uneventful but inwardly busy hours in the lives of Claudia (Julia Kassar) and her grown son, Malek (Ziad Saad). On this day, with a mixture of dread and numb determination, they at last request that their husband and father be declared legally dead, fifteen years after he disappeared in the civil war. Together, they accept their loss—except that they don’t accept it, and they’re mostly alone. Claudia goes back almost without interruption to waiting silently in the apartment, listening for her man’s return, while Malek leaves her to chase after his obsession: a young woman (Alexandra Kahwagi) who looks to him like the Last Chance, even though she keeps insisting she’s through with him.
A Perfect Day keeps Malek in continual movement as he drives back and forth through the city, texts his dismissive lover and occasionally even shows up at a job site. (He is a construction manager, helping to put up some of those new buildings you see everywhere on the skyline.) But this is also a film of inescapable stasis. Though he’s a man with a good, strong stubble on his Alexander the Great profile, Malek still lives in his childhood room, sleeping in a narrow bed beneath his schoolboy map of the world. And he sleeps everywhere else, too, being subject to fits of narcolepsy that can abruptly leave him passed out on a concrete bench near the beach or unconscious behind the wheel of his car amid furiously honking traffic. Malek’s mother may justifiably accuse him of callousness for abandoning her on this devastating day. To the audience, though, he’s just dreamy and distracted, thanks to an incurable drowsiness that seems to seep out of him into the prevailing atmosphere of the movie.