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.
There’s a saving humor in the atmosphere, too: in the brusque flirtatiousness of a doctor who is supposed to be treating Malek for sleep apnea but prefers to sneak a cigarette with him, or in the succession of ring tones that Malek idly scrolls through on his mobile phone, each one more apologetic, forlorn or depressed than the last. (He chooses the one titled "Oops.") Graveyard chuckles. They keep you going through a movie that, on the whole, is a mood piece about a dangerous torpor—a postwar condition, evidently, that at the end has Malek driving about in willful blindness while his sleepless mother waits in an armchair, gun in hand, for someone to open the apartment door.
Translate this melancholy into absurdist laughter, and the lassitude into an itchy exasperation, and you’ve got the mood of another city tour in the series: Michel Kammoun’s wryly entertaining Falafel (2006). Here the protagonist, Tou (Elie Mitri), is wide awake as he rides his moped through present-day Beirut toward a dance party with his buddies and his heartthrob, Yasmin (Gabrielle Bou Rached). Though he’s a scuffling guy without much money, Tou has the hair and beard of a hipster Sufi (the kindness, too) and knows how to shimmy up to a girl with loose-limbed, self-confident charm; and so his chances with Yasmin would be pretty good, if things around him didn’t keep getting crazily out of hand. While filling the tank of his moped, he witnesses a kidnapping just outside the gas station. While engaged in a promising chat with Yasmin, he is interrupted by an uproar over his very drunk pal Abboudi (Issam Bou Khaled), who had tried to flatter a woman by grabbing her breasts and is now locked in the bathroom, weeping and apologizing to the world. These incidents are mere inconveniences, though, compared with the precipitating event, in which a well-connected "businessman" gets into a parking lot argument with another of Tou’s buddies, takes out a pistol and smashes it against Tou’s head.
That’s enough to turn easygoing Tou into a moped-riding avenger, roaring through the Beirut night in a blood-red shirt (he’s changed for the occasion) until he gets satisfaction—or, rather, until the moped breaks down and he has to walk. Off he trudges, like a Lebanese version of the hero of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, through random blunders and confrontations, while his unsteady friends, alarmed, search just as randomly for him. The threat of irreversible violence mounts; and then it dissipates, in fulfillment of a prophecy that had been uttered to Tou earlier that evening in a falafel shop. Imagine, if you will, an antigravitational falafel ball, a falafel ball that alone of its kind can rise above its own deep-fried nature. It’s like imagining that one injured and humiliated Lebanese man, out of millions, might miraculously forgo revenge.
Imagine freedom. That’s what Kammoun ultimately does in Falafel—with enough tartness, and enough of a sense of the fragility of normal life, to make his moment of ground-chickpea whimsy go down easily.
I wish I could say the same for the magical conceits of The Kite (2003). This is the final film by Randa Chahal Sabag, which is unfortunate—because she died, tragically, at too young an age, and also because she ought to have finished with something better.
Set on the border between Lebanon and Israel, where members of families have been cut off from one another, The Kite is a relentlessly, lifelessly symbolic story about a brave, defiant and beautiful teenager, Lamia (Flavia Bechara), who suffers and triumphs and at last transcends not only borders but death itself. When I compare this fussy stuff to the harsh, probing honesty of Sabag’s Our Imprudent Wars, I feel as if she had let herself backslide from responsibility to piety. In the documentary, Sabag recorded her sister’s disgust at the Lebanese habit (as she saw it) of ascribing their wars to other people, "as if they were fought by Martians." But in The Kite, Sabag made her own contribution to Martian-think, locating all violence (and all moral falseness) on the Israeli side of the wire. Yes, I know what the Israeli invasions have done to the south of Lebanon; I know about the cluster bombs, the assaults on civilians and all the rest. I also know an evasion when I see one. When The Kite‘s leaden thaumaturgy gave out its final clunk, I was glad to see it go—and more convinced than ever that the Middle East is one place in the world where magical thinking should not be encouraged.
But nothing is wished away, and nothing evaded, in Mohamed Soueid’s My Heart Beats Only for Her (2008), an essay film that is by far the most impressive of the pictures I was able to see in the Lincoln Center series. As wide-ranging and intelligent as a Chris Marker documentary, and as determined to look facts in the face, Soueid’s film is on one level a group portrait of revolutionaries in retirement: comfortable, middle-aged men shown talking with pleasure about their years as Fatah militants. On a second level, the film is a fiction told in voiceover, in which a young man named Hassan (a surrogate for Soueid himself) tries to reconstruct the exploits of his late father, Hatem Hatem: film buff, motorcycle enthusiast and Fatah fighter. On yet another level, the film is a critical history, related through archival footage, of Fatah’s ideological emulation of the Vietcong, its training in North Vietnam and its determination to make Beirut a second Hanoi. And on a fourth level, My Heart Beats Only for Her is a travelogue, taking you from old Hanoi (the Arab dream city of the past) to the Arab dream city of today: Dubai. Indeed, on the evidence of the contemporary footage, Hanoi itself now looks to be running as fast as it can down Dubai’s road of shopping malls and spec skyscrapers—and the former militants, taking a break from humming their old battle anthems, admit that there’s no resisting real estate development.
Maybe Soueid’s interview subjects mourn the passing of their machine-gun days. (As one of them says, in a line that could sum up much of the Lincoln Center series, "I wish I could live in war that went on forever—but where nobody got killed.") Soueid, though, seems to have no regrets, despite his deadpan disdain for the rise of Dubai. Addressing the fictional Hatem Hatem in voiceover and judging what this radical father accomplished through all his fighting, Soueid concludes, "You came closer to Cambodia than Hanoi."
My Heart Beats Only for Her is a challenging, idiosyncratic, utterly personal response to the new normality of Lebanon, and to the horrendous abnormality that still lingers from the past. In its formal and intellectual sophistication, it stands out among the films in "The Calm After the Storm"; but in another way, it is very much a part of the whole. Most of the films in this series are direct evidence in themselves of a society being patched back together, since the film industry (such as it was) may be numbered among all the other elements of Lebanese life that were blasted apart in the wars. Now, against all odds, the cinema has returned but on a different basis, with each film being realized only through the power of individual artistic determination, coupled with a feverish drive for co-production funds.
It’s as if all those new towers in Beirut had somehow been put up by artisanal labor, done whenever the architect-contractor happened to have a little money.
Extremely Short Takes: Moviegoers who are interested in the city tours of "The Calm After the Storm" will surely want to seek out Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats, an often exhilarating excursion through Tehran’s underground music scene. (Speed metal is big, as is indie rock performed in English. Who knew?) Moviegoers curious about surprise crossovers in Middle Eastern film may enjoy a beautifully realized adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s novella The Duel, directed by the Georgian-born Israeli filmmaker Dover Kosashvili, shot in Croatia (substituting for the Caucasus) and performed by a partly Irish cast. Somehow, this works, and is available for inspection in New York at Film Forum. As for moviegoers who just want a good time, they should watch for Ken Loach’s soon-to-be-released Looking for Eric: a thoroughly delightful fable about a depressed postman in Manchester who is rescued from despair by his mates at work (who transform themselves into a therapy group for him), some marijuana filched from his teenage son and the hallucinatory intervention of his hero, the great Manchester United striker Eric Cantona. "You must say non," Cantona advises the beleaguered postman. "In French!" And to Looking for Eric, you must say oui.