Movies & TV

Review: Short films on a shifting landscape

BEIRUT: For its 16th edition, Ecrans du réel’s short film program is dedicated to Lebanese works released since 2019. This brief selection, four works in all, is unified by a common concern with shifting landscapes – whether the lens be political or environmental, earnest or frivolous.

Among the most accomplished of the four is Panos Aprahamian’s 2021 essay “This Haunting Memory That Is Not My Own.” Running 30 minutes, the work cleverly arranges a pair of voiceover narratives in counterpoint to some handsomely shot footage.

The central motif, which commences the film, is a writhing mound of silk worms, fattening themselves on the carpet of mulberry leaves they inhabit, lit darkroom-red beneath a heat lamp.

The first voiceover begins with a series of panning landscape shots filmed from the Mediterranean – the Lebanese coast and Beirut river estuary as they looked in July 2019 – and a banana grove.

The photography suggests a stroll though an inconspicuous sector east of Beirut Port, whose cranes are glimpsed first in the distance, then seeing to a laden container ship. It’s a terrain where a small fisherman’s port, the grove, a landfill project and the river estuary all huddle.

The impression of proximity seems to be confirmed by the voiceover narration of a male voice, musing upon the mass dislocation and migration that propelled him to these shores, shielded by the foul stench of pollution the river dumps into the sea.

Port, river, traumatized refugees, and the Armenian-language narration all suggest facets of Beirut and Lebanon, but the voiceover refrains from using place names.

We are “unable to complete our transformation,” remarks a female voice in Arabic, the film’s second voiceover. Anyone who lived the bipolar emotional extremes of late-2019-20 might imagine she’s referring to the frustrated promise that many saw in the mass civil demonstrations that erupted in this country in late 2019, demanding change.

But this narrator never mentions Lebanon either. Instead she returns to the silk worm, whose existence in captivity is a bit ghoulish. Devoted to gorging itself on its favourite food, in preparation for spinning the cocoon that encloses its transformation into a moth, it’s ultimately tossed into a vat of boiling water, its silk cocoon unravelled, so the thread can be used to make luxury clothing for rich people.

Poignant metaphor, that. Silk was once Lebanon’s most-prized export.

Projected in this selection with Aprahamian’s work is Chantal Partamian’s nine-minute work, “Sandjak,” 2021.

The two films are coincidentally complementary, insofar as Partamian is interested in the history of Bourj Hammoud’s Sanjak refugee camp. Founded in 1939, it received a number of Armenian families fleeing Iskanderun (aka Alexandretta), which had been part of France’s Syrian mandate until Paris ceded the territory to the Turkish republic. The camp was razed in 2017.

Relying on the voice of a lone survivor of the flight from Iskanderun who grew up in Sanjak, Partamian compiles a diverse collage of recent and historical footage to accompany and illustrate her character’s recollections.

Another more complex work in Ecrans du réel’s shorts programme is Mohamed Berro’s 34-minute “What Side on Earth do I Work For,” from 2020.

Berro’s past work has been shown in the programming of Askhal Alwan and he had his debut solo at Beirut Art Centre during the pandemic lockdown. That show, and subsequent work, betray a practice that is at once politically engaged and interested in religious and ideological utopias.

“What Side on Earth” is also comprised of two parts – “Performance with the Yamani” and “Performance with the Ministry” – both of which are interested in questions of transparency.

The first is a dramatic reconstruction of his effort to interview a former university professor who experienced a divine revelation – that he was the Yamani, the figure that some Muslim writings prophesy will anticipate the arrival of the Mahdi (messiah). The short’s title is derived from the question the Yamani asked the filmmaker in order to decide whether to cooperate with him or not.

Berro was asked to be transparent. The Yamani refused to grant the interview.

During his efforts to secure this interview, Berro was side-tracked into an inquiry about Access to Information legislation passed by the Lebanese cabinet a few years ago. The filmmaker applied for the findings of an EU-supported air quality monitoring system erected in the vicinity of Koura. Thanks to certain factories in the region, Koura is renowned for being the most polluted in all of Lebanon.

He has no problem securing interviews with a couple of knowledgeable actors in this story, but “Performance with the Ministry” unfolds as absurd comedy anyway.

Sharing Berro’s interest in Lebanon’s impending ecological disaster is Bassem Saad’s 19-minute “Kink Retrograde,” from 2019.

Erected from a series of mutually reinforcing intertitles, voiceover narration and performance, this stylish piece of work thrusts two of the prevailing themes of the contemporary human condition (climate crisis and states’ breached social contract with their citizens) against the tropes of sexual experimentation.

The work’s principal location, the intertitles promise, is a landfill (apparently the one Aprahamian filmed for his movie). Its principal character is a young fellow wearing white bondage gear beneath what might be termed a designer-brand hazmat suit.

He’s shown amiably dropping E or acid or something and reclining on the toxic terroir with a pair of smartphone googles strapped to his head. Later he strikes yoga poses.

Equipped with a poorly designed turkey baster, he extracts fluid from a piss-coloued pool he’s made to the sit alongside and uses it to water the flora. More than once he glances at the camera as if to say, “You’re sure you want me to do this?”

The short film program of Ecrans du réel will be projected twice at Beirut Art Center, on July 6 and 28 at 8 p.m. See: https://metropoliscinema.net

 

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