Culture

A quest for young adult glee in Beirut

BEIRUT: As “One of These Days” opens, a young woman crawls out the window of a rural house and makes her way toward Beirut. Her name is Yasmina and she’s escaped the rehab center where she was banished to kick her heroin habit. Nadim Tabet’s feature film debut tells the story of Yasmina’s 24-hour vacation from detox, the pleasures and demons that revisit her and the circle of friends and acquaintances she encounters during her stay.

Between the ages of 17 and 22, these characters are all at risk of losing their youthful “glee” with life, as Yasmina puts it. In a sense, Tabet’s film aspires to depict a day in the life of contemporary Beirut youth.

Not wanting her parents to find her, Yasmina (Yumna Marwan) is selective about who she contacts in Beirut. She first calls her boyfriend Rami (Walid Feghali), a musician with whom she used to write and perform. He seems hesitant to meet her at first and, after closing his mobile, Rami’s voice-over (accompanied by a montage of stills meant to depict the city’s youth demimonde) recounts his backstory with Yasmina.

Yasmina then rings her best pal Maya (Manal Issa). The scene change introduces you to Maya’s bother Fouad (Nicolas Cardahi). A semicomic figure, he’s been dumped by his activist girlfriend so, presumably in an effort to win her back, he devotes much on-screen time to memorizing significant names and dates from Lebanon’s blood-splattered 20th-century history. None of it seems to stick.

Manal too has a character quirk – innocence – and an anxious anticipation of losing her virginity propels her through the film. Otherwise her principal role (other than minding Fouad and Rami) is to give Yasmina someplace to hang out before meeting Rami. After her friend’s abrupt call, Manal too delivers a voice-over testimonial sketching their relationship. (She’d been dating Rami when she and Yasmina met but nothing happened between them so she remains a virgin.)

There are other characters. Rami’s hash supplier Tarek (Panos Aprahamian) is a meek outsider who takes a shine to Manal. Amira (Reine Salameh) has a shiny new thing with Rami that gets thrown up in the air by Yasmina’s return. Yasmina’s “Syrian” acquaintance Micho (Julian Farhat), parachutes into the film’s final act to serve two roles – one a plot necessity, the other gratuitous.

“One of These Days” premiered last November at the Rome film festival and is now enjoying a limited release in Lebanon.

Since the late 1990s, Tabet has worked as a film director, writer and editor and is among the co-founders of the city’s Lebanese Film Festival (originally called ne.a Beyrouth). He has 11 shorts to his credit, many of which betray an abiding interest in Lebanon’s youth culture.

The most accomplished of these, arguably, was “Jeunes et innocents” from 2007. Over the course of this midlength film, a handful of high school senior-ish figures undergo the mundane stuff of free-spirited friendship, lust and loyalty, booze, music and drugs that preoccupies quite a lot of earnest Western cinema about adolescents.

Some local viewers found “Jeunes” refreshing for its authenticity. Like so many kids from the (admittedly restricted) demographic on which they’re modeled, these characters were indifferent to politics, so Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system, and with it the specter of its Civil War, was absent from the conversation.

Not much happens to fill the void created by the dearth of sectarian chit-chat and tribal violence – the closest that film veers to something “eventful” is when a couple of characters drop by the rehearsal of a local post-punk band – so “Jeunes” was redolent of the sort of placelessness associated with some European cinema.

A decade later, “One of These Days,” returns to Lebanon’s youth.

The new cast of characters is still keen on sex and drugs and rock’n’roll but it’s less young and innocent. (Yasmina’s day in Beirut plays out against radio reports from the northeast of the country of clashes between Islamist insurgents and the Lebanese Army.) The characters are also somewhat more diverse in socio-economic terms, but these gestures to contemporary reality don’t make it a better film.

While it honors realist convention, “Days” has a few formal conceits, the utility of which is unclear.

The film exists in the moment, so much of the narrative heavy lifting is done by voice-over monologue – whether backstory testimonials, a Dear John email or Dear Jane phone message (from a character you’re told doesn’t have a mobile). So much plot detail is disgorged this way it comes to feel less a stylish gesture than a postproduction shortcut.

Pascal Auffray’s camerawork also seems disconnected from the narrative. While Yasmina and Maya are the main protagonists, the camera sometimes lingers over female characters’ bodies (as in one scene when the underwear-clad friends discuss sexual positions). The deliberation of the gesture signals “voyeurism,” yet otherwise the film doesn’t betray any interest in this theme.

Indecisive, self-absorbed and passive, most of the male characters come off less well. Micho, the film’s only adult male, is so disconnected from the proceedings that he seems a deus ex machina in Maya’s subplot.

Later, when she glimpses how Micho makes a living, her post-coital “god from the rafters” suddenly becomes Satan-like and she flees. Since Lebanese menfolk are well-documented as being active in the trade Micho’s chosen, you wonder why it was necessary for this character to be Syrian.

If there is a coup in this film, it’s its casting of Yumna Marwan and Manal Issa together.

Issa is the photogenic university student Danielle Arbid cast in the lead of her 2016 feature, “Parisienne,” who has since appeared in several films. Since Ghassan Salhab included her among the ensemble cast of his 2015 film “The Valley,” Marwan has also become an on-screen commodity.

Of the two, Marwan benefits from a more complex character.

Virtuous as Maya is, Issa isn’t given much opportunity to make her seem an adult figure. On paper, Yasmina is a self-indulgent, manipulative bitch but Marwan transforms her into a charismatic and soulful figure. The performance is, in fact, the sole substantial reason to recommend Tabet’s film.

“One of These Days” is in limited release in Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2018, on page 16.

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