Culture

An ode to hearing loss, and Beirut

BEIRUT: “I was 6 years old when I realized you were an army officer,” a female voice-over remarks in Arabic. Israel’s 1982 invasion was underway and it was while hiding underground that she decided to close her eyes and take refuge in sound.

This anecdote commences “Panoptic,” Rana Eid’s debut feature. Though it didn’t receive a proper theatrical release here, the film’s lyrical interplay of images and sound make it one of Lebanon’s more striking releases of 2017.

The documentary takes the form of a daughter’s letter to an absent parent – its voice-over being addressed to the unnamed “You” of Eid’s deceased father.

As it harkens back to the Civil War and its aftermath, the film echoes a broad swath of local documentary production that embeds the country’s current political and social eccentricities within events in the last quarter of the 20th century.

“Panoptic” is riddled with anecdote but its structure is more that of a prose poem than a narrative essay.

Though the precise series of images it dwells upon often departs from the standard template, Eid’s film is unique for the peculiar blend of autobiography and audiovisual lyricism it marshals to reflect upon its themes.

The film’s opening minutes of voice-over emerge from Eid’s sound design and play out against a black screen. After obliging the audience to listen, the film opens its eyes upon a busy nighttime autostrade.

You don’t need to recognize the location to see how darkness focuses attention on isolated points of light – glowing signage, car headlights – and foregrounds the racket of the scene.

It’s from this heightened sense of sound that the score discreetly emerges from the sound design.

“Some years after you died,” the voice-over resumes, “I was diagnosed with otosclerosis” – an inherited condition common in the Middle East. Had she allowed her inner ear to calcify, the voice-over explains, she’d have gone deaf.

Spreading to the brain, the condition would result in paralysis, but not death.

The city too calcified, she reflects, trapping its residents in a state that was neither aboveground nor below.

“In this life, you told me, injustice was to implore mercy for the dead, rather than the living,” she recalls. “Honor your dead through burial.”

Having touched upon subterranean confinement and her relationship to sound, deafness and paralysis, the film’s form and structure go on to reflect these themes.

The camera explores an underground detention center – lodged in a flyover not far from the old green line – used to house migrants who tried to enter the country informally.

Footage shows African and Asian immigrants splayed about crowded cells, dozing among their possessions, as the PA system echoes the security personnel’s struggles to pronounce their names.

The tableaux persist but the sound design abandons the PA system in favor of non-Arabic devotional song, echoing through the architecture until the ensemble of voices falls silent among a montage of Beirut flyovers.

The voice-over recalls her father’s waking up herself and her sister with military music (and her youthful impression that he never slept) then joins the camera’s gaze to discuss Burj al-Murr.

This derelict, never-completed Beirut tower from late in the pre-Civil War period came to be known as a snipers’ nest and torture center.

The tower’s array of gaping windows reminds the filmmaker of Argus Panoptes – the source of the film’s title – a hundred-eyed giant who, in Greek mythology, never slept. While the gods schemed to slay Panoptes, the Burj resisted efforts to either retool it for peacetime or to raze it.

The tower reverted to military control, joining the array of security service locations installed after the general amnesty following the Civil War.

“Panoptic” debuted in 2017 at the Locarno Film Festival and continues its festival life in Europe and the Americas.

In March the film was one of four recent Arab features selected to be projected alongside the Beirut Cinema Platform. Lebanon’s censor withheld screening permission until cuts were made.

The filmmaker refused to make them and, in lieu of a Beirut release, briefly posted “Panoptic” online.

In Lebanon’s intimate film scene, Rana Eid is well-known as a sound editor and co-founder of the audio postproduction company db STUDIOS. It’s not exactly a surprise, then, that the sound design and score (composed by Eid’s longtime collaborator Nadim Mishlawi) should be such a prominent, hauntingly effective, part of the work.

The film’s other singular facet is its subdued cinematography.

Several sequences are shot at nighttime. Many others linger over claustrophobic, often subterranean, not infrequently derelict, interiors – the immigrant detention center, Burj al-Murr, the Beau Rivage Hotel (a former torture center of Syria’s mukhabarat), the seafloor off the Lebanese coast, the luminous floor of a nightclub packed with adolescents.

Most of these sequences were shot by Eid’s director of photography Talal Khoury (whose eye for neglected, dark and ruined spaces has become his signature), as were exterior shots of urban architecture and (not necessarily ghoulish) public gatherings – a patriotic ceremony, emceed by entertainer Michel Elefteriades, to honor the country’s army; a cluster of Asian and African runners setting the pace during the Beirut Marathon.

Landmarks like Burj al-Murr have become canonical images in Lebanon’s audiovisual archive.

Eid’s use of them is interesting because they’re juxtaposed with less-seen footage of their dark interiors – a moist miasma of half-digested refuse, whose ghosted quality is heightened in postproduction.

There’s something inspired about mingling this photography with shots that might otherwise be found in a tourist ad.

Less inspiring is the film’s seafloor segue.

Footage of a submerged armored personnel carrier amid other materiel is thematically pertinent to “Panoptic” and postproduction tinkering, with wartime file footage, does add some value to it.

The problem is that this footage – or shots identical to it – has appeared in so much recent local production. It’s central to a recent artwork by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige and later seeped into Ziad Kalthoum’s lyrical 2017 documentary “Taste of Cement.”

If one journalist notices such repetition, it suggests that the clip’s been overused.

This annoyance is exceptional. Most humans watch a feature film once and forget it.

“Panoptic” deploys enough audiovisual talent and imagination that [for the most part] it benefits from a second viewing.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 27, 2018, on page 16.

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