BEIRUT: “Shahid” (“Martyr”), the latest feature by Lebanese writer-director Mazen Khaled, stages a day in the life of a young man named Hassan (Hamza Mekdad) and a few of his friends. It traces the course of the protagonist’s day – waking for a morning squabble with his parents, leaving for a day of swimming in the polluted waters and sprawling on the rocks off the seaside Corniche, being returned to his parents’ flat in the poor quarter of Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq.
Spiritually lost when he leaves home, Hassan is conveyed back a corpse after having leapt into the water from the height of the Corniche sidewalk.
Khaled wants to tell a story from a specific sector of society – men in their early 20s who still live with their parents, have little formal education, no steady job and slim prospects of acquiring the trappings of a conventional life (“a car,” “a house,” “a wife”).
It’s a demographic that will be familiar to residents of this country, and one that’s become increasingly visible worldwide since the consolidation of the post-1989 world order – a reserve army for fly-by-night informal economies, paramilitary political parties and migration (aka human traffickers).
Khaled hasn’t framed his film in political or partisan terms. None of his characters – certainly not Hassan and the three or four young men in his cadre – betray the political sophistication to locate their frustrations within a “tribalized political economy,” say, or the “neoliberal economic order.”
Neither do Khaled’s shabab exhibit symptoms of a sense of humor, indispensable in sustaining humans undergoing crushing economic and social realities.
Alienated from his family because he can’t keep a job – a condition his father, who leaves home in the morning to lounge in a neighborhood cafe, seems to share – neither has Hassan joined the ranks of his neighborhood’s qabadayaat (muscle for some political party’s local quarter boss).
In lieu of that, he’s left with scant resources – camaraderie in life, communitarian ritual in death.
“Shahid” premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival – projected within the program of Venice’s Biennale College, which also provided production support for the film – and is now up at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.
Khaled has related how his film about the aimless poor among Beirut’s youth found focus in the true stories of two young men who died while entertaining passers-by by leaping into the sea from the Corniche sidewalk.
Formally speaking, there are a number of ways Khaled might have proceeded. Several Lebanese artists have cast lenses upon Corniche swimmers. Mounira al-Solh projected a quirky comedy upon them, while Dima al-Horr portrayed the immobile forms of sunbathing men as male odalisques.
Khaled evidently wants to be true to their social realities while cultivating a somber visual aesthetic. One thing that’s apparent in “Shahid” is the narrative division of labor Khaled enforces between the film’s spoken and visual language.
Documenting Hassan’s sense of alienation, the dialogue sequences – with his parents, a thuggish neighborhood pal and his best friend – wouldn’t be out of place in a nonfiction film.
The camerawork (shared by Rachelle Noja and Talal Khoury), production design and choreography (respectively Bshara Atallah and Ali Chahrour) make the film much more stylized than a standard piece of neorealism-emulating cinema.
The cinematography reflects the filmmaker’s interest in the male form. The camera lingers over Hassan as he showers, and again as he and his three swimsuit-clad pals lay draped upon one another in the summer sun and cavort in the sea.
It’s the sort of voyeuristic camerawork that used to provoke critics to talk about “objectification of the female form.”
If anything, the camera’s gaze upon Khaled’s male figures grows more intimate after Hassan dies.
First a series of close-ups monitors the friends’ labors to lug the protagonist’s corpse from the sea to the sidewalk. When Hassan’s father asks the shabab to perform the ritual cleaning of his body, the camera follows the exercise in clinical detail – provoking flashbacks to past film and video works that ruminated upon photogenic death-centered religious rituals like Ashura.
Reinforcing these relatively realistic scenes are the film’s several dreamlike sequences. In one, Hassan’s nude form floats submerged in the sea. A number of choreographed sequences, shot beneath a spotlight on a dark stage, show Hassan’s best friend struggling to keep his limp corpse standing.
It would be hard for a film about martyrdom to not dwell on the body and the filmmaker might be applauded for trying to choreograph some movement into a story about stasis and premature death.
Heaped atop the plot’s narrative of frustration and waste, and the (necessarily melodramatic) expressions of grieving that follow, the highly sensualized visual language of “Shahid” does not alleviate the film’s stifling air. It accentuates it.
“Suffocation” may be an accurate metaphor for the malaise afflicting Khaled’s protagonists. Thanks to the film’s objectifying camera, it’s a discomfort the audience must share.