A migration tale restored for now

BEIRUT: Like the country itself, cinema production in Lebanon has a relatively brief, somewhat obscure, history. For the next few days, film buffs and past-curious types in the capital have a chance to glance back through the republic’s bygone turbulence – to a time when civil war, which has inspired so much of the country’s cultural production, was unknown.

The time capsule is “Ila Ayn?” (To Where?), the 1957 feature film debut of Georges Nasser (b. 1927) that – much to the director’s astonishment – was picked up to premiere at that year’s edition of the Cannes film festival.

The 60th anniversary of Nasser’s work inspired several local actors, led by Abbout Productions, to undertake a digital restoration of the original 35mm print. Cannes screened the restored version during its 2017 edition as part of its Cannes Classics program.

The restored print of “Ila Ayn?” is being projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. Through Jan. 10, it’s being delivered as a daily one-two punch with “A Certain Nasser.” Directed by Badih Massaad and Antoine Waked, this hourlong, 2017 doc centers on the pioneering director’s recollections of the filmmaking culture of the country and the region during his long career.

Co-written by Halim Fares and Youssef Habchi Achkar, “Ila Ayn?” tells the story of two farming families in an anonymous Mount Lebanon village. The sons of Hamid (aka Abu Said) and his missis (aka Mom), Said and Farid grow up alongside the neighbors’ daughter, Amal.

Hamid’s family isn’t dirt poor but they’re struggling enough to make him susceptible to the “leaving is best for the family” argument. Dad decides to follow the stream of Levantines seeking their fortune in Brazil, leaving his missis to raise the boys. He’s never heard from again.

The film hopscotches forward in time to find Amal and the boys grown to young adults. Said quit school prematurely – following the advice of the local medic while tending the boys’ depleted mother after she’d collapsed – and is now filling his father’s shoes. Farid, who finished his education and is fond of gazing out to sea from an antique ruin, feels restless with village life.

The audience knows immediately that the siren song of migration is wafting someplace nearby.

As a work of cinema, “Ila Ayn?” is an intriguing emulation of Italian neorealism – which still tempts the MENA region’s aspiring filmmakers, nearly as much as migration.

The press information assembled for Cannes 2017 suggests Nasser’s cast was completely nonprofessional. More significantly, the plot retains neorealism’s interest in the lives of the poor – focusing on overseas migration’s impact upon the family structure and social cohesion of Lebanon’s villages, particularly when the émigrés’ expectations dwarf real prospects.

The narrative favors remaining in Lebanon to leaving it. At some point in the production process, Fares and Habchi Achkar stray from the grim materialism common to neorealism to pause upon the culture of Lebanon’s rural idyll.

The occasion is Amal and Said’s wedding. After a necessary exchange of dialogue, a guest picks up her tabla and begins to tap out a rhythm. A number of gents clad in baggy trousers (sirwal or sherwal) immediately leap to their feet, fall into line and begin to dabke. After a spell, a couple of the lads take up swords and wee shields and start one of those mock battles-slash-sword dances that is still trotted out at appropriate occasions.

In the midst of all this, the tabla lady approaches an unhappy-looking gent in Bedouin costume, seated behind a large mortar and pestle. He stops pounding long enough for her to give him some extra coffee beans.

The whole tableau is delivered with the straight-faced performativity of a tourist ad. It would be intriguing to know how tongue-in-cheek this business was. (This isn’t the only scene in which music is front and center. Toufic Succar’s orchestral score is unremitting.)

Less developed is a narrative trope more common to neorealism: the love triangle. Once Said, Farid and Amal appear as adults, the plot’s focal point isn’t Said and Amal. Before she weds Said and after, it’s Amal with whom Farid vents his inchoate urges and ambitions. Contemporary audience members may envision a Cain and Abel scenario here, but Nasser depicts Amal and Farid’s relationship in chaste terms.

As noted, “Ila Ayn?” was a pioneering effort and contemporary audiences will find other aspects of the film (production design, acting) look amusingly ad hoc. Arguably the best reason to watch the restored version of Nasser’s film is the restored print itself.

DP Rodrigue Dahdah generally keeps his lens focused on the characters and their exchanges. Occasionally, though, the camera is allowed to linger over the location. The establishing shot, panning from the Lebanon range to the terraced farming in the foothills to squat hillside settlement, is so effective you almost forget Succar’s score.

When Farid shows Amal the ruin from which he gazes upon the sea and speculates about the future, it’s impossible not to wonder how that still-unspoiled landscape looks today.

The restored “Ila Ayn?” is an interesting way to spend 90 minutes.

“Ila Ayn?” and “A Certain Nasser” are screening at Metropolis through Jan. 10. See

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 06, 2018, on page 16.




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