BEIRUT: Everything belongs to fiction. The phrasing varies but that’s the working premise of fiction writers, filmmakers – most anyone who makes up stories for a living, politicians aside. It’s a victimless crime, this smearing of biography and lies, until your stories include friends whose permission you may not have got before reproducing their lives for fiction.
This old conversation between artistic freedom and the right to privacy underlies “Still Burning.” The sophomore feature of writer-director Georges Hachem premiered in the competition section of the 2016 Dubai film festival and is now in limited release in Lebanese cinemas.
A film-within-a-film, “Still Burning” centers on Andre Mallat (playwright-actor Wajdi Mouawad), an expat Lebanese filmmaker, and his relationships with three other characters. Closest to him is his lover Camille Morin (Adila Bendimerad), a popular French actor Mallat has cast to star in his new movie, “Burning.”
Set in Lebanon in the weeks before the 1982 Israeli invasion, Mallat’s movie depicts a love triangle between Camille’s character, Nadine, her Christian husband Elie (Rodrigue Sleiman) and her lover Muhammad (Rami Nihawi), Elie’s friend.
Hachem’s film opens upon a couple in bed, apparently sleeping. The woman stirs and begins to caress the man’s torso until Mallat calls, “Cut!”
He and his crew are on location in Lebanon, trying to shoot a difficult scene with the characters Nadine and Muhammad.
“What’s wrong?” she asks Mallat after the crew has left the set.
“I don’t know yet,” he replies, telling her that he’s decided to drop this scene.
The first third of “Still Burning” oscillates between scenes from Mallat’s movie and conversation among Mallat, Camille and other crew members, set in 1997-98.
The movie sequences sketch the love triangle’s dynamics. A nightclub scene shows Nadine and Muhammad having an energetic shag in the parking lot before joining Elie and some other friends inside. The tension between husband and wife is so knifelike, it seems certain Elie knows about his wife’s infidelity.
Conversation turns to the impending presidential election. Elie is highly critical of the Christian warlord who seems destined to win the contest. Muhammad, while also critical, is more sanguine.
Afterward the two men drop Nadine at home and go for a manqousheh and a chat. Elie is on the verge of finishing a book but the real subject is the three months he and Nadine have gone without having sex. The only way forward, he says, is to move out for a spell, and asks if he can stay at Muhammad’s place. “We can tell Nadine we’ve decided to co-author the book,” Elie suggests.
Muhammad is hesitant at first but agrees. Minutes later a militia patrol stops and demands to see the men’s papers. Muhammad left his identification in his own car, so the militiamen take him into custody.
Elie doesn’t object.
At this point the perspective again steps back from Mallat’s movie, showing the director sitting through his work’s Paris premiere.
There, in the audience, he notices a man he recognizes.
The filmmaker is in the lobby having a post-projection interview when he sees the man again, and the sight of him makes him stumble in his well-practiced monologue.
Afterward he finds the man outside, and the two embrace. “So,” Mallat says, “you’re still alive.”
“No,” the man replies, “just a good facsimile.”
The man is Walid (Fadi Abi Samra), Mallat’s close friend while growing up during Lebanon’s Civil War years and the third principal character in Hachem’s drama.
It’s later disclosed that, when they were younger, both men aspired to be filmmakers.
While the Paris-based Mallat has realized that goal, Walid has settled in frigid Montreal, working as a cinema journalist.
Though Mallat appears very happy to see him, Walid’s response is more reserved. When the camera follows him back to the place he’s staying, he’s shown staring at himself in the mirror before collapsing, sobbing, to the floor.
Since the story is told overwhelmingly from Mallat’s perspective, which makes him a more appealing character than Walid, the audience is inclined to assume that his version events is “true,” that the basic plot of his movie is autobiographical.
Since the centerpiece of that story is a man’s affair with his friend’s wife, and given Walid’s difficult behavior for the balance of the film, it’s evident that Mallat has drawn upon his relationship with Walid to craft the plot of his new movie.
The fourth principal character in this story, Walid’s wife Amira (renamed “Nadine” in Mallat’s film and depicted by Mallat’s lover, Camille) is arguably the most important figure in Hachem’s film. Naturally she is absent – a creature of memory, fiction and postproduction.
The balance of “Still Burning” explores the consequences of Mallat’s act of creative cannibalism.
As a piece of writing, “Still Burning” is an accomplished work of cinematic misdirection. At the start, the film looks like a piece of melodrama that you assume will reveal the tawdry details of betrayal. What’s disclosed is something else – the narrator’s wobbly reliability.
The three principal cast members – Mouawad, Bendimerad and Abi Samra – inhabit Hachem’s characters ably, and the physical distinctiveness of the two male leads makes their differences all the more visceral.
The understated cinematography of Andreas Sinanos (veteran DP on five features of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos) is central to the film. His intelligent use of lateral camera movement makes transitions seamless, while modulations of light and shadow ground the stories’ temporality more securely than dialogue alone. Penned by Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka, the film’s lushly discordant score is consistently intriguing, at times well beyond its utility to the narrative. If anything, Moultaka’s music is so present as to be distracting.
As a package, “Still Burning” may be at times uneven, but it remains consistently engaging.
Its complexity is worthy of the conflict it’s made into fiction.
“Still Burning” is screening in Beirut-area cinemas.