Culture

Short-film tales from fabled Lebanon

BEIRUT: For many cities, summertime means the Mondial. Few also associate it with airstrikes from a nearby settler-colonial state. Has any place shared Lebanon’s ambivalent relationship with “the modern”? Do other places undergo its routine inversion of legality and criminality? These are the premises of Lebanese short films that premiered internationally in the past year or so. Others have taken up more universal themes – gun violence, “property development” and displacement, informal migration to Europe, the struggle between social conformity and individualism, environmental ruin.

Stylistically speaking, short film is to the feature what the short story is to the novel. Short-form prose fiction and short film differ in matters of distribution.

Stories can be piled into anthologies and marketed like novels. Beyond film festivals and contemporary art platforms, no market equivalent exists for short films, so shorts tend to be viewed as steppingstones to feature films and commercial distribution.

Defiant of the market, Metropolis cinema has been assembling locally made shorts into one-off exhibition packages.

The first program, projected in February, comprised seven titles that had premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, Rio de Janeiro’s Festival Curta Cinema, Austin’s Fantastic Film Fest and Dubai’s former film festival.

Screened Wednesday, a second programme featured four titles selected for Locarno and Dubai festivals and the shortlist of the 2016 Academy Awards’ Best Live Action Short category. One won Metropolis’ 2016 short film competition.

It’d be foolhardy to suggest these works speak an intrinsically “Lebanese” film language. Stylistically varied, they received production funding because they conform to certain industry norms. Four of the 11, in fact, were collaborations with international filmmakers.

Still, it’s informative to glance at what stories these shorts tell, and how. The sole mockumentary here, Fadi Baki’s “Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow” resembles a TV news report on a bygone celebrity. As the backstory goes, French president Charles de Gaulle gifted Manivelle – the eponymous “man of tomorrow” – to the young (French-created) Lebanese Republic in 1946.

A towering robot with a perpetual-motion machine for a brain, a Don Quixote mask for a face and a hand-cranked body, the francophone Manivelle served coffee in Lebanon’s presidential palace.

When President Chamoun spilt coffee into him, Manivelle was taken to mechanic Vartan Ohanian for repairs, which left him speaking Lebanese Arabic. The pair remained friends for decades.

Freed from service and naturalized, the robot became a celebrity. File footage shows him playing bridge with Omar Sharif. As Lebanon’s golden age blossomed into civil war, Manivelle and Ohanian fell out, leaving each a lonely recluse.

This is a relentlessly clever film. By inserting their protagonist into the frame of both the hip and homicidal stages of Lebanon’s recent history, co-writers Baki, Omar Khouri and Lina Mounzer erect an allegorical reply to a persistent question. What ever happened to Lebanon’s modernist heritage?

Less allegorical morality tales abound in these shorts programs.

Writer-director Oualid Mouaness’ 2016 “The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy” tells the story of Imad and Sameh, brothers who live in the country with their young parents. As the film begins, the boys are disposing of the carcass of a predator that’s been raiding the family’s livestock.

The boys aren’t supposed to be messing with dad’s guns, so they try to keep the incident secret. Dad notices the missing shotgun shells, though, and Imad admits that Sameh killed the jackal that’s been eating his chickens. When they show dad the jackal’s burnt remains, he looks on with concerned silence.

Seasons pass and the story’s bloody denouement gives dad an opportunity to deliver the punchline telegraphed in the short’s title.

“The Rifle” uses time-tested realist conventions but, as Mouaness himself remarked Wednesday, the film’s lone household and isolated rural locations provide the basis of what is, at root, a morality tale on gun violence.

“Salamat from Germany,” by Una Gunjak and Rami Kodeih, share Mouaness’ fondness for parable cloaked in narrative realism.

It’s one of four shorts produced by Abbout Productions and packaged as “Lebanon Factory” – a feature-length anthology that pairs Lebanese writer-directors with filmmakers from overseas.

“Salamat” is told from the perspective of a young Lebanese who Whatsapps reassurances to his gran that he’s building a new life in Berlin. Actually he’s lodged in a Beirut pension waiting to be smuggled to Germany.

A couple of legitimate refugees coach him so he too can pass himself off as Syrian. His expensive plans go awry when thugs harass him and his Syrian friends for being outside after curfew.

Several shorts invest more heavily in parable than realism.

Shirin Abu Shaqra and Manuel Maria Perrone’s “Hotel Al Naim” recounts an encounter between a small-hotel owner and the real estate developer erecting a monumental block of flats next door. This realistic premise unfolds like a fable.

Told from the perspective of the underdog hotelier, the story withholds key information from both the audience and the villainous developer. The two men’s amusing seaside conversation about hunting octopi (during which the hotelier busily bashes the head of a fresh-caught octopus against a rock) is sandwiched between two scenes set in Beirut.

After a few comic sequences sketch the power dynamic and set a depressingly predictable plot in motion, the story ends in an abrupt reversal that the hotelier explains by finishing his octopus-hunting story.

Abu Shaqra and Perrone’s comic morality tale of class relations has a cousin of sorts in Cyril Aris’ “The President’s Visit.” Set in a dirt-poor seaside village, it looks in on Nino, a soap manufacturer, and his uncle the fishmonger.

Nino’s no hero. He just wants to seem desirable to the village’s pretty schoolteacher. Hope takes the form of a call from a presidential aide, saying his boss wants to buy all Nino’s soap (for an anticorruption campaign) but he must keep the news confidential. When hope and small-town desire mingle, comic escalation ensues.

Not every short in this selection resembles a morality tale.

Set amid a bourgeois Muslim family mourning a dead father, Dania Bdeir’s “In White” is a coming-of-age tale, depicting a Westernized daughter’s yearning to defy social convention – whether it be draping herself in black to grieve, or mum’s disapproval of her Jewish-American boyfriend.

“95 Octane,” François Yazbeck’s media studies graduation project, dwells upon another doomed relationship between a young man and the francophone he’s impregnated. “Octane” is loaded with all the options – laden with musical score and unremittingly dark, both in its framing and nightmarish plot a la David Lynch.

Two “Lebanon Factory” titles are parabolic while eschewing any moralizing pretence.

Ahmad Ghossein and Lucie La Chimia’s “White Noise” is set in one of the city’s most-familiar non-spaces, beneath Jisr Fuad Shihab – the flyover that skirts the old urban core while connecting northwestern and northeastern Beirut.

The story follows Said, a security guard, as he arrives beneath the flyover for his first night on the job. A sarcastic radio dispatcher tells him to just keep watch, and the thuggish drug dealers who do their trade here resent his doing even that. A series of dreamlike or comic vignettes unfold – in one, a man repeatedly throws himself off the flyover but never falls far enough to kill himself – until the filmmakers compel Said to leave his post long enough to secure their punchline.

Located in rural Ammiq, Mounia Akl and Neto Villalobos’ “El Grand Libano” is a post-apocalyptic tale taking its cue from this country’s ongoing trash crisis. A woman arrives at a cesspool of a pond to tell her brother that their father’s passed away. A broken figure, the brother tries to make a living angling at the cesspool – though the owners of the dilapidated cafe nearby won’t buy his poisoned catch.

Narratively indecisive, “Libano” boasts an engaging production design, quirky characters – including a trio of quadrunner-piloting French nuns – and a dystopic fairy tale ambience that, if less joyless, might be reminiscent of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Another title inspired by Europe’s migration crisis, Talal Khoury’s “Mediterranean” (Moutawasset) abjures narrative altogether – save an opening intertitle, informing audiences that it takes only six minutes to drown.

The principal subject – footage of churning water, thrown airborne and the sea itself, above the surface and below – is juxtaposed with dim images of submerged human forms and terrestrial figures that emerge from the water like snatches of memory. A cinematographer-cum-director, Khoury’s made a piece that resembles electronic art more than any other work here.

Equally plot-free is Feyrouz Serhal’s “Tshweesh” (Confusion). It seems to depict a summer day in the life of the city. Much of the short is shot from a rooftop perspective. With many human figures minute in the distance, the frame is dominated by chaotic urban architecture and the mountains and sea behind.

The only figure the camera approaches is a young woman who’s diverted first by the open door of a derelict villa, which she explores. Later, the day is interrupted by sounds of aerial bombardment that never enters the frame.

The assortment of national flags adorning the city’s buildings inform long-term residents that the shards of banal human drama that the camera captures are set during the Mondial – a much-loved summer diversion in Beirut. Another, unloved, summertime diversion is air and sea bombardment from Lebanon’s southern neighbor.

Location details suggest “Tshweesh” isn’t depicting a past attack. As the sound of warplanes fades into the distance, and her human figures go about their business, it’s apparent what Serhal wants to convey – resilience.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 23, 2018, on page 16.

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