BEIRUT: When Cynthia Choucair went to Lesbos in early 2016, it’s easy to imagine her desire to tell a different story. By that point the news media had told us the Greek island was a steppingstone for refugees moving from Anatolia to Europe, but the Lebanese documentary filmmaker had a unique “in,” via Clowns Sans Frontieres.
A professional clown, the filmmaker’s younger sister Sabine had been in Lesbos in late 2015, when CSF, whose mission is to bring a pinch of laughter to exhausted and traumatized families, had performed up to six shows a day.
“After I returned from Lesbos that first time,” Sabine Choucair recalls partway through Choucair’s 2018 doc “Counting Tiles,” “I was obsessed with returning.”
“Counting Tiles” documents that return, one in which changes to the legal and political machinery coordinating and controlling the processing of arrivals made the landscape different from the one CSF had experienced a few months before.
Choucair’s camera captures that terrain with the film’s opening shot. A rural vista opens before a car’s windshield. As the vehicle inches forward, the edges of the frame blossom with dollops of orange -- piles of discarded life preservers. The people who’d worn them are nowhere to be found. They remain beyond the reach of the film’s protagonists for the duration of the film.
Anyone who followed the saga that the mainstream media termed “Europe’s migrant crisis” will be aware of why the landscape changed. Thanks to politicians playing on popular anxieties about the newcomers, the EU needed to stem the migration. Reports of human traffickers funneling migrants into prostitution and the like justified police and bureaucratic restrictions on NGO access to refugees.
The younger Choucair was still haunted by what she’d witnessed the last time she’d been on Lesbos. While the screen is still black, she begins describing a weeping man’s story of how his boat had sunk en route.
He’d leapt into the sea, grabbed the life jacket of a struggling child and began swimming. As he neared shore, he checked on the youngster, only to find an empty lifejacket in tow.
“Counting Tiles” premiered earlier this year at IFFR, Rotterdam’s international film festival. It enjoyed its Beirut debut this week at Ayyam Beirut al-Cinema’iya.
The fact that “Counting Tiles” centers on clowns awaiting the arrival of an absent subject makes it a bit like a documentary redux of “Waiting for Godot.”
The difference is the filmmaker’s insistence on finding meaning in what she’s witnessing. The absent Godot allows Choucair to employ a bit of misdirection -- a device usually associated with genre pictures.
In the absence of the expected subject (both for the clowns and the audience), meaning is at various points lodged in the remarks of various figures.
Since it’s the enforcement of EU regulations preventing the clowns fulfilling their mission -- the prison-like security surrounding migrant processing camps, obdurate functionaries wielding bureaucracy to block CSF’s efforts to humanize the refugees’ lives -- it seems “Counting Tiles” finds in Lesbos a less-than-subtle metaphor for “Fortress Europe.”
At other times, the film seems to be about what the volunteers hope to accomplish and why. In the first of a series of vignettes, American clown Jann Damm reluctantly explains why CSF dispatches clowns into disaster zones.
Another volunteer, Jean-Sebastien Lopez, explains that he was compelled to come to Lesbos because he never understands what’s going on until he sees it with his own eyes. Reflecting somewhat later upon the obstacles the clowns have faced, he remarks, “Now we’re creating the energy that will clean out this poison.”
Later still, as Damm and his colleagues chafe beneath all the waiting and inactivity, he says, “I don’t expect to find any refugees. I don’t feel I’m owed anything. If the refugees aren’t here, they’re being taken care of someplace else, and that’s good, right?”
As the clown muses upon how he’s been prevented from making people laugh, the camera (wielded by Joelle Abou Chabkeh) gazes upon a fisherman as he labors on a rocky beach. It looks as though he’s mopping the beach, until a close up reveals that the thing he’s slapping against the rocks is an unfortunate octopus.
While he’s off frame, Damm’s voice acquires an edge that’s shared by Choucair, making their emotional state audible if not visible.
Another strand of meaning wound through the film is the sisters’ recollections of how they responded to their own family’s several dislocations during Lebanon’s long Civil War. The Choucair family was first displaced from their home in South Lebanon to East Beirut, and from there to the mountains north of the capital.
Lebanon is a small country where regional differences of accent, dialect and the like are routinely noted as measures of difference, something to which little kids can be sensitive. Sabine Choucair responded to displacement by inventing a pair of friends, Hadi and Madi, whose acquaintance she maintained until some time after the Civil War was finally made to end.
Her sister’s coping mechanism, the source of the film’s title, was more solitary.
It seems appropriate, then, that when the clowns finally do find an audience, it’s a lone little girl, clutching a half-eaten banana. As her parents look on, she beams at the clown-nosed Choucair’s off-frame goofing around.
Then the clown takes out the bubble maker she’s been toying with throughout the film. As she follows, and soon joins, the bubble-making, the youngster’s expression is sweet enough to melt the armor plating on a battle ship.
For more information on Ayyam Beirut al-Cinema’iya, see: https://metropoliscinema.net