CAIRO: Over the years Lebanon’s relationship with its rail system has provoked no end of cultural production - scholarship, literature, visual art, cinema.
Laid when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region (including Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon), the tracks have been moribund since the country’s 1975-90 Civil War. The north-south line, which ran to Haifa, had already been truncated since the Nakba, in 1948.
Historically, railroads were integral to the consolidation of nation-states, and the mobility trains afforded citizens in the era before automobile transport contributed to their sense of national identity. The dereliction of Lebanon’s two rail lines (the north-south and east-west routes intersected in Beirut) became a trope of popular nostalgia for a time when the country was more unified and prosperous.
Lebanon’s abandoned rail infrastructure provides the principal visual motif of Elie Kamal’s debut feature “Beirut Terminus.” The film had its world premiere at the 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, where it screened in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition, emerging with the prize for best nonfiction feature.
The film begins with a shot of a ruined stone structure shrouded in mist. You might think it’s a still photo, were it not for the sound of wind and off-frame running water.
The fixed frame is stepped back in stages, until the ruin is dwarfed by the massive flyover soaring above.
“Beirut Terminus” isn’t a gregarious doc. Kamal didn’t interview historians, surviving railway employees or passengers about Lebanon’s rail system, and the film betrays little interest in nostalgic cultural memory. It makes scant use historic file footage of the rail system. Snippets of Lebanese films featuring trains are absent.
The documented history of the line is presented in a matter-of-fact manner and juxtaposed with the filmmaker’s story of his relationship with his family home. This contrapuntal narrative is related through intertitles and voice-over. For those weary of the prevalence of the authorial voice in Lebanon’s documentary practice, Kamal’s voice-over is relatively reticent.
“I’m from here,” the voice-over begins, “but I never lived in my family’s village or visited there.”
He does recall the 14 houses his family lived in during that small part of the war he experienced. In the last of these his parents, who feared he might be run over crossing the street, always encouraged him to play among the ruined railway tracks nearby.
Kamal, who wrote, directed and shot the film, favors long shots, not necessarily accompanied by sound design or score. The effect is to privilege carefully framed cinematography over monologue.
“Beirut Terminus” unfolds as a tour of abandoned rail infrastructure, conducted by a guide with an eye for photogenic dereliction. These vistas can be sumptuous or destitute. Vestiges of rail lines can be located in unspoilt rural surroundings (the open doors of boxcars are often used to frame splendid mountain views) but they are equally likely to be hemmed in by the rubbish characteristic of lightly regulated urban real estate development.
At one point Kamal undermines the realist aesthetic of his cinematography as the greens of one rural location are rendered as shades of red. The sheep stumbling through the frame are ghosted before the image temporarily returns to more natural hues. Leisurely paced framing is later augmented by time-lapse photography.
Fixed-frame footage is complemented by a judicious use of drone-mounted photography - whether to gaze down on sites or to move through wrecked train stations. These locations are often riddled with graffiti, scrawled by Lebanese fighters or Syrian soldiers who, during Damascus’ long intervention, might have used structures like these as detention and interrogation centers.
The film’s sole use of historic footage - showing displaced families squatting railway carriages in the early 20th century - is projected within an abandoned boxcar like an art installation.
Indeed, there’s something in the sensibility of “Beirut Terminus” - Kamal’s highly polished cinematography is complemented by Nadim Mishlawi’s astringent score (performed by a six-piece chamber ensemble) and Lama Sawaya’s elaborate and mutable sound design - that feels more like a feature-length work of gallery art than the sort of lyrical personal documentary that thrives among filmmakers in Lebanon and others parts of the MENA region.
The voice-over recalls feeling enclosed in east Beirut, where he found he had little in common with the people he met, and found the freshly reconstructed Downtown bereft of meaning - “neither Muslim nor Christian,” he muses, “just a modern space for the modern rich.”
He had more affinity with those who clustered around Hamra Street and, after some trepidation about how he might be received in Ras Beirut, he began socializing there. His attachment to the neighborhood waned, though, as it was gentrified, emptied of the culture that had attracted him.
Now, he says, he feels a bit like an orphan or a displaced person.
In the film’s final minutes, the frame returns to the opening location and the voice-over reiterates its opening remarks. “I’m from here ... I’ve never lived there, have no house there ... I’m from here because it’s on my identification card.”