BEIRUT: It’s almost surprising, filmmakers’ persistent interest in Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War.
It seems natural for Lebanon’s fiction and nonfiction filmmakers to take an interest. On one hand, the local and foreign press left a rich photo and film archive of the conflict (the convenient parts of it, anyway).
On the other, the country’s reconstruction regime tended to shy away from discussions of the war. Critics condemned this policy as enforced amnesia, giving a cachet of dissent to cultural production about the war years.
Non-Lebanese films on the Civil War have ranged from earnest nonfiction studies to B-movie terror porn, a la “Reel Bad Arabs.” There’s a shared interest in the cultural, economic and psychological impact of collapsed state authority and photogenic anarchy, though since 1990 other conflicts - Yugoslavia, El Salvador, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Syria have provided equally picturesque states of otherness for Western film audiences.
The 2018 feature-length doc “About a War” errs on the serious side. Like any number of Lebanese-made nonfictions released since the late-20th century, the film features a handful of Civil War veterans and commentators from “both sides” of the conflict. Co-directors Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver invite their three principal figures to reflect upon the conflict, their roles in it, and where they are now.
One of them, Assaad Chaftari (erstwhile intelligence chief of the Kataeb party), is most likely to be familiar to audiences already. Since issuing a public apology to the families of those he’s responsible for killing, Chaftari’s been featured in several Lebanese titles, most notably Eliane Raheb’s 2012 doc “Sleepless Nights.”
The film’s other principals are Nassim Assaad - a Lebanese who came of age in Tal al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp, and went on to become a fighter in the Lebanese Communist Party - and Ahed Bhar a Palestinian born in Shatila camp who joined the PFLP, witnessing the Sabra-Shatila massacre and the War of the Camps.
The film oscillates among the three men’s wartime recollections and reflections upon their post-war lives. To keep the film’s Civil War narrative balanced, their remarks are interspersed among commentary by intellectual Ziad Majed (once a leading light in the Democratic Left Movement), former Lebanese Forces fighter Fouad Abu Nader and one-time LCP commander Amine Kammourieh. Footage of Lebanon these days balances archival footage from the Civil War.
“About a War” premiered in London in late 2018. The film is now screening internationally, with several projections scheduled for Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon between Feb. 11-15, staged in cooperation with the NGOs MARCH Lebanon and Fighters for Peace.
Running a little less than 90 minutes, Weaver and Rugo’s film is an engaging and well-made nonfiction work. The archival footage is effectively selected - albeit predictably fond of images of the bullet-riddled facades of Nijmeh Square and Martyrs’ Square. Contemporary shots of Beirut and its environs are well shot and its little editorial conceits (running wartime footage of the Martyrs statue into the site today, say) are executed seamlessly.
The doc’s original score is professionally composed, though it tends to be overwrought during moments of emotional narrative.
Lebanese audiences are unlikely to find much in the film’s testimonials and commentary they don’t know already. Nor will anyone familiar with the back catalogues of Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri, Jocelyne Saab indeed any of those Lebanese filmmakers who cut their teeth during the Civil War or the younger generation of artists clustered around Beirut DC, say, or the docs of UMAM Documentation and Research (which made its own doc on Chaftari).
The most interesting thing about “About a War” may be the positioning of its three principals relative to their previous institutional loyalties. Just as Chaftari’s reflections are premised upon changes in the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces, those of Assaad and Bhar reflect the international dissolution of the political left and fragmentation of the movement that used to be called the Palestinian Revolution.
Of the three, Bhar’s discourse remains closest to that of the party line not least the call for Palestinians’ right of return and rejection of “tawtin” (Lebanese naturalization).
The most affecting position, perhaps, is that of Assaad. After recounting the Tal al-Zaatar massacre, he effectively disappears from the film’s Civil War narrative. When he returns to discuss his post-war condition he is most uncertain. Remarking that the years of conflict devoured his natural sense of humor, he observes that he’s hardly unique in this.
“Every day I feel I’ll face another problem,” he says. “Maybe this is because of the war. I don’t know.”
It may be that these men’s difficulties inchoate or otherwise - do stem from their fighting in the 1975-90 conflict. Then again plenty of horrors have happened since.
“About a War” will be projected at Lebanese American University Feb 11; Antwork, Beirut, Feb 12; Kahwetna, Tripoli, Feb. 14 and Sidon municipality Feb. 15.