Movies & TV

Postcards from Beirut lockdown

BEIRUT: During this time of COVID-19 confinement, much cultural journalism has been reduced to a series of online listings. The release of new work is welcome, even surprising.

There are serious stories unfolding in the arts and culture sector. Thanks to our new coronavirus – and the consequences of abruptly shuttering vast swaths of the global economy to slow its spread – the cultural and entertainment sectors face existential crises.

That said, most day-to-day entertainment journalism has been devoted to directing housebound consumers to links where they can be virtually diverted from the crisis – sometimes being enticed to donate funds to depleted health care workers or becalmed performers.

The most high-profile offerings have been locked-down performances – like the Metropolitan Opera’s four-hour-long “At-Home Gala,” streamed last weekend, or “One World: Together at Home,” the hourslong pop music extravaganza organized by Lady Gaga, Global Citizen and the WHO, which streamed April 18.

Several institutions have retooled to become web exhibitors – most prominent locally are AFAC, Abbout Productions, Beirut DC, and Ashkal Alwan – opening up their archives of visual art and cinema for free consumption online.

It’s a bit soon for artistic production that reflects upon a crisis of the immediacy and scale of this pandemic, let alone cinema that provides an alternative voice to that of COVID-19 news coverage, in real time.

That, however, is what “Living In Times Of Coronavirus” sets out to do.

More ambitious than most online cultural initiatives, “Living In Times Of Coronavirus” offers a series of film miniatures, intimate reflections upon the nuances of Lebanon’s lockdown.

Launched Monday, the project was developed by International Media Support, a Danish-based non-profit organization “working to strengthen the capacity of media to reduce conflict, strengthen democracy and facilitate dialogue.”

IMS’ local partner is Daraj, a digital media platform created by veteran journalists that styles itself a source of independent, alternative Arabic-language “journalism, free from political funding and influence that controls other mainstream Arab media institutions.”

The initiative’s goals, IMS writes in its website introduction, is to present narratives that are “an alternative to the news media ... voices that ... express thoughts and experiences ... stories that people can recognize, that can inspire, that can enlighten and challenge.”

For the Lebanon iteration of “LITOC,” IMS commissioned five recognized filmmakers – Carol Mansour, Lamia Joreige, Zeina Sfeir, Ghassan Salhab and Mahmoud Hojeij – to make a five-minute-long work in one week.

It’s debatable whether the works in this series air voices that are that are somehow “alternative” to “mainstream news media.” Arguably any recognized filmmaker has been embedded in the same class and discursive firmament as humans who work as journalists – those that are still employed locally in any case. This series of miniatures is interesting, but not for that reason.

Turned over quickly, these bite-sized pieces are not intended to be masterworks but snapshots capturing facets of the lived experience of lockdown. All five contributors are mature filmmakers, so the works naturally are true to their visual language – ranging from documentary to art house cinema to visual art.

Mansour and Joreige’s contributions abide most closely to the conventions of video diary, while Sfeir’s short – recounting personal recollections prompted by a news report – is more invested in memory. While otherwise entirely dissimilar, Salhab and Hojeij’s pieces are more formally detached than those of their colleagues, referencing canonical writers to help focus or refract their visual narratives.

Mansour’s “A COVID-eo Diary” opens upon a game of charades among some locked-down friends in a parking lot. It makes for a light-hearted start to a work bound to veer toward the somber. Vignettes of friends, family and the shopkeepers who top up their reserves of coffee and booze are interspersed among voiceover ruminations about the present and the future, accompanied by footage of Beirut’s weirdly abandoned daytime streets.

Looking forward, the documentary veteran expresses fears that people will learn nothing from this pandemic. Other voices express fears about how Lebanon will look after the lockdown lifts. One is afraid that the economic crisis that preceded the coronavirus outbreak will bring hunger and poverty. Nodding to the authoritarian strain of state measure that the virus has justified across the globe, another voice remarks that he fears things will be far worse than before.

“After Corona,” a third voice reflects, “I dread having to go back to wearing a bra.”

As Mansour’s car approaches Martyrs' Square – cleared of all signs of the demonstrations that began across Lebanon in October 2019, save the sculptural fist of “thawra” and a Christmas tree – the filmmaker reflects that, though she’s survived the monthlong “pause” of lockdown fairly comfortably, she’s terrified of what’s to come.

Joreige’s “Nights and Days in Times of Pandemic” commences with footage of a nighttime demo in Downtown Beirut. Her constant voiceover never wanders far from Lebanon’s “thawra,” the outraged, yet largely peaceful, civil disobedience campaign against the country’s self-serving political class. When protesters flooded the streets, the country’s banks heroically shuttered, and a few well-connected depositors quietly transferred billions of dollars offshore.

The camera juxtaposes revolutionary chanting in the dark with the stark daytime of city streets emptied during COVID-19 lockdown, the hushed daylit tableaux from her balcony with the revolutionary clanging of pots and pans at nightfall.

The artist’s ruminations wander from how social distancing conveniently allowed the security apparatus to remove any residues of Beirut’s “thawra,” to wondering how to resume the uprising when COVID-19 has made mass gatherings deadly. Her voiceover reflects upon how poetry and other expressions of creativity were washed away by the pressing need for political change and how lockdown has reduced her to reading, cleaning house, cooking and, as the camera frames hands planting something green in a flowerpot, gardening.

This confinement reminds Joreige of 2006’s 34-day war, dissimilar crisis with a common accompaniment – the unremitting mosquito buzz of a surveillance drone, invisible to the i-Phone used to shoot this video.

Sfeir’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” begins with a question, “How to film it?” “It” isn’t spelled out immediately, though she does say a television news report on the tattered state of Lebanon’s “social welfare” system prompted a memory.

En route to the meat of that report, and the memory it provoked, the filmmaker’s voiceover alights upon her nephews’ lockdown visits – they watched footage she shot of them as kids, while working on a documentary feature about her (now deceased) parents – and how this present confinement reminds her of the restricted mobility she experienced while her mother was dying of cancer, memories punctuated by the WhatsApp-ed advice of a male voice.

But for a secondslong news clip, “Deep Blue Sea” uses no exterior locations. Her mother and father enter the film via snatches of her past feature, lively outtakes that are in stark contrast to Sfeir’s fresh footage of the immaculately arranged rooms of her parents’ flat. Uncontaminated by humans, these frames are shot using the same fixed-frame technique that Joreige and Salhab use to document Beirut streets and neighborhood vistas and – as these too are mostly emptied – they evince a similar spirit.

Like Sfeir, Hojeij uses interior locations only in “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?” The most fictive of the five shorts, and the only one to come in at less than five minutes, Hojeij’s contribution is concerned with the obsessive eating that often preoccupies those who are housebound against their will. “Orgy” is comprised of a circuit of repeated action – a pretty young woman (Marwa Khalil) returning to her refrigerator and gorging with ever-more desperation, and diminishing decorum.

The cycle of consumption is diffracted through a quotation from Book Eight of Plato’s “Republic” – “the probable outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state” – suggesting that Hojeij’s miniature is a sort of epigram to the financial crisis, rather than COVID-19, unless he’s alluding to the argument that such pandemics are themselves a feature of late capitalism.

More allusively, the work’s closing credits end with “applying Jean Baudrillard’s question,” gesturing to the French media theorist perhaps best-known for his suggestion that, in contemporary culture, ideological “maps” and models have taken precedence over lived realities.

Salhab’s “Rear Window” also anchors the filmmaker’s reflections to past artistic production – not only Hitchcock’s films but the poetry of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the Irish playwright renowned for his bleakly vaudevillian depictions of the human condition.

During lockdown Salhab’s been reading Beckett’s “mirlitonnades, 1976-78.” Suggesting “coarse verse” or “doggerel,” the title of this series of 59 known poems is characteristic of Beckett’s self-effacing manner – and reminiscent of Salhab’s past remarks about his own smaller works.

Like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Salhab’s short devotes much of its running time to gazing out his flat’s window, though his vista isn’t festooned with drama like the one that preoccupied James Stewart (unlike Stewart’s character, Salhab doesn't appear to be equipped with binoculars).

What Salhab witnesses is the shifting weather – a rainy afternoon, then clearing skies with thunder rolling threateningly in the near distance – that plays out against a patch of sea wedged between two apartment blocks.

“It is not this image” an intertitle warns us.

The cluttered panorama persists, with thunder accompanying the call to prayer, and we’re told, “It is not this image either.”

Outside now, the camera gazes west down an abandoned street in Hamra. A few lines from Beckett presage another street scene, gazing east, with a single pedestrian edging into the frame.

After nightfall, the camera stands at another window, where a flash of lightning briefly illuminates the scene.

This, it seems, is the image.

“Living In Times Of Coronavirus” can be found at: https://daraj.com/en/44260/

 

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