HAZMIEH, Lebanon: Better late than never, they say.
Just south of Furn al-Shubbak’s Chevrolet district there is a shopping mall, whose name suggests it sits somewhere near central Beirut, not south of the Ottoman line separating the city from Mount Lebanon.
As it’s in the municipality of Hazmieh, the mall and its state-of-the-art multiplex appear to be immune to Beirut closure orders. The cinema these days offers a mixed bag of movies, including a couple of lost Lebanese titles – released internationally in 2019, only to be marooned on the slagheap of 2020 (economic crisis-slash-global pandemic-slash-cinema closures-slash-explosive criminal negligence).
“All This Victory” is among these titles. The feature film debut of writer-director Ahmad Ghossein premiered in the 2019 Critics Week program of the Venice Film Festival, where it emerged with three prizes, including the audience award.
Ghossein’s work ought to have had a rollout event in late 2019 or early 2020. The venue would almost certainly have been Beirut’s sole art house cinema, which was shuttered early in this season of contraction. “Victory” has been screening in Hazmieh since October 2020, lockdowns allowing.
Set during Israel’s monthlong 2006 war against Lebanon, “Victory” tells the story of Marwan (Karam Ghossein), who takes advantage of a short cease-fire to drive to his father’s village in south Lebanon. The old man has refused to abandon his house there despite the Israeli battering and its being in the path of a ground offensive.
The story doesn’t begin with Marwan in south Lebanon, but in Beirut with his partner Rana (Flavia Bechara). Her anxious mobile phone campaign against her husband’s rescue mission is heightened, as we learn, by their imminent emigration to Canada.
Despite the obstacles – wrecked bridges blocking highways, village roads clogged by fleeing humans – Marwan does arrive at the ruins of this family village. He finds his absent father’s house wrecked by the bombardment though, distressingly, his mobile’s ring tone rises from the rubble when Marwan calls him.
He stumbles upon a couple of his father’s aging pals – Najib and Qassim (Butros Rouhanna, Adel Chahine), former fighters in the communist resistance to Israel’s past Lebanon incursions. They agree that Abu Marwan had decided to leave for Beirut, but disagree about what state he was in when he made that decision.
By this point nervous villagers have stolen Marwan’s car to escape, making it impossible for him to return to Beirut himself.
When the Israeli army resumes shelling, the three men are joined by a couple from the village – Joumana (Sahar Minkara), who is desperate to find her sister, and Mohammad (Issam Bou Khaled), a devout, otherwise ineffectual fellow whose concerns about being killed are surpassed only by his fear that Joumana will leave him.
The situation worsens when Israeli soldiers take shelter in the flat upstairs from Najib’s place. The old fighter understands Hebrew, having lost some years of his youth in an Israeli prison, so they’re able to listen in on the soldiers’ conversation (though Najib is inclined to adorn his translations somewhat).
When local fighters besiege the house, things worsen still.
The better part of “Victory” is concerned with how these characters behave during their cowering cohabitation with their occupiers.
Full disclosure: Before his journey to the Hazmieh multiplex, the critic had last walked into a cinema on Feb. 28, in Berlin. In the meantime, he’d battled quite a lot of audio-visual traffic. Since Lebanon’s first lockdown, untold hours had been devoured staring at some laptop as it struggled to buffer one link or another (feature film or short or unwanted YouTube ad) amid Beirut’s ever-narrowing bandwidth. This is how he first saw “All This Victory.”
Watching a cinema projection of Ghossein’s debut was bound to be inflected though the vexing lens of 2020 – as it was by knowing the filmmaker, and by having himself undergone Lebanon’s summer of 2006, a season of contraction utterly dissimilar to the present one.
“All This Victory” is an accomplished debut feature. In a few sequences it evokes several of the visual and audible motifs of air bombardment – smashed flyovers and pancaked houses, the howling acceleration of warplanes and mosquito-like drones. (The importance of sound design in this film is better signposted in its Arabic-language title, “Jidar al-Sawt,” or Sound Barrier.)
The supporting cast – Rouhanna and Chahine, Minkara and Bou Khaled – are adept at gesturing to their characters’ complex humanity while fulfilling plot demands, and they’re fine vessels for Ghossein’s mannered comedy.
Though they stand in for the now-derelict ideals that shaped them, Najib and Qassim aren’t restricted to regurgitating the clichés ascribed to aging leftists. While inhabiting masculine and feminine types, Bou Khaled and Minkara navigate the scatological humor they’re assigned without lapsing into slapstick.
The film’s siege sequences accumulate and sustain tension effectively and believably, then relieve it with appropriately somber absurdity. Its conclusion is allusive enough to give the audience something to think about.
Questions of verisimilitude occur to some, which would never issue from international audiences.
To capture the village’s destruction, it was decided to shoot the exterior photography in Zabadani, a Syrian town brutalized by that country’s ongoing conflict. For some, the horrendous aerial damage done to Zabadani simply doesn’t evoke the ruins left after 2006’s house-to-house operations in south Lebanon.
(These location shots earned Ghossein some critical press before his film was released, particularly from pro-opposition voices who resent the town’s suffering being reduced to décor for a fiction film.)
Another matter, less charged but more central to “Victory,” is the oppressive heat of July-August 2006. Ghossein might have ignored this, but chose to highlight the shuttered characters’ discomfort, showing their quiet delight when a broken water pipe showers the room like a fire sprinkler. This scene is a bit confusing, though, since up to that point none of the characters is noticeably sweating. Glistening faces and disgustingly sopping shirts go far in cinema.
Ghossein set out to make a film situated amid a lacerating military conflict but that doesn’t reproduce war movie tropes, and his depictions of the characters’ shared confinement capture something of the claustrophobia of their predicament.
There’s an element of theatricality in the decision to enclose these ensemble anxieties in a location so strictly demarcated between upstairs-downstairs and inside-outside – conveying only the sounds of the village’s murderous occupiers, and its equally deadly defenders.
With this othering of the gunmen (on both sides), the film suggests a concise metaphor for the condition of siege and occupation. More than that, it summarizes the broader experience of citizens held hostage by a criminal regime.
“All this Victory” (“Jidar al-Sawt”) is screening at VOX cinemas, City Centre Beirut Mall, Hazmieh.