BEIRUT: Discussions of Lebanese society tend to dwell upon difference.
Textbook histories invariably point out that the population is divided into an array of confessional communities (simplified into variations on a theme of Christian and Muslim). Sectarian differences are seen to be complicated by regional and tribal affiliations and by the immigration of displaced communities (Armenian, Palestinian, Syrian) that have tended to be selectively naturalized.
“Here We Are,” a medium-length documentary co-directed by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Joude Gorani, focuses on what unifies a wide swathe of the country’s resident population – their lack of access to education and meaningful work.
The doc was produced by the Centre for Lebanese Studies and the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP). Its subject was derived from a long-term research project they co-authored on displacement, youth education and employment, engagingly titled “Trajectories of Youth from Education to Employment in Protracted Displacement”.
“You know, when you have an academic project, it’s about data,” Atassi told The Daily Star. “Researchers went to the Bekaa and did 200-300 interviews. Every time they meet a person for half an hour, they had a questionnaire, they made an interview, then they left.
“The challenge for us was how to put some skin on those bones ... I come from an academic background and one of the reasons I stopped the PhD was that I felt how much academic language is sometimes incapable of telling people’s stories in all their complexity ... With film and documentary tools, you can provide much more detail and narrative than academic research alone.”
The doc had its Beirut premiere last week as the closing film of the Karama Beirut Human Rights Film Festival. Staged 23-26 September at Dawar an-SHAMS in Tayyoueh, the festival was presented by the Lebanese NGO Art Factory 961 with the United Nations Information Centre in Beirut (UNIC Beirut), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the NGO Taawon, and the embassy of the Czech Republic in Lebanon.
“Here We Are” opens with Mira, an aspiring Lebanese filmmaker, standing on the Beirut Corniche, microphone in hand, asking passers-by to share their views on the rights of Lebanon’s Palestinian and Syrian refugees vis-à-vis education and work. Periodically the film returns to her vox pop, and the opinions expressed are a bit surprising, though perhaps not in the way you might expect.
“We decided to go to the Corniche to break with the common discourse,” Atassi said. “We did 100 interviews and the majority, 80 percent of them, were in favour of opening of the job market and education [to refugee communities]. There were no racists.
“I’ve lived in Beirut for over 20 years and I was I shocked that this majority opinion isn’t reflected in Lebanon’s mainstream political discourse – a discourse that is completely anti-refugee and catastrophizing – saying that refugees are stealing food from Lebanese mouths.
“I was surprised to see the younger generation’s moderate, open-minded attitudes. This is why the balance of the [vox pop] that we showed is weighted toward more humane treatment, more rights etc.”
The principal interior sequence shows Atassi moderating discussions with the directors’ five young collaborators. Like Mira, Mahmoud, Ghaith, Omar, and Rana shoot vignettes reflecting their coming of age experiences.
“I wanted to join Lebanon’s thawra,” recalls Rana, “but people told me to not get involved, because I’m Palestinian.”
Rana works at a bookshop in southern Beirut, where she recalls how people sometimes remark that she doesn’t look Palestinian.
“Why wouldn’t I look Palestinian?” she says, aggravated. “I am Palestinian!”
Elsewhere in the film, someone asks some youngsters what “identity” means. One of the kids energetically replies that the identity is the card his father has to show soldiers when they stop his car at a checkpoint.
The contribution of Omar, a Palestinian from Syria, centres on his footage of anti-regime demonstrations in Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, before the regime shelled and bombed the camp to rubble. His segment ends with a song about identity. Later in the doc, Rana joins him in song.
Ghaith is a Syrian refugee whose family relocated to Beirut’s southern suburbs. He starts his contribution by documenting his family house in Hayy al-Silloum, whose windows open up on the place next door, a quarter of a metre away. The house, he says, is without beauty. In voiceover he remarks that he was afraid he’d get beaten up if he tried to shoot a video in the quarter. Instead, he records the rest of his vignette by the sea, where he performs a dance routine.
Also a Syrian refugee, Mahmoud shows some mobile phone footage of an anti-Asad demo he shot when he was 16. The footage got him arrested and he spent several years in Saydnaya detention facility – whose treatment of its inmates has been so cruel and calculatedly negligent that it came to be known as an extermination camp.
Mahmoud remembers his pal Ahmad, with whom he shared a blanket in their cell. Saydnaya’s guards would deprive the prisoners of water – sometimes making a pot of tea and pouring it on the floor, forcing inmates to lap it up like animals. Runoff would pool outside their cell door, Mahmoud says, and the prisoners would use filthy rags to collect the mud and suck out the moisture. Ahmad died of thirst.
Atassi acknowledges that some of the contributors’ stories may be more compelling than others, but the doc’s aim is a group portrait.
“We didn’t want to make a classical movie, in terms of narrative arc involving one or two characters,” he said. “We try to show a bit of the complexity, to show what is common among the Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian youth in this country, without a lot of theory. They come from different social backgrounds and different areas but [the point is] to show how the legal framework in this country makes everyone vulnerable, and how counterproductive that is.
“This is really a collective work. [Gorani and I] prepared them and trained them, but at the end these five people edited what they shot independently. Part of this film belongs to them.”
The Biqaa Valley is a significant location, where Atassi and Gorani introduce a few additional characters.
Ahmad, a resident of an informal refugee camp in Bar Elias, has tried to fill the education vacuum by turning his house into a part-time classroom, where he teaches youngsters how to read.
Ahmad himself has ambitions to become a doctor and he describes the bureaucratic obstacles he faces to write his school exams. Official identity papers are needed to write exams and, when he asks if he’ll be admitted into exams with his passport, officials say he must have a Lebanese residency card. As he’s a refugee, residency and university are forbidden him.
Hamza, a Lebanese who grew up in the Bekaa, remarks on how Beirutis tend to assume he’s a drug dealer or a thug when they hear his accent.
“People ask me to bring them hashish whenever I go to the Bekaa,” he says. During the 2019-20 anti-regime protests, other demonstrators assumed he was a tough guy and expected him to be confrontational. He got tired of these clichés, he said, and for a time he tried to speak in Beiruti dialect.
In the Bekaa, none of the poorly funded schools have libraries, so Hamza opened one himself. He also works with kids. The camera follows him and the youngsters as they collect pieces of discarded wood, which they reduce to mulch and pour into moulds, to make craft paper.
Also in Bar Elias, Rahaf is one of dozens of young women who provide cheap labour for the agricultural sector. All she wants to do is to go to school but, as girls are expected to work in the fields until they marry, Rahaf’s prospects are slim.
“Women will always work in the fields,” a male farm labourer says. “Men won’t work for less than $3-5. Women will work for $1 a day.”
“There is this terrible discourse that Syrian refugees take advantage,” Atassi said, “that they steal Lebanese jobs. If you look at Ahmad or Rahaf, who work on the land, you understand that if we eat cheap tabbouleh and potatoes today, it’s because these people are very badly paid. It’s them that allow this agricultural economy to work until today. They are not only vulnerable and exploited, but subject to racism and excluded from access to education.”
“Here We Are” documents realities of exclusion and exploitation that will be familiar to anyone living in Lebanon, as they should be to Americans, Europeans, Khalijis – any economy that benefits from cheap migrant labour paired with legislated inequality. If their subject is a statistic – the margins of one society contorted by the neoliberal economy – Gorani, Atassi and their colleagues illuminate a few of the diverse personalities on this terrain.