Believe it or not, Yaouled isn’t the only Lebanese feature playing at the Beirut Film Festival this year. Doueiri’s film is noteworthy for successfully negotiating the dangerous ground between fiction and personal history, between the purgative and the entertaining. The other two features of the festival, Berlin Cinema and Beyrouth Fantôme come from older contemporaries of Ziad Doueiri. These directors may penetrate the same zone as Doueiri but they’ve both taken very different paths. Virtually the only thing these films have in common, aside from the national origins of their directors, is the ubiquitous presence of the camera. The camera is a metaphor for power in these films, not the power to effect change but the power of memory. Memory is an ambiguous asset.
Ghassan Shalhab’s Beyrouth Fantôme is set in the latter stages of the civil war so, chronologically in any case, it picks up where Doueiri’s film leaves off. The film tells the story of Ziad, a former fighter who has returned to Beirut after an absence of more than ten years. His reception by his mates is equivocal to say the least, because he departed the country under questionable circumstances and also made off with a large sum of stolen money.
The most interesting feature of Beyrouth Fantôme is not the plot but what is not in the plot. Most of the actors in the film were themselves fighters in the war and the story is interspersed with their testimonials; the film actually opens with one of these. The cast members comment on how their lives have changed since the end of the war. One of the recurring themes is that, in human terms, the war was actually preferable to the peace, since it gave people something to believe in.
It is against the documentary background of the film that the “fictional” elements should be assessed. Aouni Kawas’ depiction of Khalil, for instance, is not exactly a wellspring of conflicting emotions. But in the context of these testimonials, his blank-faced rendering of a man who has returned home after abandoning his comrades, his principles and his country seems particularly appropriate.
Beyrouth Fantôme was screened without subtitles and it was only while having it interpreted that I realised what a uniquely Lebanese film it is. At no point are we actually told which militia Khalil fought with but his political past is implied by various means. But to a local ear his accent reveals that he is probably Christian, while his former colleagues come from all over the confessional map. Another dimension is added by the soundtrack, which combines John Cale and Joy Division with Ziad Rahbani. Though a good piece of film, then, the real value of Beyrouth Fantôme is as an artefact of this country’s trials. Given the country’s fondness for more distant archaeology, it is well worth a look.
Berlin Cinema is the lone art house film at the festival this year, and it’s 106-minutes long. If you’re in the mood for a good car chase or passionate embraces between big-haired women and muscled men, “art house” should set off alarm bells. If most movies can be equated to “easy listening music”, art house is “difficult”. This makes reviewing art house films difficult as well.
Certainly there’s a great deal here to launch a good invective: the lack of acting, the obscure “plot”, the irritating music, the undue length would make good starting points. But the intended audience of Berlin Cinema, those people who happily endured the entire film, would tell you that you’ve just missed the point. It’s akin to criticising a poem for not making good news copy.
This said, it’s not clear exactly what Berlin Cinema is about. The title and setting of the film, and the voice-over of Jean-Luc Godard, suggest that Samira Gloor Fadel, the director, is interested in continuity and change, appearance and reality. This impression is supported by certain recurring motifs. One sees Wim Wenders, the “star”, discussing how film makers should experiment with video. Another, one of the more self-consciously “poetic” sequences, is the recurring image of a little boy riding his bicycle in circles, inside and outside, at various locations around Berlin.
One emerges from the film bleary-eyed but left with the impression that these cinemagraphic musings will reverberate very effectively with like-minded Beirutis, sensitive to the ready comparisons that have made between these two cities, and two societies, undergoing simultaneous reconstruction. You have been warned.
Beyrouth Fantôme is screened today at 11am and Berlin Cinema tonight at 10.30pm.