Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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After the storm

By Fawzi Soliman

A three-hour train ride from Zürich, Locarno commands not only an abundant view of Lake Magiore but a distinctive atmosphere all its own. In the heart of Italian-speaking Switzerland, medieval architecture, abounding in and around the Piazza Grande, stands side by side with an enormous open-air movie theatre that has the largest screen in the world.

Alongside a broad range of blockbusters and popular movies, from The X-Men to Hollow Man, the 53rd round of one of the world's most respected festivals contained a number of surprises. In fact the variety and interest of the programmes is such that they take account not only of commercially oriented accomplishments but of the latest innovations and experiments. There, at a sufficiently comfortable remove from both the well-looked after hustle and bustle of your run-of-the-mill Western metropolis and the tarnished aspect of less fortunate parts of the world, one can focus more clearly on Arab realities that are closer to home.

Screened in the course of a programme entitled "Filmmakers of the present," one remarkable feature was the young Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid's Alone with War. Shot on video, it was the artistic outcome of Arbid's eventual return to Beirut following the end of the civil war. And despite the appearance of peace she depicts -- touching on various serious endeavours relating to (among other, outward manifestations of the newfound peace) housing and reconstruction -- the dread spectre of war remains inescapable throughout. Feeling Lebanon becomes feeling the war.

Lebanon Post-war election posters, Beirut
photo: Ayman Ibrahim
War permeates Arbid's every response to Beirut, the knowledge of past conflicts weighing on the consciousness of her every character. Peace emerges as merely a thin crust masking the profound troubles at the heart of contemporary Lebanese existence. Arbid's aim seems to be to find an answer to what happened and why it happened. Through her various encounters with the city she touches on the initial geographic and political fault lines, exploring the massacres that resulted as if she is on a quest.

There is, for example, the man who demands $2,000 in return for acting as her city guide, reflecting, on the part of the survivors, both a willingness to expose the wounds and a tendency to capitalise on them, perhaps the two most prominent local responses to tragedy that have found their way into artistic reflections on the Lebanese civil war. Human encounters abound: they are numerous and unfailingly interesting, owing to the fact that the people in question are inevitably veterans of one or another kind.

All too often the tone of the survivors is fervently defensive: "The war was forced on us; either we fight or we fall dead." A footballer explains how, during the war, his role used to be to stand by the barricades. "I became familiar with all kinds of bombardment -- the B7, B10, everything." Another (civil) veteran: "I had to do drugs to forget, all the time. I was defending religion according to the warped dictates of what was going on in my head."

An elderly man nonchalantly informs Arbid that the Israeli enemy played the main part in this war. But perhaps the most stimulating scene in the film is the one in which women demonstrate demanding to know the fates of their sons: some 17,000 young men who had been abducted or simply disappeared; a banner telling the government that "These are your children, state." The final impression is a panorama of post-war life.

Arbid received Locarno's bronze Leopard. She manages, the official statement said, to create a cinematic form that enables her, as an auteur, to come to terms with her personal history. Born in 1970 Arbid spent the first 18 years of her life in Lebanon. In Paris she studied literature and journalism, working in the print media for six years before making her first film, Demolition, about a woman looking for her house in pictures of Beirut ruins, followed by Le passeur, about a Kurdish refugee in Paris. Alone with War thus concludes a personal quest for self, which deservedly exacted a positive reception. Seeing it in Locarno was something of a revelation.

The personal dimension notwithstanding, the film's greatest feat is the way in which it illuminates Arab realities that, though always relevant to its maker far transcend the specificity of her situation. Film, it seems, is the medium through which social and political life is increasingly commented on. And the position of the expatriate, distanced as it may be, offers a singularly lucid perspective on an otherwise muddled scene.

Danielle Arbid
Danielle Arbid
In doing the same thing, Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay's L'homme aux semelles d'or adopts a more narrowly focused approach. The Paris-based filmmaker had conducted a long interview with the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq El-Hariri (1992-1998), which resulted in another video feature screened in the course of the same programme at Locarno. And although it won only informal acclaim, the film sheds rare critical light on the internal dynamics of Lebanese politics in what amounts to a profile of the nation through one of its leaders. El-Hariri's subsequent triumph in the Lebanese elections makes it all the more relevant now.

Amiralay questions El-Hariri on the relation between money and power, a relation that he clearly embodies. While listening to his responses, the viewer sees the many images of luxury that characterise El-Hariri's life: his palace-like residence, his offices, his parties and receptions. Amiralay, in the meantime, focuses on his views on the future of Lebanon.

On seeing the film, the filmmaker's sensibly objective approach gives rise to the question: is Amiralay defending El-Hariri's politics? In fact the film plays like a discussion of El-Hariri's policies that concentrates on Beirut at the expense of agricultural and industrial life. And Amiralay exposes both positive and negative aspects.

Is El-Hariri's money behind his rise to power? Is he a Lebanese version of the Italian prime minister Berlisconi, who was tried on charges of corruption and cooperation with the mafia? El-Hariri fields the questions with consistent passion. He first made his money in Saudi Arabia, he explains, and until he joined the discussions informally following Israeli's invasion of the south, he had no real connection with politics.

When he came to power in 1992, it was of a Beirut destroyed by Israeli bombardment that he took charge: "Now Beirut lives again." To protect and develop this unique city became his primary objective. To have won Beirut is to have won Lebanon.

"Armenians, Druze as well as Muslims voted for me," he asserts. Looking out onto the sea from the window of his office, he defends himself against the charge that he is the rich man's politician who cares nothing for the poor. The main thing is the Lebanese economy, he claims. If it is not looked after, neither rich nor poor will benefit.

Reflecting ironically on the luxury and excess in which he appears to live, Amiralay seems to take El-Hariri at his word. But in so doing he throws critical light on the implications of a free-market economy for Lebanon, taking Arbid's war-centred panorama a step or two further and drawing a map of the future. Assuming they will be screened in enough places, we have yet to see what impact the two films will make in the Arab World.

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