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Marvelous Marcedes

ndependent filmmaker Hady Zaccak recalls his first ride in a Mercedes Ponton 180 with a broad smile. “It was in 1977; I was three [years old] sitting next to my mother in the front [seat]. It was a ‘service,’ with an extra seat in the middle, a metal rail along the dashboard to hold on to.”

Simply known as the Ponton in Lebanon, the car’s luminous, and at times cernuous, headlamps shed a humorous light on 60 years of Lebanon’s turbulent history in Zaccak’s latest documentary titled Marcedes.

Having completed 20 documentaries, including Taxi Beirut (2011), A History Lesson (2009), and Lebanon through cinema (2003), Zaccak decided to embrace a different narrative style in Marcedes to speak about the civil war and its aftermath through the eyes of the Ponton.

Mercedes-Benz promotional postcards from the 1960s branded the 180b and 190b models as economic family cars for the baby boomers. Indeed, the Ponton united all social classes in Lebanon, which is why Zaccak picked it as the protagonist for his documentary, considering it a national symbol.

“It’s in all the old films. It then became the taxi ‘service’ car par excellence. I wanted to make a tribute to this forgotten car,” Zaccak tells NOW Extra. “What’s interesting about the Ponton is that Mercedes is usually not a car for poor people, but here, everybody had one. It [wasn’t] linked to a specific clan.”

The film, based on substantial historical research, is stirring, bringing together great cinematography and a love for detail, humor and irony. The iconic car’s past is so intertwined with Lebanon’s history that the “Marcedes,” as the locals called it, became “family.”

The 1950s witnessed the birth of the Ponton, a decade that marked Lebanon with bitter infighting, slander, rivalry and rumor. Zaccak draws parallels to the present, debunking the postcard myths that it was a golden, carefree era. In fact, the decade’s unstable political conditions and shortage in power supply may in fact be as cyclical as Lebanon’s history.

The award-winning film opens with a quirky and beautifully animated sequence, blending visuals in the style of 1950s and 1960s comedies. It showcases the Ponton’s past at its best: old colorful postcards and stamps, as well as newsreels and footage of Canon Square depict downtown Beirut in all its glory, and old car ads appraise some “arrivages sensationels.”

In the 1960s, the Ponton became the Lebanese working class hero (the service car) and an active and adept participant in traffic jams and honking competitions. Sadly, “in 1975, Beirut turned into an open air studio where war films were made,” announces a title card. Footage of bodies strapped across Pontons fills the screen.

By 1990, Germany reunites, and the Lebanese civil war seemingly comes to an end. The Ponton is shown to be wheezing, suffering from wear, war and tear. To make matters worse, in times of peace, the vehicle had been rendered redundant and is now the “phantom.”

Eventually, the Ponton makes way for the “Submarine,” which marks the ever-growing discrepancy within Lebanese society. Poverty spikes, and despite all of the Ponton’s shared history with the locals, it has become an outcast.

The Ponton model was famous for strength and elegance, a mechanical feat born out of resilience indeed – 50,000 vehicles were manufactured between 1953 and 1962, and were exported to 136 countries.

An instant hit in Lebanon, the Ponton underwent rapid acclimatization and eventual “Lebanization” after being renamed “Marcedes” with pimped bumpers, decorated side mirrors, along with gadget-filled dashboards, accessories and religious tokens. The Ponton had become a part of the Lebanese fabric.

“I love cars and history and have done several films about sectarianism in Lebanon. This film is a mixture of what I have done before, a continuation in some sort, but it also aims to cover contemporary history. We don’t agree on history, so it is simply not covered in [our] history books,” the director explains.

Born in 1974, Zaccak grew up in Beirut, waiting for the war to end. “Then it ended but it didn’t… There is no official end. We are still living a lie. Many react with sarcasm to this situation. I don’t want to leave Lebanon, but I also don’t want to lose my values, my ideals – and my sense of humor. Humor is my protection!”

“You get another perspective on history as you are trying to write history. It’s also sad – you see the same speeches [being told] again and again and the same people [only] 20 years apart,” he tells NOW Extra, summing up his experience with the making of the film.

“The problem is that every party considers itself as holding the truth. There is nothing like the truth. History goes in cycles, and we’re not learning anything!”

Without a pension scheme, surviving Ponton family members, frequently in need of pushing and jump-starting, still take to the road. And as a German proverb goes, “old love does not rust.”

Marcedes is showing daily at the Metropolis Cinema until June 28. For more information, please visit the Metropolis website here.