Alex Rowell

Neglected triumphs

The official trailer of “Scrapbook: A Month of Lebanese Cinema,” which is taking place at the Metropolis Art Cinema in Sofil Center until July 12.

f you’re unaware that over the past two years independent Lebanese films have been making waves at prestigious film festivals in Dubai, Doha, Marseille and Berlin, then you’re not alone. In fact, this is precisely why the people at the Metropolis Association and MC Distribution decided to organize and launch Scrapbook: A Month of Lebanese Cinema. The event consists of a series of daily screenings of the cream of contemporary Lebanese film and runs through July 12.

“Recently, there have been many Lebanese productions that were awarded in film festivals, but they were never shown in Lebanon except in single screenings, which is not enough,” said Scrapbook program coordinator Kristina Kaghdo in conversation with NOW Extra. “We thought it was a pity that the films didn’t receive enough attention locally. So we gathered a selection and decided to launch them over the course of a month so that people can enjoy them, because they really are of very good quality.”

And so they are, from what this reviewer has seen. Take Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero, for example. An arresting dive into the uniquely dark history of Beirut’s Karantina district, the entire film was shot on site. The documentary runs the viewer through the many layers of the area’s past, from its early 19th Century origins as a quarantine to contain the spread of epidemic diseases (whence the name) to the settlement of Armenian refugees there in the early 20th Century. The new settlers were soon joined by Kurds, Iraqis, Jordanians, and of course, Palestinians. Karantina was also the site of gruesome battles during the civil war. In place of the narrator, producers opted for footage and photos to accompany interviews with familiar Lebanese faces, such as famous architect Bernard Khoury and esteemed writer Hazem Saghiyeh.

Cinematically, the result is quite striking: with its industrial, largely derelict atmosphere, the producers have obvious fun turning the location still known today as “the slaughterhouse” (Maslakh Karantina) into a scene fit for a horror film. Dark lighting and eerie music combine with stunning close-ups of meat hooks and spiders’ webs to give the impression of a morbid, haunted site.

Less profitable, however, is the director’s stated attempt to use Karantina’s history “as a metaphor for Lebanon’s own troubled past.” Sure enough, with its immigrant population, its sectarian massacres and its ostensible joie de vivre embodied today in Khoury’s iconic BO18 nightclub, Karantina is to that extent a microcosm of Beirut. But while it was enjoyable to hear Saghiyeh tear into the “paganistic” Lebanese devotion to sectarian leaders for ten minutes, this kind of thing is amply available elsewhere.

Throughout the second half of the film, as Karantina was relegated to the back seat, one is reminded of Kingsley Amis’ description of Jane Austen’s “inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major.” Why let Khoury go on about Beirut’s real estate giant Solidere for so long, but give only a few minutes each to the living witnesses – one a survivor, the other a perpetrator – of the 1976 Karantina massacre?

More successful, overall, is Simon El Habre’s documentary Gate #5, focusing on the lives of Beirut’s elderly truck, taxi and port vehicle drivers, a faceless and forgotten segment of the working class who have quietly endured decades of labor, often many miles away from their home villages. Through a series of interviews conducted variously in the port, in the rural farmlands of their childhood, and in the vehicles in which they wheeze and battle for their living, the viewer comes to feel an almost personal connection with these unsung heroes. 

They emerge, to be sure, as an eccentric lot, whose arak-fuelled jokes rely heavily on the theme of farm animals, donkeys in particular. The truck drivers’ affection for their camions extends as far as barbecuing meat off the exhaust fumes, with one stating it’s “the best mashewi (grilled meat) you’ll ever have, son.”

But these quirks ultimately serve to humanize a group more often vilified for their contribution to the capital’s chronic congestion. It’s easy to forget that your ill-tempered taxi driver may be on dialysis, may have lost children in the war, and may not appreciate having to migrate from the clean air of his mountain village to the asphyxiating grime of the “belt of misery.”

After watching both films, I asked Kaghdo what she hopes Scrapbook will achieve. “What’s really important for us is to give a platform for these often-first-time directors, who never believed their films could be released in Lebanon. We want to introduce their work to new audiences, both Lebanese and foreign.” For this writer, at least, that mission has already succeeded, for I shall be watching all of the remaining six. I strongly encourage the rest of you to do the same.

Scrapbook is running daily until July 12. For more information, please click here or visit the Metropolis website here.