Lebanon Now: Uppsala Short Film Festival

The Uppsala short film festival which ran from 23-29 October this week included a series called Lebanon Now, with four short films from Lebanon: Submarine, In White, Maki and Zorro, and Street of Death.

Submarine imagines the garbage crisis continuing on into the future rendering Lebanon uninhabitable. As the program describes it:

Under the imminent threat of Lebanon’s 2015 garbage crisis, Hala is the only one to refuse evacuation, clinging to whatever remains of home. Mounia Akl wrote Submarine during the garbage crisis in Lebanon. She decided to set the story in a twisted near future in Lebanon where Beirut is still dealing with the abominable garbage crisis that started in 2015.

There were it seemed to me self-conscious emulation of Nadine Labaki‘s films here, especially the nuns leaving town with their cross, and the elderly man hectoring Hala for refusing to leave. The scene in the Submarine itself seemed to be missing something, a deliberate anti-climactic scenes that doesn’t quite work, but this was a striking film that lingered with the audience.

You can watch the film on vimeo here. 

Meanwhile, In White directed by  Dania Bdeir is about returning to Lebanon from abroad, and the conflicts that arise from that old clash of new and old:

Her father’s funeral brings Lara back to Beirut from her modern life in NYC, forcing her to face the traditions she escaped and the untraditional fiancée she’s been hiding. Throughout history Lebanon has always had a recurring narrative of migrating youth. This film about the emotional impact of returning to Lebanon after having built a new life and found an inner synergy abroad; free of societal rules and pressures. It’s about facing the old you upon that return, facing the old world you used to call home and figuring out wherein lies the truest version of yourself.

In White Trailer from Christopher Aoun on Vimeo.
This film was visually (and aurally) wonderful but frustrated me a little bit in terms of its politics. Initially, I thought it meant to poke fun both at the artificialities of upper-class Lebanese society and at the Americanized daughter who wants to play Sinatra at her father’s funeral — but in fact, at the end, we are left with the feeling that we are meant to be entirely on the daughter’s side.

Another irriation was the way in which casual anti-Semitism is acknowledged and broached as a topic but never adequately explored — the Jewish character was never given a moment to become more than a symbolic representation of the distance between daughter and mother, daughter and society. An eyebrow raising moment occurs where the daughter accuses him of not understanding how “difficult” it all is.

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Maki and Zorro, meanwhile, reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch:

The lives of two women: Maki, a runaway Ethiopian migrant worker, and Zorro, an out-of-work actress intersect when a diamond-smuggling operation in Beirut goes terribly wrong. Rami Kodeih has always been fascinated by the relationship between a person and his/her physical surroundings. For him Beirut is a place where drama and comedy play out every day in the theater of the streets, full of false notions of “masculinity” that fuel absurd, violent outbursts.

The aesthetic worked in part, in other ways it perhaps tried to do too much — especially jamming in the jihadists into a short action-packed film about the exploitation of domestic workers, drugs, crime, and the diamond trade, (as well as hinting at tensions between Kurds and Arabs). Exciting, interesting, perhaps overly ambitious.
The last film, directed by Karam Ghossein, revolves around a street called the street of death in Beirut:

On the outskirts of the city, right by the water, lies an arterial road that leads to Beirut’s international airport. Most of the houses standing there are illegal constructions, quickly erected for a life alongside the road. A kaleidoscope of stories take place on this highway. Thoughts on the death of friends, and not so good friends. Rituals of masculinity and fights for power that have stood the test of time, pink wedding dresses, illegitimate children. Stories merge to become a new life.

The narrator revisits the site of his youth – a lawless slum suburb next to Beirut’s international airport, where vendettas and raucous street weddings punctuate daily life. A treacherous stretch of highway, coined “Street of Death” after the many young lives lost performing motorcycle stunts, separates the area from the dazzling Mediterranean sea. The film draws a raw and intimate portrait of a neighborhood through the stories of five inhabitants, weaving the past and present, and inviting a re-examination of our relationship to the turmoil of adolescence: Do we ever really leave that very first place of precarious living and inflated dreams, or does its resonance ever truly leave us?

Some of the snippets in this narrative were striking in their irony, and the voiceover has this dead-pan reading quality which works very well…and yet, it does come off as needing something to pull the disjointed narrating together in a way that the repeated scenes of fishing (or riding motorbikes or airplanes flying overhead or music at al-Khal) does not quite achieve.

See a trailer of Street of Death here.

All four of the films, as the curator put it, portray not “the” reality of Lebanon, but a reality — and also showed us how young filmmakers are increasingly commited to really exploring the dark and seedy sides of society and to look honestly and unflinchingly at these problems, without allowing us to look away to the compelling bright sides of Beirut.

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