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September 2013, arsenal cinema

Sights of Memory – Films from Lebanon

LAYALI BALA NOOM / SLEEPLESS NIGHTS, 2012

Although the Lebanon War (1975–1990) ended over 20 years ago, it is still very present in the films of Lebanese directors today. The artistic examination of the country's past is directed against the state-endorsed collective amnesia that wants to prevent an open debate about the war and the accompanying questions of guilt and atonement. There has not yet been a national dialogue about the war and the crimes committed in the war in Lebanon, no sentencing of the perpetrators, and no official discourse of memory or consensus on how to write history. The general amnesty of 1991 was supposed to close the chapter of the civil war definitively. Against this backdrop, the "Sights of Memory" program organized by Arsenal and the ZMO (Center of Modern Oriental Studies) presents eight films that deal with the open wounds of the conflict from today's perspective. The selection of essay films, documentaries and features made between 2005 and 2012 – most of which are being screened in Berlin for the first time – offers an insight into a deeply traumatized society that is fragmented along sectarian and political lines and in which the repercussions of war can be felt everywhere. With aesthetically varied approaches and taking different perspectives they open up alternative views of the civil war and its consequences, provide a contribution to the appraisal of Lebanon's collective history and not only call for the past to be examined but hint at its very presence today. The thematic aspects of the films are as varied as is their form: meetings between victims and perpetrators, the reconstruction of failed revolutionary utopias, the painful wait for the return of those who vanished during the war, emotional isolation, as well as an exploration of the city of Beirut. The films also register the latent tensions in Lebanese society now and testify to a fragile situation of political uncertainty. In order to enable a dialogue between the past and the present, a culture of memory is necessary. "Sights of Memory" presents films which use artistic means to drive forward the production of memory and are themselves sites of memory.
We are very glad that four filmmakers from Lebanon will be at Arsenal to discuss their films with the audience - Eliane Raheb, Ghassan Salhab and Rania and Raed Rafei. Moreover, on 29.9., a podium discussion with the directors, as well as Irit Neidhardt (mec film) and Rabih El-Khoury (Metropolis Art Cinema, Beirut) will look at the conditions for filmmaking in Lebanon today.

LAYALI BALA NOOM / SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (Eliane Raheb, Lebanon/Palestine/Qatar/United Arab Emirates/F 2012, 26.9., followed by a Q&A with Eliane Raheb) Two people marked by the civil war - a man and a woman, perpetrator and victim - form the two opposing poles of this highly-charged film: Assaad Chaftari, a former senior intelligence official of a right-wing Christian militia responsible for countless deaths, and Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a communist partisan who went missing in 1982 at the age of 15. Both have gone against the rule requiring silence on the war: In 2000, Chaftari publicly acknowledged his culpability and Saiidi speaks unflinchingly and loudly about the search for her son's whereabouts and her pain. The dauntless filmmaker arranges for the two to meet. The confrontation throws open the question of forgiveness and reconciliation. Apart from the individual aspect, light is also shed upon the social dimension: Scenes featuring Chaftari's wife and son, his parents, the "Red Bishop" Haddad, a British psychotherapist and her "Garden of Forgiveness," as well as Chaftari's former militia cohorts hunting rabbits, and a silent former communist commander give an overall impression of Lebanese society. This is a cinematic statement against state-sanctioned collective forgetfulness.

MA HATAFTU LI GHAYRIHA / MY HEART BEATS ONLY FOR HER(Mohamed Soueid, Lebanon 2008 | 27.9., Introduced by Saadi Nikro, ZMO) "Vietnam Today, Palestine Tomorrow!" Abu Hassan Hanoi fought for Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in Lebanon at a time when there was a call for Beirut to be transformed into a "Hanoi for the Palestinian Revolution". He ended his political activity after the Israeli invasion of 1982. His son Hassan, a filmmaker based in Dubai, reconstructs his father's revolutionary past using his diary as a basis. This film letter boldly mixes autobiographical, documentary and fictional elements. It features views of Beirut, Dubai and Hanoi, discussions with former Fatah fighters, historical archive material and depicts the political fighter as a Harley Davidson fan and lover of Hollywood films. In the end, an associative essay film emerges which is about the lost revolutionary dreams of the 1970s and the materialistic superlatives of the present.

YAWMON AKHAR / A PERFECT DAY (Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Lebanon/F/G 2005, 27.9., Introduced by Regina Sarreiter, ZMO) One day in Beirut. Malek is 25 and lives with his mother. He suffers from a sleep disorder. His father is one of 17,000 people who disappeared without a trace during the civil war. His mother continues to hope for his return 15 years later, listening to every engine noise outside her house. After years of waiting, they both decide to go to a lawyer to register the father's death. They are together and yet alone. While the mother hesitantly clears out her husband's wardrobe, Malek drives through the streets that still bear the traces of the civil war while also featuring expensive shopping malls and trendy nightclubs. He's on his way to meet his ex-girlfriend - he can't accept the fact that she has left him. This is a precisely constructed film about loss and pain, retaining and forgetting and a tense city full of paradoxes - Beirut.

SECTOR ZERO (Nadim Mishlawi, Lebanon/United Arab Emirates 2011, 28.9., Introduced by Claudia Jubeh, ALFILM Festival) There is a notorious derelict district called Karantina on the outskirts of Beirut. A massacre took place there during the Lebanese Civil War, in January 1976, and it then became an empty space in the city's topography. This documentary essay explores the district's history by looking at just a few buildings - a tannery, a slaughterhouse, a hospital and a nightclub called BO18 - and uses it as a metaphor for the whole country's constitution. It combines contemporary and historical footage with soundscapes of music and noise, as well as the reflections of a psychiatrist, a journalist, and the architect Bernard Khoury who thinks of the district as a laboratory for urban development. Karantina becomes the terrain upon which the suppressed traumas and the collective unconscious of Lebanon are concentrated.

AL JABAL / THE MOUNTAIN(Ghassan Salhab, Lebanon/Qatar 2010, 28.9., followed by a Q&A with Ghassan Salhab) A man is driven by a friend to Beirut airport. But instead of getting on the plane to fly abroad for a month, he rents a car and drives to the wintry mountains. On the way, he witnesses a fatal car accident. When he arrives at his hotel, he isolates himself completely and avoids all contact. He tries to write but is sensitive to every sound. He watches a disintegrating pine cone and occasionally mumbles the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song. His inner journey runs its course - and suddenly there is a dead man lying in the snow. With a hypnotic picture composition in black and white and with hardly any words, this enigmatic "Kammerspiel" evokes an intensive emotional state, an atmosphere of latent violence and questions the possibility of making art in an environment marked by tension and war.

TAHT ALQASF / UNDER THE BOMBS (Philippe Aractingi, F/GB/Lebanon 2007, 28.9., Introduced by Birgit Schäbler, Erfurt University) Zeina, who is Lebanese but lives in Dubai, returns to Beirut during a ceasefire in Israel's air attacks in the summer of 2006 because she is worried about her small son Karim. It takes a lot of effort to persuade a taxi driver to make the dangerous journey to southern Lebanon where Karim is staying temporarily with her sister. During the increasingly desperate search for her sister and son in smoke and rubble and apocalyptic war-shattered landscapes, the disparate two come closer together despite their different social and religious backgrounds. Filmed on location during the war and without a real screenplay, this fictional story is an immediate testimony of the reality of war. Refugees, journalist and soldiers on the ground act alongside the two professional actors.

CHOU SAR? / WHAT HAPPENED? (De Gaulle Eid, Lebanon/F/Palestine 2010, 29.9., Introduced by Saadi Nikro, ZMO) As a child, the filmmaker De Gaulle Eid survived a massacre in Edbel in northern Lebanon that killed a large part of his family, including his parents and one sister. Almost 30 years later, he leaves his home in Corsica and goes to Lebanon to ask his remaining relatives about the events of the time and the run-up to them. However, they do not all want to be confronted with the painful memories and many questions remain open. When the director visits his village to see his family home again he meets his mother's murderer. This is a personal story that could be transposed to many Lebanese families and questions the proximity of victims and perpetrators who have not been punished. The film was banned from screening in Lebanon by the censors.

74 (ISTIAADAT LI NIDAL) / 74 (THE RECONSTITUTION OF A STRUGGLE) (Rania Rafei, Raed Rafei, Lebanon 2012, 29.9., followed by a Q&A with the directors) In spring 1974, one year before the Lebanese Civil War broke out, some left-wing students occupied the American University of Beirut for 37 days to protest against an increase in tuition fees. In this film, the students' discussions about the central political questions of the time are reenacted in improvised fashion. They are at first passionate and full of hope, but soon become increasingly destructive. A voiceover provides a chronicle of the events and there are also interviews with the protagonists. The actors are the political activists of today. A dialogue between the past and the present emerges and the current revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world are examined in the light of a historical event that ended with the failure of a utopia. The question thus remains: How does one change the world? (Birgit Kohler)

An event organized by Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video Art and the ZMO/UMAM D&R (Berlin/Beirut) research project "Transforming Memories. Cultural Production and Personal/Public Memory in Lebanon and Morocco". Thank you to Rabih El-Khoury (Metropolis Art Cinema, Beirut) and Monika Borgmann (UMAM D&R, Beirut) as well as to Lotte Laub (Berlin) and Ayam Beirut Al-Cinema’iya – The Cinema Days of Beirut's festival team.