The other “other”: Reflections on intra-Arab cinema

As the Arab revolutions continue, a need arises for contemporary film to accurately depict the region’s conscience.

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Lebanon's postwar scares heal slowly as the country fails to address the realities of the situation, even in film [Reuters]

A second year of Arab revolutions and counterrevolutions, massacres and counter-massacres, has come to a close, and we appear to be entering a prolonged winter of civil wars and democratic blunders that will cast a long shadow over the coming year, eclipsing the sun and with it all hope of “spring”.

Since September 11, 2001, when the Arab people inherited the scapegoat tail once pinned onto the Soviet Union and its communist allies, a plethora of Middle Eastern filmmakers, artists, journalists, writers, activists and “ordinary” citizens have asserted themselves as social and cultural ambassadors of their misunderstood region.

They have taken it upon themselves to battle dangerous stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures, responding to Lawrence of Arabia with Paradise Now, to Bernard Lewis with Edward Said, to “hashtag Muslim rage” with the hash-tag hilarity of a region that despite decades of playing jenga with viral miseries still manages to punctuate every conversation with humour, finding a reason to laugh amidst the rubble of homes ravaged by foreign bombs or beneath the stifling boot of a dictator.

A more pressing kind of dialogue

Now however, is not the time for engaging with the West. As Syrians execute their fellow Syrians, as real Lebanese lives are sacrificed in the name of the flat, static images on political posters, as pronouns become increasingly sectarianised, as neo-imperial ambitions seek to divide the region into this crescent and that axis, as so-called Middle Eastern leaders try to display their resistance like the Emperor did his new clothes, it becomes apparent that what Arabs so desperately need is to better communicate with one another rather than the outside world. There is a pressing need for mediums through which Arabs can come to better understand the roots of their own differences and disagreements in order to move forward as a region.

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The independent Arab film industry is a veritable orchestra of diverse voices and perspectives that have the potential to crack or even pry open many a closed, angry and rigid regional mind, initiating curiosity or, at the very least, introducing confusion and doubt into what was once a disciplined house of unwavering conviction.

I have watched countless regional films with such implicit topic sentences as, “This is the real Lebanon”, “Let me tell you what is actually happening in Syria”, “Look how the Palestinians suffer”, and “We don’t all wear veils, you know”. While films that challenge simplistic and fallacious portrayals of Middle Eastern history, society and political trends by contextualising and historicising regional developments and practices through their counter-narratives are both valuable and necessary, at this most tense of moments there is a need for work that can encourage an internal critical engagement with the region.

Arabs already know that they are not all veiled, that Palestinians have been suffering for close to a century under occupation and that Lebanon is not one giant landmine. There is a need, however, to confront the inhabitants of the Arab world with their own countries, to poke at the more subtle and parochial regional sore spots and sensitivities that might not mean anything to foreigners but are key threads in the webs of tension holding the region in precarious place, to challenge intra-Arab misconceptions and assumptions, and to grapple with the existential questions that this moment of upheaval has brought up for many.

There is a need for films without answers that, instead of trying to neatly define Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain or Syria for a foreigner, encourage the inhabitants of such countries to ask what it means to be Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian or Bahraini for them today, and what it should or possibly could mean tomorrow.

Sleepless nights in amnesiac Lebanon

Eliane Raheb’s Sleepless Nights, which premiered at the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival, is one poignant example. It is an experimental documentary thrust from a Lebanese national belly tortured by indigestible pain. It responds, in a sense, to the collective amnesia imposed and enforced by post-war Lebanese governments who, despite their differences, seem to all stubbornly believe that in order for the country (or their power) to survive, the Lebanese must forget.

Raheb’s film follows two individuals who, among countless others, the Lebanese have been asked to wipe from their memories. The first is Assad Shaftari, a former high-ranking officer in the Lebanese Forces (LF) – the armed branch of the right-wing Christian Phalange party during the Civil War. The second is Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a missing communist fighter who disappeared at the age of fifteen during a battle with the LF in 1982.

Shaftari is one of thousands of individuals who murdered their fellow citizens, authorised executions, ordered bombings, initiated the destruction of neighbourhoods and were not held accountable for their crimes after the war as a result of the sweeping amnesty law enshrined in 1991. He is, however, one of few figures whose bloodstains are visible to the public, partially because of the position he occupied within the Lebanese Forces based on which it is fair to assume he played a significant role in the prolonged violence, but largely because he made a public confession.

Most former Lebanese militants from all sides remain anonymous, comfortably tucked into society, serving as doctors and civil servants, police officers and grocery store clerks, teachers and neighbours, friends and uncles, fathers and siblings, their memories of war ostensibly zip-locked and tucked away in some subconscious deep freezer. Raheb claws at Shaftari’s memory, prodding him with terms like “mass grave”, staging confrontations between him and Maryam, sitting him down with his parents who first introduced his young mind to notions of Christian elitism – arguably the kernels that eventually popped into fascist visions of a Lebanese utopia. The director seems to want to hear Shaftari express regret and self-loathing. It is as though she is attempting to steer him towards some kind of climactic moment of horrific agony that punches its way out of his insides. It is as though she is trying to redeem him, or to enable him to redeem himself.

I happened to be reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem the week I watched this film. Here he was, I thought, demonically reincarnated: the banality of evil. This was the order of things. He does not defend his actions but he does not seem horrified by them either. He recognises that in the context of a society not at war, his actions are abominable. But, along the borders of that context, in the peripheral limbo of memory, one gets the sense that he continues to imagine himself a visionary with a dream that was meant to serve the good of the nation, who bravely engaged in whatever means were necessary to achieve the utopian end he and his allies had designed.

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In the postwar moment he seems disillusioned not because he has come to regret his actions, but because he does not know what to do with himself now that the dream has collapsed, now that he has to inhabit the role of the ordinary citizen. He can behave normally; he is self-admittedly skilled at deception. But beneath the surface of citizen skin remains the uniform, stapled to his muscles and bones.

Confession, this film shows, is not enough for redemption. Can this society, it asks, ever learn to love its diverse parts if the militant-citizen has yet to be fully demilitarised and re-sensitised? Can young men who came of age holding rifles with the Virgin Mary seated on their tips, ever truly assimilate into and grow with a pluralistic society as adults if the war, its crimes and its roots remain taboo subjects, if Lebanese society continues to play blind, dumb and mute in the face of its ongoing echoes and hemorrhaging wounds? And what does the future of Lebanon hold beyond this present moment of partial living, of mere “survival” and “getting by” as the Lebanese say, of the delusion of hedonism referred to as “living in the now” which is, in reality, simply a way of avoiding the complex and most likely volatile conversation about a unified tomorrow that can only be born dialectically of opposing visions of nation and citizen, or never born at all?

Then there is Maryam Saiidi, her pain and her son, who is among thousands who have gone missing from time, space and memory. She has to contend not only with the chronic agony of not knowing if he died or survived, if he remains in a prison somewhere entering his twenty-something year of torture or if he is part of a cocktail of soil and bone buried beneath an ordinary garden or building somewhere in the city, but also with the harrowing fact that nobody but her is looking for him, nobody – not even the communists for whom he fought – remembers him, and the cause that was so tangible to him is now nothing but posters and empty slogans, fashionable protests and charity concerts.

Saiidi tells Raheb repeatedly that she is not interested in conversing with Shaftari, that she just wants him to tell her where the mass graves are so she can dig up her son. Raheb takes her to visit a Western psychotherapist who speaks to her about moving on and forgiving herself, about finding alternative ways to reconnect with her son. Saiidi laughs. “We’ll talk when you’ve felt ‘our’ pain,” she responds. This same psychotherapist established the “Garden of Forgiveness” in Beirut, which emerges as a farce, a PR stunt and a superficial gesture when juxtaposed with Saiidi’s angry, tortured soul, which has inhabited a loop of failed investigations and daily nervous breakdowns for nearly three decades, in a house full of pictures, sculptures and life-sized paper cutouts of her son. She is still at war, despite all the agreements and accords. She has granted amnesty to no one.

Questions without answers

A garden, a psychotherapist, a foreign power, a national government, this film shows, cannot forgive these crimes and cannot suffocate what has been done beneath flowers and empty laws; they cannot stop Shaftari’s hand from twitching, and they cannot satiate Saiidi’s crippling itch to find her son; they cannot make Shaftari care when Saiidi breaks down in front of him; they cannot disguise his apathy, his glaring inability to empathise with her pain; and they cannot make her accept that war is war and her son was merely a victim of the order of things. This is your post-war reality, the film says to its Lebanese audience, personified in two broken individuals. Where do you go from here?

Sophie Chamas is a freelance writer based in the United Arab Emirates, and co-editor of Mashallah News. Her writing has appeared in Egypt Independent, Jadaliyya, Mashallah News, TheState, Kalimat Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Magazine and ArteEast’s Shahadat.

Follow her on Twitter: @SophsC87