For most of the previous decade, Egyptian film dominated the regional fest circuit, stirring a media frenzy for its popular stars and winning awards right and left for work that was far more developed, if less daring, than that of neighboring countries with less experience and no industrial backbone.
Egyptian cinema has been in decline for the past few years, salvaged by a number of socially-conscious films (“One-Zero,” “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story”) and independent productions (“Eye of the Sun,” “Microphone”).
As the Middle East’s biggest film industry continued to invent new ways of attracting audiences, Morocco and Lebanon ventured onto new cinematic courses untaken by Egyptians.
This year mark the eclipse of Egyptian film as much as it loudly announces the full bloom of competing cinemas. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival — a strong patron of Lebanese cinema — introduced the world to the new wave of Moroccan filmmakers with their gritty, uncompromising and singular films.
The Dubai International Film Festival — whose focus in the past few years shifted to discovering young talent in the region — reverses roles with Abu Dhabi, directing the spotlight on the intellectually-driven, artistically bold new breed of Lebanese documentary filmmakers.
Two entries stand out from the rich, varied Lebanese selection: Nadim Mishlawi’s “Sector Zero” and Hady Zaccak’s “Mercedes.”
Mishlawi’s debut feature-length documentary centers on Karantina, a neighborhood situated at the Eastern part of Beirut. For the most part of the 20th Century, the place harbored various minority groups: Palestinians, Armenians and Kurds, refugees with no other place to go. It was known as “City of Outsiders.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Karantina — ‘quarantine’ in Turkish — became a target for the Christian Phalangists who slaughtered more than 1,000 residents. Appropriately, a large slaughterhouse was constructed on the site.
The foreboding history of Karantina is loosely relayed via testimonials from architect Bernard Khoury — designer of a night club the area is currently housing — Al Hayat political commentator Hazem Saghiyeh and psychologist Choukri Azouri. First-hand accounts by former slaughterhouse worker and an army officer provide details for the experts’ analysis.
No full visual picture of Karantina is given. In dimly-lit sequences, Mishlawi’s roams around the abandoned site of the massacre in a manner resembling, in tone and purpose, Alain Resnais’ 1955 holocaust documentary “Night and Fog.” The specter of death looms over the place, reminding onlookers of the committed atrocity…or does it?
The main theme of Mishlawi’s film is the fragmented, sectarian identity of Lebanon. “Our societies do not allow a space for dynamism,” another expert explains, “it confirms and establishes fragmentation. There are neighborhoods for every sect, for the Christians, Jews, Druze and Muslims.”
This massive divide prompted each group to elect its own militia leader to defend them, a practice rooted in the cultural structure of primitive man. War, murder and savagery are not unique to Lebanon, they are fundamental components of humanity repressed and polished through the foundation of civilizations.
“Sector Zero” is both quintessentially Lebanese yet also universal in subject and themes. Mishlawi paints an exceedingly nihilistic portrait of a race that has failed to transcend its origins. The real enemy, the film asserts, has always lurked inside our souls. “It’s easier to deal with the devil, with the evil inside us, when it’s externalized,” Azouri states. “The stranger you’re trying to murder is inside you.”
Our relationship with history, as a result, becomes hazy and dysfunctional. Karantina was established on the fringes of Beirut, enabling the city’s residents to avoid seeing it, to be able to bury their heads in the sand, as one commentator puts it. “Groups forget because there’s a benefit in forgetting,” he adds. “Individuals, however, don’t.”
“Sector Zero” is that rare Arab documentary: fiercely intelligent, aesthetically ambitious and emotionally devastating; an unsettling, deeply disturbing commentary on a history that will soon be forgotten. All “Arab countries have diverted their attention to other preoccupations in order to avoid building societies,” Saghiyeh asserts. In the uncertain post-revolution Arab world, this statement couldn’t resonate more strongly.
A radically different approach in exploring Lebanon’s history is presented by Zaccak’s “Mercedes,” a quirky, affectionate and nostalgic chronicle of modern Lebanese history seen from the point of view of the Panton Mercedes automobile.
The first part of the film sheds light on the upbringing of the cars. The Pantons were the first cars produced after World War II. The Panton “family,” as Zaccak indicates, made its mass immigration to Lebanon, leaving the ruins of a war-torn Germany behind.
The Panton, Zaccak indicates, united all social classes and got along with all sects. With time, the family joined the taxi service, becoming a symbol of the working class and blending beautifully with the “Lebanese medley.”
Rare footage of the family in 50s Lebanon illustrates the seemingly idyllic, freewheeling ambiance of the time — the tranquility proved to be short-lived.
“In the 1970s, Lebanon was transformed into a natural studio for war films,” the title card reads. “The Panton family remembered their experience at the Second World War, but Lebanon had a special flavor.”
Descendants of the Pantons were luckier. The Phantom entered the ruling party, conquering the parliament, and after the Phantoms came the Submarines, which were equally successful.
The film is comprised of old documentary records of various chapters in Lebanon’s history along with staged scenes of the Panton in action. No dialogue is used; no talking heads disrupt the purity of this visual essay. Only title cards, in the manner of silent film, are employed to punctuate the narrative.
“Mercedes” is highly original, endlessly inventive and always entertaining. Zaccak’s biggest accomplishment is tackling such a turbulent and bloody history from a humorous perspective without descending into parody.
The comedy is occasionally intercut by surprising flashes of poignant visual poetry. In one of the most beautiful scenes of the film, two members of the Panton from the opposite sex secretly meet in a secret beach. This short moment of bliss acts as a respite from the death and destruction brought about by Civil War.
The film meanders near the end and Zaccak appears to be struggling to find a fitting ending to his story, but that’s a minor quibble to one of the most delightful discoveries of the festival.
Lebanese films aside, another outstanding entry at this year’s Muhr Arab Documentary competition is Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim’s documentary "1/2 Revolution." Shargawi, a Danish-Palestinian, and El Hakim, an Egyptian-American, were in Cairo researching a film when the Jan. 25 Revolution erupted. Equipped only with hand-held cameras, the pair ventured out to capture Egypt’s popular uprising while protesting with their friends and family members.
The result is the best film about Jan. 25 released thus far: an intimate, unsentimental and visceral record of the first 11 days of the revolution that perfectly captures the hope, fear, paranoia and uncertainty of the time.
More than 100 hours of recorded footage were edited down to a brisk 71-minute film representing the pair’s first-hand account.
Unlike similar documentaries, the Danish production jumps straight into action, the majority of which is shot outside Tahrir Square. Shargawi and El Hakim adopt a no-holds-barred approach, shooting the action as it unfolds, running with the protesters, avoiding the police and simply trying to stay alive.
The adrenaline rush of the initial chase gives way to something more moving, more complex and certainly more dangerous. Both Shargawi and El Hakim get into plenty of trouble, and the latter gets shot in the head with a rubber bullet.
When not in the streets, the pair directs their lenses to their family and friends. What ultimately emerges is a compelling drama about a family caught in turmoil. The cast of characters include El Hakim’s rebellious, passionate Palestinian wife and their little baby, his elderly father, their strong-headed friends and Shargawi’s unseen petrified fiancée in Denmark. The film’s most moving moment occurs midway through when Shargawi finishes a phone call with his father and bursts into tears. “My father always told me what to do,” Shargawi says, “this is the only time in my life when he didn’t.”
All featured subjects mull over the ongoing madness and chaos, putting haphazard scenarios for the future of the country. They watch the pro-Mubarak cronies march down their street heading towards Tahrir on “Battle of the Camel” day, and wander in the streets of the Cairo in search for open grocery stores. The fake sense of victory informing other revolution films has no trace in here.
The pair and their families remain skeptical throughout, questioning the role of the military. In one telling scene, El Hakim claims he’s seen army vehicles trampling protesters (alas, the footage is not shown in the film).
Their journey ends abruptly after the Battle of the Camel, when state media manipulated the public into believing that all foreigners are spies. “We stick out like sore thumbs,” Shargawi tells his friends, realizing how hostile the entire nation has become towards foreigners.
They decide to leave, forced to witness the next seven days through TV screens in Paris.
The revolution, the film, asserts, is far from over. More people were murdered by the police and the army has taken control of the country. The future is unknown and the fight will continue.
The Dubai International Film Festival closes Dec. 14.
Hady Zaccak ‘Mercedes.’
"1/2 Revolution" co-director Omar Shargawi.