Nightfall: “In the name of God, Fatah, and the popular revolution; I am Bassem, the sad smile; I am the conscience of the city, the wound of the people...”
Nightfall: “I am the murmur of the mass prayers; and out of poverty I became a pagan.”
Nightfall: “Try it, my friend, you will thank me.”
Civil War: through a tissue of sentimental absurdities...
...the outline of political and philosophical truths.
Civil War: return of the the Lebanese repressed.
Civil War: Beirut knows all about ruins.
Civil War: Who can afford to live with a gaping wound?
Tango of Yearning: the news...
Tango of Yearning: video deformed by the love of cinema.
Tango of Yearning: cinema is always trying to be reborn in Beirut.
Tango of Yearning: marquee at the Cinema Dounia.
Tango of Yearning: a history of thwarted love.
Tango of Yearning: “A painful toy called the camera.”
Nightfall: Ashrafieh, home of “galette du matin.”
Civil War: Sahar, Soueid’s dentist-muse.
Civil War: The Lebanese have the highest rate of tooth decay in the world.
Civil War: Over 9/11's mushroom cloude of smoke....
... and weeping survivors ...
... Soueid calls out urgently to his dead friend, Mohamed.
Civil War: Katia Harb sings the slogan of the Lebanese national forces: "Honor, loyalty, and sacrifice."
Civil War: A touch of paranoia aids in daily negotiations of the world.
Near the beginning of Mohamed Soueid’s Nightfall (2000), the voice of the filmmaker’s old comrade Bassem recites a poem he has written, while another friend prepares them a meal in an underground auto-repair shop. As tiny fish sizzle in oil the poet intones,
Soueid’s camera attends to his friend’s careful hands squeezing lemon and carefully garnishing a dish of hummus, as the gentle voice continues,
What matters in this carefully edited scene, we feel, is this meal, this poem to be savored and critiqued, these little fish from the depleted Mediterranean, laid to drain on today’s newspaper. The long slow passion among these old friends, unified around the dismal failure of their political ideals, gathers around and is expressed through acutely experienced micro-events.
Mohamed Soueid’s passion, compassion, love of lost or unlikely causes, and taste for slapstick are all aspects of a certain approach to the virtual that this filmmaker embraces in his personal documentaries. Soueid is a central proponent of the experimental video documentary movement, which is perhaps Lebanon’s greatest contribution to contemporary Arab and world cinema. This movement has played a significant role in the Lebanese creative renaissance that has taken place since the end of the civil war.
Soueid himself became a filmmaker under the twin pressures of necessity and desire produced by the Lebanese civil war. By necessity, he trained as a news videographer during the war, gaining a fluency with the medium that made Soueid one of the first Lebanese filmmakers to make personal video. By desire, as he recounts in the film Tango of Yearning, Soueid passed countless hours in the movie theaters of downtown Beirut during the war. The shapelessness that wartime gave to Lebanese daily life took for Soueid the form of cinema, from European classics to kung-fu movies. Soueid has since helped a generation of filmmakers to find their voices and tools, including as a founder of the grassroots media production company Beirut DC (Beirut Development and Cooperation, co-founded by Soueid, Dmitri Khodr, and Hania Mroue in 1999), and documentary producer for the Dubai-based production company O3.
Equally a writer, Soueid has published books on Lebanese cinema, fiction works, screenplays, and journalism. Recently he collaborated with Lebanese writer Elias Khoury and Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, to adapt Khoury’s novel Door to the Sun into the screenplay for Nasrallah’s stunning 2004 epic, by the same title, on the Palestinian dispossession and its aftermath.
Soueid’s effort to assist the circulation of other Arab works is defined by the same obstacles that shape his own oeuvre. He has a deep love of the cinematic but is usually forced to content itself with the cheap video medium. He has an urgency to democratize the Arab media, but his work here is shaped by the circuitous and by no means evident path by which Arab alternative media reaches its audiences.
In the following essay, I introduce Soueid’s Civil War trilogy, the feature-length experimental documentaries Tango of Yearning (1998), Nightfall (2000), and Civil War (2002). I also venture to qualify as “atomist” Soueid’s particular method of summoning the virtual from the actual. Namely, as though through a tissue of sentimental absurdities, he is able to draw the outline of political and philosophical truths that otherwise would not be recognizable.
Soueid’s rich trilogy invites many kinds of reflection and emotion. It could be interpreted through a psychoanalytic optic, as a mapping of the unexpected sites in which the repressed in Lebanese society pops up to assert itself, while the narrative is structured by a symptomatic slalom course of declarations and disavowals. The trilogy would respond to an archaeological analysis how certain discourses deform the horizon of the Lebanese thinkable, if only to crumble into one another. These films are also not unfamiliar with Benjaminian practice of interpreting the failures of ideology from the ruins of its demise.
But Soueid’s “Civil War” trilogy — and indeed the city of Beirut itself — is already performing a psychoanalysis. It is already archaeological. It knows all about ruins. These critical methods speak alongside his work as much as they interpret or excavate it. Here, I invite you to think about this work in terms of a model of virtuality and immanence, that is drawn not only from Western philosophy but also from Islamic atomism, a now-dissipated philosophical tendency that nonetheless leaves traces in Islamic thought. In doing this, I do not mean to pull Soueid’s work into an Arab intellectual genealogy. Soueid certainly wouldn’t wish that. His cinema has as much in common with Franz Kafka, the Dada poets, and his beloved Nicolas Ray as with concepts from Islam, if not more. Similarly, the historic movement of Islamic atomism is as useful for analyzing non-Arab arts, such as contemporary computer animation or “neo-Baroque” cinema, as it is for describing tendencies in Lebanese documentary.[open notes in new window] The connection between the two is neither arbitrary nor exclusive.
Thus what follows is an account of how this fascinating documentary trilogy shows a tendency to avoid attributing root causes and to favor this-ness, fragmentariness, indirection, all while pursuing themes of love, war, and cinema. Then I will introduce the tradition of atomism in order to propose a strong analytical model for Soueid’s trilogy, and indeed for many other films of our time.
Lebanon is a country whose vulnerability to outside powers (including Israel, the United States, Syria, and lately Iran) and internal divisiveness make it impossible to assert a unified narrative of the nation’s history or confidently to draw causal connections between historical events. There has been no agreement as to the facts of what happened during the civil war (1975-1990), no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and no official strategy for healing from the war’s savage effects. The political upheaval surrounding the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005 and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal continued acutely to test Lebanese people’s ability to narrate history in a linear and non-contradictory way. In July 2006, Israel criminally bombarded civilian targets all across Lebanon, in an attack supposedly against Hizballah that demolished the infrastructure that, during Hariri’s rule, had begun to unify the country geographically. This attack divided Lebanon's population even further along religious lines, and further underscored the country’s utter vulnerability to the whims of international powers.
In the post-civil war era, it was already impossible for documentary filmmakers to identify historical events and fix blame. Now this situation is only exacerbated. Insofar as Lebanese documentarists are able to continue to function at all, they continue to work by imaginatively stretching the truth, mixing documentary, fiction, personal and conceptual approaches. They confront the country’s history like a plane of immanence. There acts that are known and demonstrable are less politically salient than the teeming sea of virtuals, events that have been bulldozed over, witnessed only by the dead and disappeared, forgotten in the official history that seeks to reinsert Lebanon into the global economy, and even forgotten by the participants in the war, for who can afford to live with a gaping wound? Here I am referring to the civil war, which was perhaps just one configuration of the deep external and internal conflicts that continue to tear this little country apart. Mohamed Soueid’s trilogy deals with the shards of the civil war, the unfinished nature of which is only more apparent after the conflict of 2006. I can only hope that he and other Lebanese filmmakers have the will to continue their important work after yet another calamity has befallen their country.
Soueid’s Civil War trilogy tickles the actual in order to make the field of virtuals from which it appeared briefly perceptible. He lays a sound track of growling, howling animals over his shots of Beirut pedestrians, as though to suggest the bestial nature under the city’s civilized veneer (in Civil War). He draws out the packaged evening news by pairing a female announcer with a male “sign language interpreter” who gives the sense of political events, namely hypocrisy, greed, senseless sacrifice, drinking, and boobs (in Tango of Yearning).
Immanent in all Soueid’s films is the cinema itself. His video documentaries are practically deformed by his love of cinema — laboriously sound-image montaged, crammed with cinematic references, and bursting with histrionic performances by real people. For Soueid, cinema is always trying to be reborn in Beirut. After the wartime destruction of the downtown movie palaces, there was a postwar relocation of theatres to the Christian city of Jounieh in the north. Here, for Souied cinema is always borrowed, from Hollywood, Europe, Bollywood and Hong Kong, tentatively held, and all the more passionately cherished. It's a cinema about whose slight but passionate history in Lebanon Soueid himself wrote the book. (He has also written on the old movie theaters of Hamra Street, and includes in Tango of Yearning an interview with the owner of the Cinema Dounia, who kept screenings going during the war, complete with ladies-only afternoons.) As in many fiction and documentary films from countries that do not have a film industry, the struggle of making the film is itself the subject of the film, especially for the first work of the trilogy. Tango of Yearning is about Soueid’s thwarted love, broken heart, the short-lived TV series he directed, “Fond of Camilia,” and the attempts to maintain a culture of cinema in Beirut after the war.
Mohamed and war
In Nightfall, Soueid with due modesty presents himself as a former member of the pro-Palestinian Fatah Student Squad. Membership in this militia during the civil war signified solidarity with the Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon since 1948, as well as with the PLO and Arafat, who had decamped to West Beirut after being expelled from Jordan in 1970. It signified pro-Palestinian and secular pan-Arabism. It ran counter to Lebanese nationalism, and other Lebanese parties, especially the Maronite Christian right-wing Phalange (Kata’ib) party, who attributed the origins of Civil War to the divisive presence of the PLO in Beirut. Having belonged to the Fatah Student Squad marks a person for the hatred of nationalists and (many) Christians, the wariness of those associated with Muslim militias, and the ridicule of all who abandoned wartime idealism for a more survivable strategy of realpolitik.
Now, having moved to Ashrafieh, the largely Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, Soueid acknowledges the strangeness that “I live in a building I used to shoot at.” In Ashrafieh he confronts the Frenchification of much of Arab life, summarized in the fact that a local shop has renamed kneffeh, the heavy, quintessentially Lebanese breakfast cheese pastry, “Galette du matin.” This absurd term, for a snack that could never be mistaken as French, indicates the French colonization of Lebanon, particularly Christian Lebanon; the disavowal of the simplest ingredients of Arab life, even a kind of Arab self-hatred. He relates that his neighbor refuses to respond either to an Arabic “sabah al-khayr” or a French “Bonjour,” instead cranking up the anthem of the Phalange militia on the stereo. Soueid observes the elderly denizens of Ashrafieh, hatted and coiffed and walking little dogs, with compassion as though for an endangered species. Through the singularity of “galette du matin,” Soueid teases out tensions that underlay the war and persist to the present.
These tensions also animate the third film of the trilogy, Civil War, which investigates the mysterious death of Soueid’s cinematographer friend Mohamed Douybaess. (As Soueid remarks, “There are too many Mohameds.” Indeed, when he calls the name “Mohamed” on the street in Beirut, five people turn around.) The film gently skirts the memory of this shy man, who took care of his siblings after the death of their father, smoked five packs a day, and didn’t like to be photographed. Five months after Mohamed Douybaess disappeared, his body was found in an abandoned building, and he had to be identified by his dental records. A terrible irony is that this Mohamed was obsessed with his dental hygiene and retained at least two dentists. Soueid interviews these and listens as they expound on the teeth of the Lebanese people, circumlocuting the cause of Douybaess’ death. According to the dentists, Lebanese have the highest rate of tooth decay in the world. Thoughtfully smoking, the lady dentist Sahar tells how stress causes a sudden “explosion of caries” in mouths that were healthy just six months earlier.
Sahar’s observation shows that it is not the speaking mouths, but the mute and painful teeth of the Lebanese people tell the story of their postwar experience: stress (as do many languages, the Arabic adopts the English word “stress”), fatigue, living with uncertainty. Indeed, people come to her office to break down and cry because there is nowhere else they can do it. The famous Lebanese sociality is not strong enough to bear the waves of suffering in the war and its aftermath. Though a vast proportion of Lebanese have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during and since the civil war, few seek psychotherapy because of the associated social stigma. So the symptoms of stress all come to the surface in the dentist’s chair.
The explosions of caries in Lebanese teeth is certainly a collective symptom of the unfinished trauma of the war and its aftermath. But Soueid treats it as more, and less, than this. That teeth can lead to a diagnosis of the causes and effects of war is not the answer to how to understand the history of the civil war. It is one of a potentially infinite number of paths among seemingly unrelated singularities, from which a pattern emerges.
In Soueid’s universe, relations of causality are pervasive and indirect. Actual events are laid in atom by atom like tesserae — a slight shift of the kaleidoscope, and relations among these fragments shift as well. So on the 11th of September, 2001, Lebanese people were mourning the death of beloved Egyptian actress Souad Hosny. An excerpt of one of Hosny’s films is keyed in to a window, alongside shots of everyday activities in Beirut like watering plants and emptying a bucket of suds. On the sound track the filmmaker calls to his dead friend “Mohamed! Souad Hosny is dead!”, and his voice carries over footage of the devastation of the World Trade Center. Over the mushroom cloud of dust and the survivors weeping in the street, Soueid calls out urgently “Mohamed! Mohamed!”
Soueid’s montage hints that the event that for many Americans demarcated history into a before and an after, was for others, especially peoples who had seen massacres carried out on their own land, a day like any other day. Tragedies occur on different scales, everywhere and always. Woven through it all are Mohameds; perhaps the filmmaker is also pronouncing the name of Mohamed Atta, the first identified of the September 11 terrorists. This startling juxtaposition is followed jarringly by a shot of a lithe woman in a camouflage bikini rappelling onto a concert stage. It’s the Lebanese pop singer Katia Harb, who, after a glitzy and acrobatic dance number, intones the slogan of the Lebanese National Forces: “Honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.”
A theme begins to arise among these kaleidoscopic fragments. Earlier scenes showed a militarized Lebanon, dourly presided over by portraits of the late Hafez al-Assad and his rather less magnetic, but living, son Bashar, still maintaining the Syrian presence in 2002. Mobile shots of busy downtown Hamra streets reveal an astonishing number of Beirut women wearing some version of camouflage print. Lebanon has not ceased to be at war, these shots indicate, and Katia Harb’s pneumatic patriotism underscores. Soueid’s method calls to mind the paranoid-critical method of Salvador Dalí — whereby everything that the subject perceives is analyzed to be, in some way, about the subject. This method is also common in Lebanese popular discourse. Since official history conceals more than it reveals, since the news media must be read between the lines and since nobody divulges all they know, a touch of paranoia (an analytical skill lacking in North America) aids in daily negotiations of the world.
In the single fictional segment of Civil War, a woman approaches the filmmaker in a café and proposes that he adapt the 1000-page novel she is writing about her life. Elegant and emphatic, neurotic yet profoundly insightful, she typifies the atomism of contemporary Lebanese society. A wealthy, divorced woman, deprived (like many Lebanese divorcées) of access to her son, she now trusts only the fidelity of “Maro” — a man who sounds like her lover but is in fact, we learn, her chauffer. In her fast-paced monologue to the unseen filmmaker, the woman makes deft connections between overindulgence in sweets, repressed sexuality, poor dental hygiene, and the eroticization of violence. No political analyst need be called in to explain the myriad causes of the civil war and the reasons it is not over: it is there to be read from a dish of profiteroles at Modca café.