JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2021, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 60, spring 2021

Immersive soundscapes: Rana Eid’s Panoptic

by Norman Saadi Nikro

"I was scared of my dreams, while you believed in yours."
—Rana Eid, Panoptic.

I

The first three minutes of Panoptic consist of a blacked-out screen, accompanied by acoustic vibrations and sonic frequencies. A murmuring, dumbing drone gradually increases in volume, as an intermittent, high-pitched, insect-like squeal renders the drone all the more dulling. Gradually, distant, somewhat hollow voices emerge from the soundscape, only to remain indistinct. Towards the end of this opening scene, the filmmaker, Rana Eid, voices the following:

 “I was six years of age when I realized that you were an army officer. It was 1982, during the Israeli invasion. That’s when I came to understand that there was a war, and that we had to go down into the shelter, to escape death. To hide underground to escape what was above.”

After a short pause, she continues:

 “That was the year I decided to close my eyes, and take refuge in sound.”

The black screen subsequently dissolves into a broad, panoramic night shot of the traffic-congested highway straddling the Lebanese coast, leading into and out of Beirut. The flickering headlights of the cars are matched overhead by equally congested rows of fluorescent advertisements, promoting automobiles, fashion, fast-food, and various commercial enterprises. The colourful advertisements are surrounded by an impermeable darkness, rising up towards an infinite expanse of a formless mass of space.

No doubt designed to remind viewers that film is not only a visual experience, but indeed involves variations of sound, the blacked-out screen encourages a more intense experience of hearing and listening. Throughout the film, viewers are constrained to negotiate the difference between sound and noise—the latter, according to one prominent phenomenologist of sound,[1] [open endnotes in new window] less readily identifiable than the former. It is interesting to observe that beyond their acoustic references, sound signifies rigor or thoroughness, while noise connotes clatter or racket. However, despite the seeming meaninglessness of background clatter, or more usually, hum or whirr, noise enfolds an embodied orientation to environment. The droning din of traffic below my apartment window, for example, is part and parcel of my embodied sense of place, part and parcel of my capacity to inhabit my environment. This immersive dimension informs Eid’s Panoptic.

In his thoughts on song, inspired by attending a performance by the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, John Berger writes:

“The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time—a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.”[2]

To some extent, in Eid’s film the pulse beats of sound and noise serve to disrupt a clear distinction between past and present, which she creatively employs to render her memory of war and violence a cinematic modality of redress. Subjects of their environments, people embody varying capacities to distinguish between the sense of sound and the reverberating strains of noise. The indistinct entwinement of sound and noise, as well as past and present, informs the very style of Panoptic.

The opening scene serves to introduce the various interconnected themes running through the film. One of these is concentrated in the second-person “you,” as Eid addresses her late father, who had been a high-ranking officer in the Lebanese army. The film is thus very personal, an autobioaural (to coin a term) exploration of Eid’s childhood during the many bouts of armed violence and battles that have been historically lumped together and referred to in the singular as the Lebanese civil war, from 1975 to 1990.

According to Lina Khatib, film production in Lebanon since 1990 has played a significant role in maintaining memories of the civil war, challenging the initial amnesia informing political and public cultures.[3] At the same time, she points out, the cinematic preoccupation with memories of violence disclose traumatic afflictions, encompassing what she calls a “national therapy,” or else a “will to myth” to both symbolize and narrate memories of the civil war:

 “Perhaps Lebanese films were used as an expression of this 'will to myth,' with the myth transforming from [sic] a nation in denial of the Civil War, to alleviate guilt, into a nation with a high degree of self reflection, a nation recognizing the necessity of healing, a nation full stop.”[4]

While, in her film, Eid no doubt situates both her story and that of the country—or more specifically, of the city of Beirut[5]—as subjects of trauma, I’m not sure that Panoptic is designed to heal the nation. Eid’s references to the nation, stylized through references to the Lebanese army, seem more ironic than symbolically redemptive.

By the time Panoptic was released in 2017, documentary film in Lebanon had accrued an inventory of what the curator and film critic Rasha Salti has called “first person documentary.” Identifying a post-civil war experimental impulse in part with a loss of faith in political causes and ideological affiliations, she remarks:

“Through the bias of a single character’s story, the viewer is intimated to a world of unresolved paradox, ambivalence, and ambiguity.”[6]

To play on Salti’s terms of reference, we could say that for Eid there is no ambivalence about the ambiguities informing both the subject matter and the style of her film. Concerning style, the indistinct prism of sound and noise is paralleled by a camera lens that often doesn’t quite resolve into focus, along with a visual concentration on shadows, some of the human figures appearing as ghosts or phantoms. While topographical shots of winding roads and highways follow the opening blacked out screen, much of Panoptic is shot in underground rooms or prisons, dwelling in the internal penumbra of abandoned buildings, as well as long takes of immersion in water.

Eid’s reference to taking “refuge in sound” relates to her experience of underground bomb shelters during the civil war. This experience brought about a heightened aural awareness of an acoustic gulf between above and below ground, as well as an embodied tension between sound and noise. In her film, she attempts to recreate not so much an experience of moving between above and below ground—between, say, life in their apartment and the long hours of waiting in a bomb shelter—but rather the immersive soundscapes she (in her childhood self), along with many others, learned to inhabit as a condition of circumstance. Hence, Eid says in her voiceover: “At the end of the civil war we emerged from the shelters but not from the underground.” This could be read as emerging into sound but not quite from noise.

In Panoptic this non-emergence from the underground involves an intense embodiment of sound as something like an immersive chamber, amounting to a haptic experience of environment. Concerning film, Laura Marks has provided a compelling notion of the haptic as a provocation of sensory perception. According to her, “optical perception” and “haptic perception” complement each other to bring about a heightened sensory experience of film and other media.[7] Where the former, the optic, relies on symbolic relief and distinct outlines, the haptic concentrates on texture and detail, attentive to objects that have no direct role in the story, but that constitute an embodied sense of place and circumstance. Marks writes:

“a haptic image asks memory to draw on other associations by refusing the visual plenitude of the optical image. In addition, because haptic images locate vision in the body, they make vision behave more like a contact sense, such as touch or smell.”[8]

In my discussion of Eid’s film I give more emphasis to the aural, rather than the optical. Both stylistically and thematically, Panoptic traces haptic experience as an embodiment of soundscapes. To my mind, if I am to stay in tune to Eid’s haptic approach to the circumstances, past and present, by which her memories transpire as a cinematic mode of address, it is important to keep in perspective how a body—the body of a film, the body of a filmmaker—respires as a hermeneutic vehicle of sensory perception.[9] The Arabic term nafsiyya captures perfectly this sense of respiration—nafs, breath—as an embodiment of hermeneutic capacities and orientations of self. It relates to personal taste and comportment, to self and psyche, to an embodied relationship to circumstance. Perhaps the term can also relate to Eid’s personal sense of “refuge,” although as I discuss in the next section, she extends her preoccupation with the underground to considerations of political culture in Lebanon.

II

Eid’s intense interest in sound is certainly not a passing whim, but informs her considerable work in cinema in Lebanon. While Panoptic constitutes her directorial debut, since the turn of the century she has worked prodigiously as a sound engineer on films of established and emergent filmmakers. These include, to name only a few, Ghassan Salhab’s feature The Mountain (2010), Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero (2011—exquisitely photographed by Talal Khoury, who did the camera work for Panoptic), Mai Masri’s feature 3000 Nights (2015), and Mohamed Soueid’s How Bitter My Sweet (2008). Eid has degrees in cinema and film sound studies, and established db Studios in Beirut in 2006, specifically devoted to sound design in film.       

Panoptic was released in August 2017, selected for the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Since then, Eid has screened her film at a number of festivals, including the Arab Film Festival in Berlin, in April 2019. A year earlier, in March 2018, Panoptic was due to be screened in Beirut, at the Ayyam Al Cinema’iya festival, when it was banned by the Directorate of General Security. Apparently, she was asked to cut some scenes and accompanying voiceovers, and while these were not that long, she nevertheless refused to accept the censorship. The Directorate, it seemed,[10] was sensitive about scenes of the underground Adlieh Detention Centre in which hundreds of foreigners, mostly domestic workers, are imprisoned.

Lebanon doesn’t have a particularly good record of legislating for and protecting the rights of domestic workers—mostly women migrating from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, arriving in Lebanon through the infamous kafala (visa sponsorship) system.[11] Government authorities and politicians are particularly sensitive to criticism. In respect to domestic workers in film, one of the more notorious acts of censorship concerned Randa Chahal Sabbag’s feature of 1999, Civilisées, A Civilised People. At the time, Mohamed Soueid worked vigorously to have the film cleared for a public cinema release. But in the face of the General Security’s demand for what amounted to a 40% cut of the film, he gave up. Ironically, the film was shown (and, as I recall, enthusiastically received) at the Beirut Film Festival in 1999 but ultimately banned from public release the year after.

With the title of her film laced with heavy irony, the censors were no doubt uncomfortable with the confrontational style of Sabbag’s approach, not only calling to account the somewhat heavy-handed, state-sponsored political culture of amnesia and “dismemory”[12] of the 1990s, but also the racism directed towards domestic workers. With its fragmented narrative style, A Civilised People employs surrealist-like juxtapositions to foreground the hypocrisy of the Lebanese, contrasting, for example, the brutality of random armed violence on the street to an elite woman moving between Beirut and Paris. According to one astute critic, Sabbag’s film serves to confront the Lebanese with their failures to take responsibility for the civil war.[13]

As an early review of her films suggests, Sabbag often drew attention to conventional taboos, such as homosexuality.[14] Since she passed away in 2008, her films have gained further acclaim, with A Civilised People accruing something like a cult status. While this status is to some extent due to the heavy-handed censoring of the film, and otherwise to the musical score by the immensely creative and leftist provocateur Ziad Rahbani, it concerns more Sabbag’s inimitable style, her creative use of the absurd to direct attention to the constitutive effects of moving image mediums. To my mind, Westmoreland’s notion of “mediated subjectivity,” as well as, more generally, the critical interest in “mediality,”[15] is useful to note how Sabbag directs a viewer’s focus towards the constitutive role of the medium, rather than the content of representation. As Westmoreland has it,

“the historical record become[s] the site of experimental historiography. This does not imply a corrective or a mission of telling the actual ‘truth’ of political violence. Instead, it endeavors to disenchant viewers’ expectations about how to understand history and reenchant them with a way of mourning the present.”[16}  

While to some extent Panoptic does exercise a “mourning of the present” (although, I am not sure that, in the contemporary rebellious climate in Lebanon, since at least the protests of 2016, “mourning” is the right term[17]), Eid’s film is designed to disrupt conventional modes of understanding the recent history of Lebanon.

However, she is well aware that censorship is aimed at restricting—if not, on occasions, preventing—the capacity of film production to engage public awareness and discussion, especially concerning political violence. In the days following the ban, she took the somewhat unprecedented step of showing her film on Vimeo, making it available for viewers for three days. While the Vimeo screening helped to gain some exposure, it may not have drawn the type of public reception that Eid would have preferred. Like other reflective filmmakers in Lebanon, Eid’s work is driven towards international festivals and their predominantly international patrons.[18]

III

For many people in Lebanon, particularly those that had lived through the civil war in Beirut, Eid’s studied, almost obsessive depiction of the infamous Burj el Murr—the tall, forty-storey block of concrete and metal named after the builder Michel el Murr—may well be almost harrowing. She has remarked that with its many windows like eyes, the building remains a site angst:

“I’ve always been very afraid of this building because a lot of people died there.”[19]

The tower borders the hotel district of Beirut, straddling the Spears, Zokak al-Blaat, and Zarif neighbourhoods. Uniform in its streamline design, construction of the building began in 1974, on the eve of the outbreak of the civil war. As the violence halted its construction, the building became itself a site of violence, a hotspot for snipers, prison cells, and torture chambers. Consequently, the name Murr has been adapted as al-Mrara, or bitterness—the tower of bitterness.[20]

In Eid’s film, the building first appears at around sixteen and a half minutes, in a distant camera shot foregrounding a curving, above ground road. From about five hundred metres away, the tower appears with straight sides, though ghostly in the dim twilight. In her voiceover, Eid says: “Burj el Murr is a giant. He doesn’t close his eyes.” Interestingly, this comes almost directly after another of her second-person voiceovers addressed to her father, spoken over one of the many shots of traffic along winding highways:

“When I was small, you’d wake me and my sister for school with military music. I’d open my eyes and you’d be in your uniform, ready. I thought you never slept, or else slept with your eyes open.”

In her film, Eid situates and works on memories of her childhood sense of her father, her childhood sense of Beirut in the throes of inexplicable violence, as well as an aftermath in which the physical wounding of the city’s buildings bears witness to an inadequately digested past. In the process, memory comes to trigger a number of associations, having implications for Eid’s personal disposition, as well as that of Beirut.

The camera remains preoccupied with the Murr tower, “Standing, like a vertical bridge, he’s surveilling us,” Eid says. The camera cuts to a close up of the building, panning up from the ground, and then cutting to the interior, gliding through a number of half destroyed, dimly lit rooms. There are shots of debris, rubble, rubbish, all depicted by a patient camera that is all too happy to dwell on refuse and waste, against a haunting musical drone[21] accompanied by an equally haunting choir-like sonority. In one room a soldier dimly appears, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. In another room, a soldier appears as a ghostly shadow on a wall.

These interior scenes go on for almost seven minutes, in the second half of which Eid’s voiceover returns, commenting on her childhood unease with her father’s uniform. Addressing him again, she says that she has no recollection of him going down into the shelter, even during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982.[22] She recounts a recurring dream she had in childhood, since 6 years of age, about a dragon in the shelter, “burning everything around it.” In her fear she tries to hide, but the dragon catches sight of her and approaches, lying down next to her and “closing his eyes,” sleeping. At the end of these somewhat claustrophobic scenes, the camera is back out on a street, focussed on a small boy, proudly holding a Lebanese flag, in front of a Lebanese army vehicle, being photographed by his excited mother.

Stylistically, in her film Eid employs both sound and sight to somehow mimic the layered textures of memories, which, like dreams, often seem as though they consist of random juxtapositions, whose significance remain inchoate, taking shape through their narration. In an interview with a local film critic, Eid discusses both her layered approach to sound and image, and her juxtapositional style:

“The sounds of the city itself occupies a large part of the film. I worked on the image as I worked on the sound: layers upon layers. Things that do not specifically match. My biggest challenge lies in the lack of any sound effects. All sounds are real, captured as they are, and I have not manipulated them.”[23]

The lateral duality of above and below ground is rendered all the more eerie through the parallel of image and sound. One often feels that Talal Khoury’s photography is attuned more to the aural layers, rather than the story. Especially inside the Murr tower, the camera casually roams over the vacant chambers, depicting not so much the different rooms, but rather the hollow and eerie atmosphere.

Panoptic encompasses a number of analogies between city and psyche, comparable to the analogy Freud makes between what he called “the ego” and “the Eternal City” in the opening pages of his Civilisation and Its Discontents (1989, first published in German in 1930).[24] In this late work, Freud returned to his fascination with memory and forgetting as psychosomatic processes. Written in Europe in the wake of the First World War, and consequently carrying a pessimistic aura, he employs the analogy of the city as a site of sedimented layers to claim that memory traces in the psyche are never destroyed, but remain “preserved,” and “in suitable circumstances…can once more be brought to light.” He alludes to a sense of “excavation,” and “archaeology.”[25] I quote the longer passage:

“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-trace—that is, its annihilation—we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light.”

No doubt, for Freud, “brought to light” involves a number of complex processes. However, for my present purposes, it is important to note that what is “preserved” consists not only of certain incidents and events, but a person’s emotional response to incidents and events. Indeed, such responses take on a life of their own, played-out in a subject’s further relationships and life scenarios.

By the late 1920s, Freud had established a critical repertoire of the psyche in which memory-traces are processed as modalities of ego formation, whereby prohibitions are incorporated and socially exchanged as specific “accomplishments” (as Judith Butler says[26]), specific traits of character. While he didn’t quite use the term modalities, what he was getting at was that mannerisms, ways of speaking, decorous conduct, public comportment, jokes and slips of the tongue, involve orientations to self and world, linguistic and cultural repertoires, histories of personal and social interaction, influencing capacities for self-constitution.

More locally, specifically concerning cinematic style, Eid has been influenced by the creative documentaries of Mohamed Soueid. In his films, such as the so-called civil war trilogy—Tango of Yearning (1998), Nightfall (2000), Civil War (2002)—he tends to depict personal idiosyncrasies in tandem to social quirks, demonstrating the pathologies incorporated by modalities of public decorum. In Civil War, for example, he focuses on the rising fashion of camouflage army fatigue, as well as the increasing rates of tooth decay among people in Lebanon. As Marks perceptively observes: “‘Subjects’ in Soueid’s films are knots of tics, bad habits, and accommodations that allow them to deal (not without flair) with impossible situations.” This phenomena has more to do with political culture than psychological disposition: “They are not so much psychological subjects as knots in a political field, their individual neuroses the manifestations of political traumas.”[27]

Panoptic maintains the analogy of city and psyche. Early in the film, Eid observes that Beirut is petrified, as the city’s inhabitants have become “paralysed,” incapable of rendering memory a more proactive undertaking of discussion. “With time,” she says, “the city itself calcified.” We learn that after her father’s death, Eid herself is diagnosed with otosclerosis, a middle-ear condition that gradually leads to a loss of hearing, and potentially, dementia. In her voiceover, she says that she had surgery to avoid becoming deaf.

This personal disposition is connected to thematic references to the city, Beirut, whose occupants, she observes, have lost their capacities to hear the acoustic pulse beats of a pathological condition. As Eid articulates further in her voiceover, still addressing a public hearing for interpolating:

“If I hadn’t done the operation, I might have gone deaf, and my head would have become calcified, paralysing me. But I wouldn’t die. With time, the city itself became calcified, trapping its inhabitants above and below the ground.”

In Soueid’s films and, as I am suggesting, Panoptic, neuroses are divided and shared through relational knots of personal comportment and political culture. For both filmmakers, political and social wounds are incorporated as afflictions, though directed towards a critical view of the pathologies of self and circumstance. By the same token, Soueid’s subjects—Bassem in Nightfall, the late Mohamed Doaybess in Civil War, and himself in Tango of Yearning—are eccentric to the extent that they fail to live up to predominant expectations of conduct, fail to conform to conventional mannerisms and demeanours. They are, in a sense, misfits, leftovers of a political culture compartmentalized into confessional allegiances (demographically and electorally), and otherwise informed by the symptomatic spasms of opportunistic forgetting. In Panoptic, the subject of neuroses is Eid’s own relationship to the history of violence and political culture in Lebanon, though sieved through her relationship to her late father, a former army general.

While introducing the Murr tower, Eid speaks about its resemblance to the mythological giant Argus Panopte, who apparently had a hundred eyes, half of which never closed, and whose job entailed keeping watch. To be sure, the film’s title, Panoptic, refers also to the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, especially his notion of the subjective introjection of surveillance. Eid has mentioned the work of Foucault as a “main reference for her film.”[28] Foucault’s central point concerns circulations and distributions of power that produce docile subjects ever on their guard against their own potential transgressions. He adapts the idea of a lookout building, gleaned from Jeremy Bentham’s notion of a panoptic tower that functions as a mechanism for an introjection of surveillance.

If Freud’s outlook and conclusions in Civilisation and its Discontents are pessimistic, then Foucault’s are even gloomier. Power doesn’t take place between adversaries, but rather becomes a fateful modality of self-constitution. Indeed, for Foucault (at least in his Discipline and Punish period—mid 1970s) there seems to be no escape:

“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection (my emphasis).”[29]

For Eid, the point is that the Murr tower’s many windows appear like hollow eyes, and had the panoptic effect of subjecting people to a “field of visibility,” controlling how people comported themselves, internalizing fear and surveillance as a condition of livelihood during the long years of violence.

Her further point, which she draws attention to in her film, is that such subjective orientations and emotional modalities of comportment were not so much abnormal or extraordinary, but rather part and parcel of everyday life. Indeed, for many people during the civil war, what at times transpired as out of the ordinary were periods of relative calm, when basic services and goods became accessible for brief interludes. Such access implicates ways of comportment that were just as ordinary as they were extra-ordinary. As Sara Ahmed says, capacities to inhabit place implicate certain practices by which subjects “reach” out toward their circumstances, by which subjects are “shaped” by this relational orientation. Thus, capacities to meaningfully inhabit an environment and circumstance depend

“on the ways in which the world is available as a space of action, a space where things ‘have a certain place’ or are ‘in place.’ Bodies inhabit space by how they reach for objects, just as objects in turn extend what we can reach.”[30]

With its haunting depiction of the Murr tower, Panoptic, I want to emphasise, is designed to draw critical attention to the longevity of this haunting and its accompanying modes of comportment.

IV

Where Foucault concentrated on the visual field, for Eid it is more a question of being subjected to spheres of acoustic and aural resonances. However, similar to Foucault’s productive notion of power, while telling the story of her relationship to sound, Eid draws attention to soundscapes as a dense materiality affecting the capacities of people to inhabit their environments. I have been suggesting that the trajectory of Eid’s personal and professional relationship to sound informs the pulse beats of her film, construed through a manifold entwinement of thematic reference, cinematic style, and personal disposition. Her personal plight, composed as an aural address to her deceased father, is entangled with more general symptoms of public paralysis. This paralysis encompasses a psychosomatic disposition by which memories of violence—concerning, in the main, the years of war and civil violence between 1975 and 1990—remain difficult to discuss as a public issue.

Since the civil war (as I mentioned in my opening remarks above), documentary in Lebanon has made a considerable contribution to memories of war and civil violence. For the most part, documentary has fashioned an experimental style marked by stuttering narratives of discomposure, characterisation betraying a fragmented sense of self. Having no trust in narrative continuity and temporal closure, filmmakers of Rana Eid’s generation are nevertheless driven to gather shards of experience and fashion them into styles of cinematic production.

The fragmentary, episodic style constitutes a compelling interweaving of performative and referential modes of association, betraying a distrust of ideological explanations. Particularly after the Israeli occupation in 1982, violence between the various militias became increasingly opportunistic, shorn of any moral compass. In leftist circles (Arabist, Marxist, Maoist), as historical trust and hope lost their ideological moorings, cultural production became attuned to a shattered political landscape, in the midst of which the nafsiyya of characterisation transpires as a remnant or left-over of history. Like post-civil war literature in Lebanon, narrative style in film, especially documentary, became episodic, mesmerised by what we can refer to (to borrow a popular Arabic phrase when describing someone who has lost their wits) as a fall into time, by which I mean a loss of temporal moorings with which to look forward with modicums of confidence—capacities to simply look forward. In this next to final section of my essay, I want to discuss an intergenerational prism,[31] whereby for Eid’s particular age group looking-forward became almost impossible.

Like two other notable filmmakers in Lebanon, Nadine Naous and Eliane Raheb,[32] Eid is part of what can be called a civil war generation, whose childhood is entangled with the resonant, inexplicable force of war and armed violence—a resonance that was not so much abnormal, but indeed part and parcel of their surroundings. Their parents’ generation had experienced the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s as a period of trust in political ideals. Across the Arab world it was a time of independence from colonial rulers and, to some extent, imperial influence. Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, and movements for Palestinian liberation promised social and political renewal, steered through progressive pulse beats of hope. I want to emphasise that this Nasserist[33] generation embodied political, social, and cultural hope as a hermeneutic modality of orienting oneself to the fractures brought about by the civil war years. In other words, for the Nasserist generation, the civil war could be hermeneutically digested as a disappointment, as a failure to live up to expectations of political and social hope.

By contrast, Eid, like Naous and Raheb, had no embodied sense of ideological trust or political hope. Consequently, their experience of civil war could not be made sense of in terms of political failure or disappointment. All three filmmakers were born in the early 1970s, and became aware of their world as one of actual and impending violence, or else intermittent periods of relative calm. In her film Home Sweet Home (2014), Naous refers to the formal end of the civil war in 1990-91 as “turning everything upside down.” Raheb has made similar remarks. In an interview in Cairo in 2013, where she was showing her film Sleepless Nights (2012) at the Panorama European Film Festival, she refers to the post-civil war period as one of inexplicable public silence.[34] She tells her interviewer, Hannah Dimashq, that the public silence and political amnesia motivated her to make her film, to reference war and violence as themes of public address. In this way Raheb could work on her sense of the meaninglessness of the immediate postwar period, as well as transform her embodied sense of actual and impending violence and non-violence into a hermeneutic of distinction between normal and abnormal.

At just under halfway into Panoptic, against a visual scene in Martyrs Square of national festivities and celebrations of the Lebanese army, Eid returns to her father:

“I dreamt of the dragon, while you dreamt of Pan-Arabism and Palestine. I was scared of my dream, while you believed in yours. But you’ve gone, and so have the dreams, and common causes, while the wars have multiplied, and we’ve lost sight of the enemy.”

To an accompanying sombre musical refrain, the hand–held camera moves forward through a narrow corridor of the inside of a building, as a news report announces an outbreak of militia clashes on the streets.

Remarkably, considering that Panoptic was released in 2017, the lack of political/public hope informing the film goes somewhat against the grain of the activist mood of anti-government sentiments and protests. In the second half of 2015 a large opposition movement emerged around the failure of the Lebanese government to adequately collect waste and otherwise provide basic services in an equitable and affordable manner. The current protests, initially sparked by the government’s decision to tax WhatsApp phone calls, emerged in October 2019, involving, in the main, a non-aligned youth intent on wresting their future livelihoods from the corrupt strangleholds of the political elite.

Against this contemporary background, while Panoptic may not share the future oriented spirit of these protest movements, the film does maintain the significance of more adequately dealing with the relation between personal and public memories of the civil war.

 The political elite I just referred to includes current political figures responsible for acts of violence during the civil war, who passed the General Amnesty Law in 1991, so as to spare themselves from incriminating redress and accountability. In her film, Eid refers to this amnesty as a watershed event bringing about amnesia. When asked, in an interview, about the tendency to repeat history because of a failure to critically discuss memories of violence, she responds:

“Of course. For me what the general amnesty did in 1991 to the country and how the Lebanese people accepted it is a general amnesia. We forgot everything. So that’s why I feel Lebanon is not going to be stable ever because we didn’t solve anything. That’s the Lebanese mentality, we put layers on top of other layers and we hide the reality. We hide everything and we put it underground and it’s been calcified.”[35]

The final image of the film reproduces the distant earlier image of the Murr building, shrouded in a sombre twilight, its stubborn immobility contrasted be the cars curving along the foregrounded highway, their lights becoming stronger as the light fades to near-black.

V

Eid’s main achievement with her film concerns how she directs attention to the way in which sound is manifold, multilayered, and relational. While conventional fields of vision often involve outlines that serve to define distinct substances, which helps to compartmentalize people and things, separating them off from their interrelations, sound is much harder to contain, always overflowing attempts to box it in (a wall, for example, can serve to block off sight, whereby sound has a capacity to go through a wall).

In Panoptic no sound is singular or distinct, but interwoven with any number of sounds, echoing through underground chambers, or else reverberating as urban soundscapes, such as the opening scene when the noise of traffic is interwoven with hollow voices and insect-like screeches. Sound is interwoven with noise, its distinctness never quiet setting itself free from the immersive resonances of environments, both above and below ground. Refusing any compartmentalization of sound and noise, with her film Eid has managed to provide a compelling approach to soundscapes of cinematic style.     

Notes  

1. Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. See especially chapter six, “The Auditory Field.” [return to text]

2. John Berger, “Some Notes About Song (for Yasmine Hamdan).” In his Confabulations. London: Penguin, 2016, 96.

3. Lina Khatib, Lebanese Cinema: Imaging the Civil War and Beyond. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, 11, 58.

4. Ibid, xix.

5. Much of film and cinema in Lebanon tends to concentrate on the city of Beirut.

6. Rasha Salti, “When the National is Organic: The Very Short Story of Filmmaking, Being, and Subjectivity in Lebanon.” www.goethe.de/ins/eg/prj/abs/leb/en5364547.htm Accessed May, 2010.

7. Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 12.

8. Ibid, 133.

9. On hermeneutic embodiment, see Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, especially chapter 1 “Breadcrumbs in the Forest.”

10. Joseph Fahim, “A General’s Daughter: Meet the Filmmaker Who Defied Lebanese Censors”. Middle East Eye, April 24, 2018. https://www.middleeasteye.net/features/generals-daughter-meet-filmmaker-who-defied-lebanese-censors

11. For a discussion of the problem see, for example, Kirsten O’Regan’s article, “A Day Out and a Union: Lebanon’s Domestic Workers Organize”. Dissent,  Fall 2017,  https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/lebanon-domestic-workers-organize-union-kafala

12. I developed this notion in an earlier work on memory and cultural production in Lebanon, adapting the term from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. See my The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge scholars, 2012.

13. Aseel Sawalha, “After Amnesia: Memory and War in Two Lebanese Films.” Visual Anthropology, Vol 27, Nos 1-2, 2014, 105-116.

14. Olivia Snaije, “Film-maker still trying to find the right formula for Lebanese audiences and censors.” The Daily Star, January 20, 2003. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/ArticlePrint.aspx?id=110166&mode=print

15. On “mediality” and an accompanying notion of “gesture in its mediality,” see Jill Bennett, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art After 9/11. London: I B Tauris, 2012, 120.

16. Mark Westmoreland, “Catastrophic Subjectivity: Representing Lebanon’s Undead”. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. Issue theme: Trauma and Memory. No 30, 2010, 182.

17. I’ll return to this theme in my conclusion.

18. It should be also observed that local NGOs, such as UMAM Documentation and Research and Zico House, hold in-house screenings of films that otherwise do not gain permission for public release. Such screenings often involve discussion sessions with the filmmakers. For a more considered discussion of film funding and viewing in Lebanon and the Arab countries more generally, see Laura Marks, Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015, especially chapter 1, “Cinematic Friendships: Intercessors, Collectives, Perturbations.”

19. Andreea Petru, “Breaking the Sychronicity: An Interview with Rana Eid.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 88, October 2017. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2018/feature-articles/breaking-the-synchronicity-an-interview-with-rana-eid/

20. See Lina Ghaibeh’s twelve minute animation film of 2012—Burj el Murr: Tower of Bitterness. https://vimeo.com/93245013

21. Music for the film was composed by Nadim Mishlawi, who among his credits has worked on a number of the films of Mohamed Soueid.

22. To provide some historical context, 1982 was a particularly long year of war and violence. According to a report by the United States’ based International Center for Transitional Justice, during the second half of the year Israel’s siege and “indiscriminate blanket bombardment” of Beirut resulted in some 29,506 deaths, of which 80% were civilians. Lebanon’s Legacy of Political Violence: A Mapping of Serious Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lebanon, 1975-2008, 2013, 36. https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Report-Lebanon-Mapping-2013-EN_0.pdf

23. Nadim Jarjoura, “About Panoptic: Interview with Rana Eid”. Mec Film. July, 2017. https://mecfilm.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/filmhefte/en/Panoptic_engl.pdf

24. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

25. Ibid, 16-17.

26. See her essay “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification”. In M. Berger et al (eds) Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995.

27. Laura U. Marks. “Mohamed Soueid’s Cinema of Immanence”. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. No. 49, Spring 2007. For more on Soueid’s trilogy, see my chapter “Between Mourning and Melancholia: Memory and Nurture in Mohamed Soueid’s Tango of Yearning”. In my The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.

28. See endnote 19.

29. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995, 202-203.

30. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, 109-110.

31. Intergenerational approaches to the civil war and its aftermath are only beginning to attract critical attention. In respect to literary production in Lebanon, see Syrine Hout, Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction: Home Matters in The Diaspora. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, especially the introduction. See also chapter 2 of my Milieus of ReMemory (see note 31). Concerning art practitioners and interventionist archivists he calls “jeel al-harb” (war generation), see Chad Elias, Posthumous Images: Contemporary Art and Memory Politics in Post-Civil War Lebanon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, 4.

32. Among their respective films, I mention Naous’s Home Sweet Home (2014), and Raheb’s Sleepless Nights (2012), two films I have previously written about. For the former, see “Ya ‘Ayb al-Shoum: Scenes of Auto/Bio/Graphy and Shame in Nadine Naous’s Home Sweet Home”. In Life Writing, Vol. 15. 211-226. For the latter, see chapter 4 of my Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2019.

33. Gamal Abdel Nassar overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and embarked on a number of economic and social reforms. He became a figure head for a burgeoning sense of Arab pride and confidence, particularly after he nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been controlled by the British and French. I adapt his name here loosely to refer to the generation of Eid’d parents.

34. Interviewed by Hannah Dimashq on Cairo’s ONTV, December 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1-Q8wlxNpI

35. See endnote 19.