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Nadim Mishlawi: Behind the Walls of “Sector Zero” (07/04/2012)

Nadim Mishlawi's directorial debut Sector Zero premiered in December 2011 at the Dubai International Film Festival, but it's just now arriving in Beirut. On the heels of its local premiere at the end of March, the film will be officially released at Metropolis Cinema this May.

Sector Zero explores the abandoned spaces of the Karantina area of Beirut. Once the site of an eponymous Ottoman-era quarantine intended to prevent the spread of foreign diseases, the area's reputation never quite escaped its sordid past. Over the years, it has been home to tanneries, a slaughterhouse, and a hospital, some of which remain abandoned. In 1976, Christian right-wing militias massacred hundreds in the area.

At times, Sector Zero is disturbing. Mishlawi pairs shots of Karantina's murkier corners, such as an abandoned tannery and an active slaughterhouse, with commentary from former workers and residents. Yet the overall tone is shaped by the documentary's three notable narrators: psychoanalyst Chawki Azouri, political analyst Hazem Saghiyeh, and architect Bernard Khoury, whose B018 nightclub is one of the more prominent structures in Karantina.

Mishlawi spoke with Al-Akhbar about the making of the film, as well as Karantina's reputation as a "belt of misery."

Leah Caldwell (LC): What attracted you to the area of Karantina for a documentary?

Nadim Mishlawi (NM): The idea of making a documentary about Karantina evolved with time. A friend of mine got hold of an old Soviet-made 16mm camera, and we wanted to try it out. I suggested filming some of the damaged structures in Karantina because of their basic cinematic qualities. A few months later I learned that the name "Karantina" is the Turkish translation of "quarantine." I found the fact that this abandoned, derelict area's name was originally derived from a Quarantine facility a very uncanny coincidence. So I started doing a bit of investigating which soon led to more links and strange connections.

LC: How does the popular image of Karantina as a "belt of misery" compare with the memories of its residents?

NM: It is important to differentiate between the different phases the area passed through. The slaughterhouse brought life to the area during the end of the 19th century in that it attracted a lot of Bedouins who were seeking work. Even when the Armenians - and later the first wave of Palestinians - sought refuge there, the area was very vibrant despite the poverty.

Most of the people I spoke to have very fond childhood memories of the area. I think the true suffering must have started in the late 50s to 60s when the Lebanese economy really started taking off. It was around that time that the government took the decision to build a wall around Karantina to hide its demise. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Although during the 60s, Lebanon was considered the "Switzerland of the Middle East," and is remembered during that period as being very prosperous, I think after contemplation one could say that it was during that period when the resentment and bitterness of many people started festering and eventually manifested itself as a civil war.

It was those outside Karantina who referred to it as the "misery belt." The inhabitants just called it home.

LC: Karantina is described by Chawki Azouri as a "city of outsiders." Later in the film, Hazem Saghiyeh says, "Our ability to turn on people is stronger than our ability to welcome them." What are your thoughts on the development of Karantina as a neighborhood on the fringes?

NM: Karantina is basically Beirut's first and only true ghetto. Refugee camps are very different in nature, and the poor areas we see today in the suburbs, are very much a reflection of the political environment we live in. But Karantina came into being simply by offering a place for those with nowhere else to go, somewhere to settle.

Several people I spoke to from the area told me that basically anyone was welcome and originally, most of those who settled there were either looking for a home, looking for work, or running away from something. As Mr. Saghiyeh mentions in the film, the unstable nature of our mainstream society makes it rather vulnerable to foreign influence.

LC: You visited the slaughterhouse and filmed some scenes that, at times, seemed violent or sordid. Did you want to film the actual act of slaughter?

NM: The crew and I had taken the decision from the beginning that we didn't want to include any sensationally violent images. When dealing with such macabre subject matter, there is always the temptation to indulge, and shock your audience. Violence sells, as is evident in a lot of documentaries and news reports made in and about this part of the world. I preferred to suggest violence through the aesthetic. The constant close-ups and black screens, help suggest that there is always something the audience can't see, something beyond the frame.

LC: The moniker "Arabs of the Slaughterhouse" has been used to describe many of the area's residents and workers. What are your thoughts on this identification?

NM: I still haven't been given a clear answer as to whether they coined themselves as such, or whether others referred to them to that way. And I think knowing where the term originally comes from is important when determining whether or not it is a pejorative term, or one of glorification. As Mr. Saghiyeh mentions, if others coined the term, they probably meant it as derogatory. The other scenario would imply that they were glorifying themselves by implying some kind of Arab "greatness."

It was very obvious, however, while interviewing certain members of the community in Karantina that they are very proud of their Arab Bedouin heritage. They still practice many traditions such as removing one's shoes before entering a house. One man had no front door which I immediately assumed was a reflection of his financial situation. But it was in fact a sign of hospitality as he explained to me that there was simply no need for a front door.

LC: A large portion of the film's narrative is driven by ideas rooted in psychoanalysis. I couldn't help but think that the decaying spaces portrayed in Karantina could be seen to represent the inner workings of a "Lebanese psyche" or that the spaces of Karantina were "taboo" in some ways. How did you see psychoanalysis as relevant in looking at Karantina? And do you think there are other areas of Beirut that could be viewed similarly?

NM: The original title of the film was in fact "In the Freudian Slip." The first impression I had, and that which remained throughout the filmmaking process, was that Karantina was the living unconscious of the Lebanese people, kind of like our very own Picture of Dorian Grey. I view Karantina as the mental garbage dump of our society, a place where we can throw everything we fear and don't want to face. It is not a coincidence that the area is still called "Karantina" despite there no longer being an actual Quarantine facility.

In our minds, it is shut off from the public, so our traumas will remain protected. But that which is left alone and ignored will eventually rot. It is also not a coincidence that Sukleen opened its headquarters there along with its waste disposal plant Sukomi. We managed, after much waiting and deliberation, to get permission to film every site in the area except Sukleen. We were given no clear justification as to why we couldn't film there, which makes one wonder what they have to hide. As the sound designer of the film, Rana Eid, mentioned sarcastically, what if I regret throwing something away and I want to retrieve it. This is metaphoric of our relationship to our history and traumas.

And this mentality is represented very well by General Security's regulations of censorship in that discussing personal accounts of the war or expressing indignation of any kind is regarded as a provocation of "civil unrest." We cannot ask people to deny the terrible things they have lived and the animosity they feel. It is only by allowing people to express their distress that we will be able to start moving toward a healthy, self-respecting society.

LC: You filmed one of Karantina's condemned tanneries, which during the Civil War was converted into a prison. The atmosphere and visuals combined almost to feel like a horror film. Could you explain a little more about the significance of the place and the experience of your visit?

NM: When pitching the idea of the film to Georges Schoucair, and then explaining the main ideas to the crew, I said that I wanted to create a "horror" documentary. I personally do not like the term "documentary" as I find it too literary in its reference to the idea of documentation. There are fiction films and non-fiction films, and the idea of engaging a genre is open when working on any kind of film. I wanted to return to a more cinematic approach and embrace subjectivity, something that is avoided these days as we are now governed by a sense of puritan conformity.

The tannery is difficult to see from the main road as it is shrouded in a small overgrown "forest." Concrete brick has been used to block all openings, and the only way in is a narrow slit on the mezzanine floor. We had to climb a tree and jump off the trunk into the mezzanine floor. It was our opportunity to be commandos. Filming there was very difficult as all the lighting equipment was brought it through the same opening. The facility has been closed for over 20 years, so the state of the space and the machinery found inside was pure decay. The basement was the most difficult to film as it was truly quite terrifying. We all started thinking of the horror films we have watched over the years and wondering what atrocities had been carried out in that dark space.

Then we found a well in the middle of the basement floor that was home to a very beautiful microcosm of colorful plant life. The tannery sequence in the film suggests a mood that was very close to what we actually felt down there.

Leah Caldwell // Al Akhbar