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Sector Zero, an aesthetic of dereliction and slaughter (10/12/2011)

Ever since filmmakers began to make documentaries that work more like art house fictions (and less like in-depth reportage), a sort of identity crisis has confronted the form, if not the filmmakers themselves.

Like artists who take their inspiration from their local realities, filmmakers who work in "creative documentary" - as this non-journalistic form is called - aspire to the "allusive" and "universal," rather than "literal" and "parochial."

"Sector Zero," the ambitious debut feature-length documentary by Nadim Mishlawi seeks to navigate these difficult waters. This cerebral, yet stylish, examination of the Beirut neighborhood of Karantina had its world premier Thursday evening at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it is screening as part of the Arab documentary film competition.

For those of a certain disposition, Karantina is one of the most interesting parts of Beirut. The sector was born before Lebanese independence, after the city was made the capital of its own Ottoman province and its population blossomed, making it necessary to move its quarantine facility ("karantina" in Ottoman Turkish) further from the city center. Because the quarantine was concerned with the traffic of human illness, a hospital was built on site.

The quarantine itself has not functioned for ages, but the name stuck. Since then the quarter has come to acquire several overlapping meanings.

Mishlawi's film recounts how Karantina became a region where waves of refugees - Armenian, Palestinian, and Kurdish - settled, so the region acquired the reputation of a slum.

When Lebanon's Civil War broke out, the high concentration of Palestinians in this part of "Christian East Beirut" - made it the target of a siege (and massacre) by Phalangist militiamen and their Syrian army allies, who wanted to isolate the nearby Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp.

The region thus came to be associated with slaughter and (ironically, or appropriately, enough) it also became to site of a slaughterhouse for cattle and sheep, which operates still. Other light-industrial enterprises set up shop in Karantina - a tannery, a metal factory - and during the post-Civil War reconstruction, Sukleen, a private waste-management company, took possession of the area's municipal dump.

Later still the area played host to the nightclub B018. Designed by famed Beirut architect Bernard Khoury (who is one of Mishlawi's informants), the interior design of this subterranean crypt was originally not unlike that of a local graveyard. The most-recent layer of urban densification is that of the art galleries - which, like the pollen of globalization, tend to aggregate in disused regions of cities worldwide.

"Sector Zero" is a self-consciously elaborate audio-visual creation.

Visually, it combines silent images from Karantina's now-derelict structures - the only living presence in which are a spider and a few sheep and cattle en route to the butchers. In the hands of cinematographer Talal Khoury, these take the form of panning shots - reminiscent of Meyar Roumi's work in Omar Amiralay's 2005 doc "A Flood in Baath Country" or Diego Mart?nez Vignatti's contribution to Kamal Aljafari's 2006 "The Roof" - and still life-like studies of found objects that pass in and out of focus like a fading memories.

Complementing these contemporary images is archival footage. Black-and-white films of Armenian and Palestinian refugees who found refuge in Karantina are superimposed over the interior walls of Karantina structures. There is also some the striking footage of the Phalange's 1976 siege.

The film also has a slideshow motif - most effective when it presents a range of historical maps of the region from the 1950s until today. Less-effective slideshows are concerned with post-Civil War Downtown Beirut and Lebanon's sectarian political leadership.

"Sector Zero" is Mishlawi's directorial debut but he has been a figure on the Lebanese art scene for some years as a composer - having worked on the soundtracks of a number of films in the region - and as a sound installation artist. Consequently the audio and visual aspects of this film are as complex.

The soundtrack veers back and forth from Mishlawi's work for chamber orchestra to a dissonant soundscape of electronic growls and scrapes - an aural equivalent of the pockmarked and derelict interior and exterior shots of Karantina that Khoury captures.

A range of interviews provide the film's documentary "content." The voices take the form of audio interviews with people that have some personal (contemporary or historical) connection with the region - a slaughterhouse employee, a writer who lives in the region, a former militiaman who committed atrocities there - and the filmed monologues of three prominent Lebanese intellectuals - Khoury, psychiatrist and clinical psychologist Choukri Azouri and writer and political commentator Hazem Saghiyeh.

The film's aesthetic sensibility - by no means the first film to find beauty in derelict spaces - mingled with philosophical discussion and reminiscence will move viewers of a certain temperament. Obviously "Sector Zero" speaks with greatest clarity to residents of Lebanon, and those non-Lebanese who lost family there. That said the film's themes are not particularly parochial.

Refugee movements and tribal-sectarian conflicts aren't unique to the Lebanese experience and, historically, every port city in the world has had a quarantine facility. These days, when communicable disease is second only to climate change among contemporary plagues - and with free population movement more likely to be impeded for political than health reasons - the idea of "quarantine" is a totem from an era of regulation that's as quaint as the social welfare state.

Bernard Khoury's sketch of Solidere's neoliberal land-expropriation practices - pioneered in Downtown Beirut before going global - is interesting enough, as are his views on how his design of B018 was received by "the Western press." The extent to which this is useful in scrutinizing Karantina is debatable.

Though human tragedy is deeply gouged into Karantina's urban fabric, for the most part "Sector Zero" enters through the head rather than the heart. Indeed, some may find the intellectual ballast provided by the film's informants doesn't match the film's aesthetics.

That said, when the camera falls upon the cattle and sheep awaiting slaughter at the Karantina slaughterhouse, the soundtrack's string accompaniment veers fatally (and uncharacteristically) close to sentimentality.

In the post-premiere Q&A, Mishlawi remarked that he and cinematographer Talal Khoury aspire to recast their Karantina project in other media - whether as a book of photography or a video installation. Certainly the visual and sound design aspects of "Sector Zero" are equal to this. Given the artistic strengths of Mishlawi's profile of Karantina, it's curious that the neighborhood's swelling, and visually incongruous, art gallery scene is missing from the film.

These complaints do little to diminish "Sector Zero" being an impressive first film.

The complex variety of its soundtrack is a fine sonic equivalent to the bleak locations. Derelict and pockmarked with a violent history, these interior and exterior landscapes are ideal for Khoury's laconic, lateral camera movement.

Ephemeral still-lifes - picturesque spider webs (translucent spider included), mysterious objects sunken in a flooded floor, a diagonal shaft of light shooting through mysteriously rising steam - are as informative in their mute transience as an entire roomful of political philosophy.

Jim Quilty // The Daily Star