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Sector Zero review: Shades of Lebanese history and a dash of '1/2 Revolution' in Dubai (12/12/2011)

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.

Joseph Fahim // The Daily News Egypt