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Gate #5 review: The multifaceted, contentious world of Lebanese documentary (19/12/2011)

There are several memorable moments in "Gate #5," Simon El Habre's 2011 feature-length documentary, which had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival last week.

Early on, the camera of cinematographer Bassem Fayad sets the scene with a laconic montage of (largely stationary) images from an international shipping port - Beirut Port, as it happens. Mangy cattle charge straight toward the camera as they're off-loaded from ships. Tractor-trailers manned by ageing men rumble or sit, silent.

The most intriguing image, though, a minor motif to which the film returns, is one of a narrow dirt road stretching before the car navigating it.

Inviting as the rural landscape spreading to either side of the dirt track may be, the sequence is arresting less because of the image than the soundtrack. Since the moving car's engine is all but silent, the soundtrack is crowded with the anonymous driver's laboured breathing.

"Gate #5" traces two strands of one story. On one hand there is the space of Beirut Port, specifically the gate of the film's title, and the ageing truckers and port workers who occupy it. Sitting in groups on white plastic chairs, sipping araq, or else in the cabs of their rigs as they drive or sit idle, these men comment upon their present lives, the history of the port, especially this gate, share civil war tales and, later, ruminate upon the differences between downtown Beirut before the civil war - when it was a space for normal people - and today - a place for tourists and wealthy Lebanese.

On the other hand, there is the director's father Najem El Habre, the Crown Taxi driver whose wheezing breathing accompanies the camera's drive through Mount Lebanon's rural Shouf region. He shares a few anecdotes about growing up in a large farming family in Shouf, from which he fled as a teenager. He talks about how he came to accumulate a small fleet of trucks that he deployed collecting and distributing goods from the port until it became untenable and he decided to start driving a taxi.

"Gate #5" is the follow-up to Habre's "The One Man Village" (2008), which garnered a DIFF Jury Prize in 2008 and the next year took Best International Documentary award at Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Aside from certain matters of tone, Habre's two films are quite unlike one another. Comprised largely of silence and stillness, Habre's first film is remarkable for its success in communicating the "meaning" of a place in a language that is sparing of words (and, indeed, human characters) and, thanks to the film's gorgeous exterior and interior locations, rich in images.

Because it is preoccupied with Beirut Port and those who move its goods, "Gate #5," by contrast, is utterly about movement. More, it is heavy with mundane local meaning, tied to the dissolution of state control of the port during the civil war. To communicate something of this meaning, "Gate" is as chatty as "Village" is silent.

If there is any utility in comparison like this, it lies in what it suggests about how there is no one-size-fits-all documentary film language for all subjects. It takes stones to depart from a proven formula and seek a dialect to relate a different story.

Jim Quilty // The Daily Star