Coming Clean: Sector Zero says the things many don't want to say or hear

Sector Zero is not for everyone, it is for the thinking viewer, Nadim Mishlawi tells me in a café swarming with tweenies and college students on Sassine Square. Having watched the young director's debut film less than 36 hours earlier, I could tell he was not attempting to sound elitist, not in the slightest. "We let the viewer make the links, we put the headlines only. At no point in the film are we spoon-feeding information," he continues.

The 68-minute picture is off the beaten track in more ways than one. I have to admit that had it not scooped the Muhr Arab Documentary First Prize Award at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival in December, I probably wouldn't have learned about it. News about indie cinema doesn't exactly travel fast in Lebanon, and if it travels at all, most people can't be bothered. And the fact that "Sector Zero" was advertised under the war documentary genre (at least where I first read about it) was likely more of a turnoff to local viewers. But when you watch the film, you'll realize it is not exactly about the war, nor is it essentially a documentary in the clinical sense of the term.

Karantina, the derelict, foul-smelling area on the outskirts of Beirut, is the site of "Sector Zero". It is a notorious ghetto that fascinated the filmmaker first and foremost for its name, which is the Turkish translation of the word "quarantine", as a quarantine facility was set up next to the Port of Beirut and the name Karantina somehow stuck on it. What piqued Mishlawi's curiosity further was that the area has been overlooked ever since he could remember. As he dug deeper into the history of the area - which was initially the main intention of the film - he discovered several other uncanny facts, that a slaughterhouse was built adjacent to the quarantine, the neighbor of which is non-other than the mammoth facility of waste management company Sukleen.

As his research got ever more elaborate, Karantina to Mishlawi appeared like the mental garbage dump of our society, "a place where we throw everything we fear and don't wish to face," he remarks. "We found out that are over 100 years of macabre stories there," including a 1976 massacre, which people don't want to confront, says Mishlawi, who wrote, directed, and composed the music of "Sector Zero". As work took off, the director came to understand the metaphorical significance of Karantina in relation to Lebanon, particularly the concept of the quarantine, which he felt offered a profound "perspective to understanding Lebanon's past and present". And that is how the whole structure of the film began to unravel.

"We started with Karantina and by the end of the film we were talking about the Arab world in general. It is a kind of filmmaking, which isn't very popular anymore. It is what you'd call a film essay much more than it is a documentary," Mishlawi says, adding, "We weren't really documenting anything, we were discussing issues." The film's three interviewees -psychiatrist and clinical psychologist Dr. Chaouki Azouri, seasoned journalist and analyst Hazem Saghiyeh, and star architect Bernard Khoury- throw at the viewer a string of issues and ideas. They scrutinize "the neglected traumas of Lebanon's past, its unstable present, and the difficulties it faces in building the future". Instead of tracing specific historical events, "Sector Zero" peruses the notions of cultural identity, collective memory, social psychosis, and the nation's regression to primitive society. And instead of showing us talking heads, Mishlawi makes the interviewees look as though they are undergoing interrogation through a simple décor, which reflects the idea of the quarantine. Apart from the interviews, no sound was re- corded on set, so the sound designer Rana Eid, who doubles as the executive producer, created a soundtrack from her imagination. She brilliantly mixes abrasive noises with symphonically slow music, which complements the chilling feeling of unexpectedness that is elegantly translated through the lens of Cinematographer Talal Khoury.

While "Sector Zero" is to be lauded for succeeding in breaking away from dry documentation, aesthetically is where it really pushed the envelope, employing techniques that are hardly common in documentary filmmaking. "I wanted to bring the idea of genre filmmaking into the documentary," says Mishlawi, who combines silent, flashing images with footage of onsite battles as well as a slideshow. His ingenious efforts pay off with a very stylized, indie art-house film that veers between fiction and nonfiction and tastefully hints at violence and torture instead of showing it with a constant close-ups and black screens that push viewers to enter the darkest room of their imagination.

Maha Majzoub // Ragmag