Scrapbook: challenging provocative entertaining
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: One of the eccentricities in the way films are distributed and exhibited hereabouts is that many award-winning Lebanese works seldom get a theatrical release.

A bystander might be forgiven for assuming that the only Lebanese feature to be released in the last two years was Nadine Labaki's "Wa Halaq l'Wayn?"

In fact, a bushel of Lebanese works has been lauded since 2010 - receiving development and production grants and winning prizes at international and regional festivals.

Such films may receive festival-style one-off screenings in Beirut. This is better than nothing but by its nature unfriendly to the habits of casual film-goers, who go to the movies when they want to, not when they have to.

Happily, there's "Scrapbook." This two-month screening cycle of recent Lebanese films will provide an opportunity to catch up with the breadth and variety of recent local filmmaking, and in a relaxed manner. The series opens Thursday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil and continues until the end of June, with each film receiving multiple daily screenings over at least two weeks.

The eight films selected for "Scrapbook" have a similar production and screening history. All were commissioned or supported by arts institutions in the Gulf (Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Doha), which later provided the platform for their world premieres. In several cases they awarded the filmmakers for their work.

Yet these films are marked by more variety than conformity. Most of them have been tagged "documentary" but they tend not to conform to the conventions of classical, reportage-style investigation - with the off-frame filmmaker seeking to ferret-out information by interviewing people.

To a greater of lesser degree, all the docs in "Scrapbook" betray approaches that are personal, aestheticized, at times formally experimental. They are less interested in getting at the "hard facts" of a story than in alluding to the mutability and nuance - the softness - of facts.

The cycle opens with Nadim Mishlawi's feature-length documentary debut "Sector Zero," a cerebral and stylish examination of the Beirut neighborhood of Karantina.

Mishlawi's film recounts how Karantina became a point of arrival for waves of refugees, which in 1976 made it the target of a siege (and massacre) by gunmen wanting to isolate the Tell al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp.

The region also became the site of a slaughterhouse, a tannery, a metal factory, a private waste management company, the B018 nightclub and, most recently, art galleries.

"Sector Zero" deploys this dense documentary history as fodder for a self-consciously elaborate audiovisual creation - combining silent images from Karantina's now-derelict structures and archival footage, a soundtrack that veers back and forth from Mishlawi's chamber orchestra composition to a dissonant soundscape of electronic growls and scrapes.

The intellectual "content" comes from audio interviews with people with some personal connection with the region and the filmed monologues of prominent Lebanese intellectuals - B018 architect Bernard Khoury, psychiatrist Choukri Azouri and political commentator Hazem Saghiyeh.

The cycle continues with Simon El Habre's "Gate #5," another veteran of DIFF 2011. "Gate #5" is the zone of Beirut Port run by the Lebanese Forces militia during the Civil War, reputedly transhipping much of the city's imported goods. In part, the film reminisces about prewar and wartime goings-on in Beirut, drawing upon the recollections of a cluster of ageing truck drivers. The film is also Habre's homage to his father, himself a retired trucker, and his moving back and forth between his family's village in the Chouf region and Beirut.

The most experimental documentary film in this selection, Rania Stephan's "The Three Disappearances of Souad Hosni" premiered at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial (taking the top prize).

The eponymous Egyptian actor is in every scene, and always in character, but Stephan's film is neither a documentary nor a conventional fiction. It is, rather, a synthetic montage of scenes assembled from VHS tape versions of the 80-odd films in which Hosni starred over the course of her life.

Stephan has collated and scrambled these - the original audio and video of most sequences are unhinged from one another and redeployed - to make a metafiction of Hosni from her multiple film personas.

The sole medium-length film in "Scrapbook," Ahmad Ghossein's "My Father Is Still a Communist," was commissioned by Sharjah and won the prize for Best Arab Documentary Short at Doha.

Ghossein's experiment with nostalgia is comprised of a snippets of audio tapes that his long-suffering mother recorded for her husband, who spent much of their marriage working abroad. The film juxtaposes this private archive with contemporary images from South Lebanon, his family's antique super-8mm footage and (hilariously) staged video montage in which the filmmaker's grinning dad places himself within various photos of his wife and family.

Wissam Charaf's debut feature-length doc "It's All in Lebanon" is cultural criticism of a more traditional type. Working with an extensive collection of Lebanese television images, interspersed among his own voice-over and commentary from Lokman Slim, co-founder of the UMAM documentary project, Charaf remarks upon how two vastly divergent representations of Lebanon dominate pop culture discourse, both of which seek to erase of the country's unseemly recent past.

"Marcedes" is the most-recent work of the prolific Hady Zaccak. Giving unusually wide berth to the filmmaker's irreverent sense of humor, the film recounts Lebanon's modern history from the perspective of the country's favorite import, the Mercedes, retelling that history from the perspective of a family of immigrant automobiles.

A more personal film, Rami Nihawi's mostly black-and-white "Yamo" tells the story of the Civil War years from the perspective of his mother, and her relationship with his father - himself a combatant. The most soft-spoken and personal of these films, Nihawi's is also one of the most touching in "Scrapbook."

The one incontestable work of fiction here is "Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla" (Okay, Enough, Good-Bye), the feature-film debut of Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia.

Set in the northern city of Tripoli, the film follows the meanderings of a 40-something patisserie-owner who must fill the space left vacant when his mum decides to go down to Beirut.

Quirky, subversive, at times hilarious, this little film mingles dialogues that speak in northern Lebanese dialect with a visual language inflected with accents of video art and documentary-style formal interventions. This is bound to complicate things for those who like to divide cinema into "documentary facts vs. feature fiction" polarities, but it's well worth enjoying.

"Scrapbook" opens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday with Mishlawi's "Sector Zero." Films are subtitled in English. Tickets go for LL8,000. Student concessions and month-long passes are available. See or call 01-204-080

Jim Quilty // The Daily Star Lebanon