Short Notes from The Calm After the Storm: Making Sense of Lebanon’s Civil War

Ready To Wear Imm Ali (Dima El-Horr) is a delightful, understated comedy that like Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention and Randa Chahal Sabag’s The Kite, finds brittle humor in the absurdities of everyday life under a protracted occupation. Ostensibly chronicling an enterprising woman’s efforts to launch a fashion boutique in a bucolic farming village and her malfunctioning neon sign, the film effectively conveys the climate of secrecy and distrust as ordinary people struggle to find some semblance of independence and self-determination in the face of uncertainty, transforming her confusion into a potent commentary on empowerment and solidarity.

While Falling from Earth (Chadi Zeneddine) suggests affinity with the films of Theo Angelopoulos in its intersection of personal and national history, the film finds greater kinship with Hector Faver’s Memory of Water in its interweaving elements of documentary, fiction, and imagination. As in Faver’s film, Falling from Earth is equally poetic and frustratingly heavy-handed in its elliptical and allusive tale of an aging, disconnected exile who parses through the rubble of his tormented past in an attempt to come to terms with his mortality and legacy.

Of the three short video works in the Akram Zaatari program, All Is Well at the Border proves to be the strongest entry, reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Ici et ailleurs in its tale of two cities and the alienating, fragile peace of a status quo struggle for power and control. By presenting modern-day Lebanon as a collage of scarred streets, demolition, and reconstruction accompanied by the testimonies of former political prisoners during the occupation, Zaatari creates a potent allegory for the Palestinian conflict and a haunting survey of war’s subtle, yet indelible imprint on physical and human landscapes.

The second offering in the Zaatari program, Red Chewing Gum is more experimental and abstract in its execution than the quasi-documentary, All Is Well at the Border, a spoken word rendering of two estranged childhood friends and the memory of an encounter with a chewing gum peddler. Punctuated by the repeated refrain, “no sugar left” as the peddler discards his used gum into a cardboard box, the film serves as a metaphor for the fracture and irreparable damage of the Lebanese civil war.

The least effective entry in the Zaatari program is Crazy for You, a survey of the mating ritual told from the perspective of working class men in modern day Lebanon. Colorful and forthright in its stories of romantic conquests, Zaatari treads a culturally taboo-breaking, if banal road in examining the country’s decidedly mixed message towards modernity and socially progressive attitudes – a dichotomy that Zaatari wryly reinforces in a bawdy drinking song of machismo strength – one that can withstand the weight of a collapsing wall – shot against the rubble of a dilapidated house.

Part autobiography and part refiguration of turbulent history, Randa Chahal Sabag’s Our Imprudent Wars, like Albert Solé’s Bucharest, Memory Lost, is a clear-eyed and probing assessment of the personal toll of a family’s lifelong activism and resistance. Born to intellectual, globe-trotting parents, Sabag would bear witness to the tumult resulting from her family’s commitment to social engagement – first, in her parents’ militant, left-leaning politics, then subsequently, in her older siblings’ involvement with the militia during the Lebanese civil war. Struggling to reconstruct her family’s ambiguous and ever-shifting circumstances during the war, Sabag presents an incisive analogy to the murky politics, inflexible ideology, and dubious alliances that led the protracted civil war itself.

The militancy of ordinary people during the civil war and occupation of southern Lebanon also provides the framework for Sabag’s Souha Randa, a fascinating portrait of (then) recently liberated radicalized student turned communist revolutionary, Souha Bechara who, at the age of 21, was arrested after her failed assassination of provisional officer, General Antoine Lahad. Following Bechara as she readjusts to her former life – albeit this time, as a national hero – in a newly liberated southern Lebanon, the film interweaves historical footage with Souha’s emotional visit to Khiam prison where she once languished and was repeatedly tortured. With the prison now transformed into a teaching museum commemorating the struggle, the contrasting images of Khiam (made all the more visceral by Bechara’s account of her ordeal) creates an insightful juxtaposition – facilitating a constructive dialogue to a new generation in its acknowledgement of turbulent history and celebration of renewal.

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