Since the informal establishment of Lebanese cinema in the early 1930s, few Lebanese films in the entire turbulent history of the country’s struggling film industry have managed to garner substantial world acclaim while shaking the country’s stagnant box-office.
Since the early silent comedies, Lebanese films were first and foremost shaped by politics. The search for a national and cultural identity was the main theme that governed the early Lebanese films. These largely individual efforts were quickly hampered by World War II, driving the industry into a premature downturn.
Following the end of the war, individual efforts continued to rule the faltering industry, standing mostly as a passive observer to the unstoppable invasion of Egyptian cinema.
The country itself grew to be a preferred locale for European (especially French) and Egyptian filmmakers alike. The close interaction with European cinema further influenced Lebanese films both visually and thematically. The short-lived resurgence of Lebanon’s film industry near the end of the 60’s/beginning of the 70s was mainly accredited to the mass immigration of Egyptian filmmakers and producers to the neighboring country.
But the outbreak of the Civil War (1975-1990) returned Lebanese films to square one. Films produced in the following two decades, aided primarily by European funding, directly tackled the war.
It wasn’t until the new century that Lebanese filmmakers decided to gradually break away from the overriding shadow of the war, although the majority persisted in employing it as a backdrop for their stories.
The major success of 2005’s jubilant musical “Bosta and 2007’s breakaway hit “Caramel (the most successful Lebanese film in over three decades) proved that there’s life for Lebanese cinema beyond the Civil War.
I know that this might upset some, but the main obstacle most (and not all) Lebanese filmmakers throughout the past 70 years have constantly faced wasn’t the economic difficulties brought by the war or dwindling number of film screens or even the unpopularity of Lebanese films inside Lebanon; it’s the fact that they don’t know how to tell a story properly.
The latest, brightest example is “Dokhan Bela Nar (English title: Beirut Open City), the third feature-length film by Lebanese director Samir Habchi that has been produced under the banner of Youssef Chahine’s nephew Gabriel Khoury and starring Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawi. “Beirut – whose title bluntly alludes to Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist classic “Rome Open City – has clearly good intentions, with themes far more compelling on paper than the jumbled mess that is currently showing on Egypt’s film screens.
Set in mid-1990s Beirut after the official end of the Civil War, El Nabawi plays Khaled, an Egyptian filmmaker prepping for a film in Lebanon about political oppression in the Arab world.
The naïve-looking, stone-faced Khaled decided to set his film in Lebanon believing that it’s the most liberal country in the region; “The Switzerland of the Arab world as he puts it.
One of Khaled’s main sources is a battered, fierce-looking anti-Syrian protester Hamid (Rodney Haddad from “Bosta ) who was previously incarcerated and tortured by the Lebanese security service. Hamid informs Khaled that the eyes of the security service are everywhere, backed by other external forces (read the US).
Khaled has an insecure Lebanese girlfriend called Rana (Diamond Bu Abbud) who suspects her boyfriend is having an affair with temptress socialite Youmna (model/singer/actress Cyrene Abdelnour). Whether Khaled does indeed fancy Youmna or is merely using her as a muse for his story is never clarified.
On a separate storyline, the men of Khaled’s contact with the US Embassy, a Lebanese called Rambo who happens to be in charge of the ambassador’s posse that roams the streets with machineguns, kill a young man from a small village while clearing the way for the ambassador.
The young man’s powerful family demands from a US Embassy official who turns up at the funeral that the American ambassador come unarmed to the village, apologize for the murder and pray at his son’s grave in order to circumvent further bloodshed. The embassy official shrugs off the family’s demands, deeming them farfetched. A war between the two parties soon follows as a result.
On the other hand, Khaled, who accidently films one of the embassy’s subsequent bullying tirades, finds himself in the tug of this war.
All these disjointed, separate storylines are presented without any solid link that ties them all in one coherent whole. In fact, the film – which was, according to reports, denied from participating in the Arabic Competition of the Cairo International Film Festival’s last edition for being discourteous to Syria – touches upon every issue related to Lebanon’s current social and political fabric.
From the anti-Syrian sentiment and Syria’s role in escalating the tension inside the divided Lebanese society, the contrast between the country’s liberal classes and the religious extreme, to the manipulative, propagandist media and the agents that control it, Habchi forges a number of conspiracy theories, throws numerous clues all over the place without expounding upon a single concept.
Midway through the film, and without any introductions, the images conjured by Khaled in his script begin to overlap with the actual events so that the viewer is propelled to question the authenticity of these subjective images.
Reality vs. preconceived perceptions is the central theme in understanding a rich, thorny culture rife with contradictions; the actual reality that’s too complex to pin down vs. the plain, simple-minded expectations of foreigners.
This concept, in theory, is thought-provoking and could’ve saved the film had Habchi focused solely on developing it. In the perplexity resulting from the various directions the film takes all at the same time, the idea is lost, further failing by poor execution.
Not surprisingly, the end-result is both confusing and hollow. At some point, it’s difficult to follow who is protesting against whom, the function of different interest groups or what Habchi is trying to imply exactly.
Stark lack of characterization is another significant shortcoming of Habchi’s script. Nearly all characters are one-dimensional, each functioning as a rigid tool for the director’s disfigured design rather than being natural characters with motives, intentions and goals.
El Nabawi’s Khaled is the biggest causality of Habchi’s script; an unsympathetic, underwritten inactive character difficult to empathize with, hence, dissipating the emotional gravity of the story.
Perhaps that’s why the film feels so distancing despite the proximity of its events to the current reality both at home and in the Arab world in general.
By the end of the film, it’s hard to care about what’s happening or to draw tangible parallels between Habchi’s story and the present situation in the region. It’s not a matter of comprehension, but rather a complete lack of involvement.
The end credits carry Habchi’s message somehow too bluntly: Don’t be tricked by the media, beware of the numerous, battling forces that try to control you; don’t believe everything you see.
But the minute the movie ended, I couldn’t help but utter the two words that involuntarily slipped from my mouth: So what?