ABU DHABI (Reuters Life!) - A stark theme of political, economic and social dysfunction runs through a series of Lebanese films that won plaudits at a film festival in Abu Dhabi this week, showing a society riven by sectarian tension.
Lebanon’s politics has been sharply divided since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990 and sectarianism has been exacerbated by foreign backing for one coalition led by Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah and another led by Sunni Muslims.
A rapturous reception by some Lebanese this month for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the anger of others at his visit, highlighted how deep the divide runs.
In Maher Abi Samra’s “We Were Communists,” rewarded as best Arab documentary at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival which ended on Saturday, former activists discuss how crass sectarianism has defined the post-war landscape despite their hopes for a new society as they fought Israeli invasion during the civil war.
“Today there is no national resistance, there is only sectarian resistance,” Maher, who has returned from France, says in the film.
In Bahij Hojeij’s “Here Comes The Rain,” which took the prize for best Arabic narrative, a man kidnapped during the war is released after some 20 years in captivity.
Ramez has trouble fitting back into family life and finds solace with the wife of another missing person whose fate is unknown. She finally finds closure when Ramez confesses that he shared a cell with her husband before he died.
Mohamed Soueid’s documentary “How Bitter My Sweet” takes six ordinary characters who dwell at the fringes of society and the informal economy, defying cliches about Lebanon as the glamour capital of the Arab world.
A wizened Palestinian refugee from Sidon recalls a lifetime of waxing women’s legs, a falafel seller talks of hard times on the streets, a man who picks up foreign women explains his obsession for collecting newspaper clippings, a Sudanese office boy hangs out with fellow Africans to escape racism.
Soueid made no apologies after the screening for depicting a gloomy, down-at-heel world in cities like Sidon and Beirut.
“The suffering of Palestinians there is no longer distinguishable from that of the Lebanese. Economic activity is centered on selling falafel,” he told the audience, describing the Lebanese state as a failure.
“Lebanese don’t rely on the state. Can you imagine that Saudi Arabia even pays for school textbooks? The state is just for complaining about,” Soueid said.
Tripoli in north Lebanon came off no better in Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s quirky “Ok, Enough, Goodbye,” which won best narrative film by a new Arab director.
Shot with non-professional actors in documentary form, the film shows the weakness of an unnamed man who has lived at home with his mother into his 30s but finds himself alone when she moves. The city is incapable of filling his emptiness.
Post-war desolation again makes its presence felt. At one point the protagonist visits a derelict urban space that was once intended for an architectural exhibit that would forefront after-the-violence Tripoli’s development, Garcia said.
Comic in tone, the movie becomes darker when he goes to a labor agency to hire an Asian maid. The agent tells him the price will differ according to the nationality, suggesting a pretty Filipina will cost more and hinting at sexual favors.
He hires an Ethiopian woman who he is kind to but she refuses to talk to him for fear of abuse. In the end she runs away, another sign of the character’s emasculated masculinity.
Some in the audience continued to laugh, but the camera work — focusing on locked doors and barred balcony windows — slowly illuminates the tragedy of workers’ plight. Finally the maid gives a brief report to camera about the abuse maids suffer.
Some said in a post-screening discussion they felt disturbed over those episodes. Attieh said she wanted to give an unedited slice of the city: the recruiting agent was as they found him.
“We wanted to convey an impression of the place. We wanted it to be a collage of Tripoli, its people on every level,” Attieh said.
Editing by Paul Casciato