Culture

Documenting the season of Lebanon's discontent

REVIEW

BEIRUT: The opening scene is shot from a camera shouldered on a running body. An image of a dirt road jolts in the frame with each step. From somewhere off screen comes the sound of someone shouting gruffly for an ambulance. A smashed car drifts into view. The driver's side door is open. Slumped in the front seat is a man, his chest and gut covered in blood, clearly dead. Then comes the deafening sound of an explosion. The camera jerks around to the left, searching. The place and time are set - South Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

The first corpse that sets Carol Mansour's 27-minute documentary "A Summer not to Forget" in motion is by no means the last. An onslaught of gruesome images and rapid-fire statistics, the film is not for the faint of heart. Not only does Mansour catalogue the destruction of roads, bridges, ports and factories during 34 days of Israeli bombardment, she also presents one horrific sequence after another - young men laid up in hospital suffering the strange burns of alleged phosphorus bombs, the child victims of cluster munitions who were wounded after the cessation of hostilities came into effect, and bodies of men, women and children - all mangled, disfigured, ripped open, lifeless.

Tough-minded documentaries are Mansour's forte. In 2003, she made "100 Percent Asphalt," about abandoned street kids in Cairo who are left to fend for themselves against violent crime and drug addiction. In 2005, she made "Invisible Children," about the tragedies and triumphs of the youngsters who constitute the child labor workforce in Lebanon, and "Maid in Lebanon," about migrant workers from Sri Lanka who are recruited into domestic servitude in Lebanon and then treated, more often than not, like dirt or worse.

"A Summer not to Forget" is her plea against inevitable tides of amnesia. This time, do not forget. This time, do not let these images fade. Mansour's film doesn't seek to explain the war or set it in context. Her first-person narration runs throughout but sticks by and large to facts and figures - 1,200 killed, 4,000 wounded, 107 roads bombed, 78 bridges destroyed, 57 massacres committed. When her text becomes intimate, it does so simply- "The destruction of our homes, our roads, our livelihoods, our lives."

"On July 12, 2006, Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers," she says at the film's start. "For the following 34 days, Lebanon witnessed continuous Israeli bombardment."

If there is any argument behind her film, then it deals only with the need to document how dramatically disproportionate Israeli's reaction was.

Instead of creating a cinematic polemic, Mansour gives over the role of expressing outrage to her subjects, to those people who lost homes and lives and turned to her camera to ask over and over again, with mounting desperation, "Why? For what?"

One man she revisits several times in the South, his face leathered by the sun, tells her there's no Hizbullah presence anywhere near his home, which was bombed. "Find one fighter here, one office," he challenges. Israel, he says, grabbing a stone from the ground, "has turned even this rock into Hizbullah." Slowly, his story enfolds. It's the third time his house has been bombed by Israel. He's lived abroad for 30 years. He built the house for his children. He is 53 and doesn't want to be reduced to living in the squalor of a single room and doesn't understand why he has to, what the war has to do with him. As his disbelief escalates, and his face shows signs of cracking into tears, he chokes on his words. "Tfadali, huh!" he says, pulling out a bundled plastic bag. He unties it and reaches inside. Now utterly speechless, he pulls out a blue rectangle and opens it for Mansour's camera - his American passport. He has no words left to reconcile this rupture of incomprehension.

In her book "Regarding the Pain of Others," the late novelist and essayist Susan Sontag wrote: "Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing - may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget."

The danger of atrocious images, Sontag argued, is that people tend to remember them instead of the events they represent. Moreover, remembering horrific events is less productive than thinking them through. Only narratives can make people understand, she wrote.

Mansour keeps her narrative to a minimum in "A Summer not to Forget," but the story she tells - simple and straightforward - is sufficient to jam a wedge in the door of forgetfulness.

Carol Mansour's "A Summer not to Forget" screens tonight at the Monnot Theater. For more information, please call +961 1 202 422. The Arabic, French and English versions are being shown at 8:30 p.m., 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively

 

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