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The quest for the amusingly profound
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BEIRUT: During Israel’s 34-day siege of Lebanon in 2006, someone calling himself “Idarat Israel” took to calling Lebanese telephone numbers to explain in polished Arabic that, sorry, you had this coming.

In an effort to reach a broader audience, Idarat Israel also briefly jammed the transmission of Sawt al-Shaab radio station, to inform its listeners that, well, they had it coming.

This is the inspiration for “Untitled (To the Lebanese Citizens),” a three-minute video piece from 2008 by Lebanon’s Ali Cherri. A (frequently re-positioned) fixed camera shoots the makeshift flotilla that was eventually allowed to evacuate the foreign nationals trapped by the siege.

Accompanying the image is Cherri’s recording of the afflicted Sawt al-Shaab broadcast. The audio terrorism struck during a tune by Fairouz – Lebanon’s best-loved diva. Perhaps because of the patriotic quality of Fairouz’s voice, a tug-of-war ensues between the Rahbani Brothers’ lyrics and Zionist propaganda, with the foreign voiceover prevailing.

Cherri dutifully scrolls a translation of the Israeli lecture for his Anglophone audiences. Regrettably, he doesn’t do the Rahbanis the same courtesy, inadvertently depriving English-only viewers of the latent dialogue embedded in this documentary jewel, and an additional facet of his work’s meaning.

Cherri’s work screened Tuesday at the Beirut Art Center as part of “Rencontres a Beyrouth,” a three-day screening cycle comprised of five distinctly themed sessions – curated by Nathalie Hénon and Jean-François Rettig, directors of the Rencontres Internationales, in collaboration with the BAC’s Lamia Joreige and Sandra Dagher.

The program represents a sample of Rencontres Internationales’ 150-work international program of screenings, video and multimedia exhibitions, debates and roundtables. Presented yearly in Paris, Berlin and Madrid, Rencontres explores the relationship between cinema and contemporary artistic practices.

The event’s ambitious program crams a good deal into its three days – complementing the screnings with a workshop led by video director Christian Barania and a roundtable debate with Christian Merlhiot, of Paris’ Palais de Tokyo.

The international works sampled Tuesday evening seemed of uneven quality, or relevance at any rate.

Cecile Hartmann’s 12-minute “Acrone,” from 2011, is a voiceless video poem based on footage of high-rise construction in a desert city – evidently in the UAE.

Though aesthetically flawless, a resident of this region may find something a trifle “old” about the glass-towers-from-the-desert aesthetic provoked by Dubai’s once hyper-active real estate boom.

Seemingly inspired by the travails confronting the city-state in the wake of the international crisis in finance capital, Hartmann’s camera ultimately turns, rather pointedly, to shifting sand dunes. The reference may have seemed poetically appropriate. It’s also regrettably cliched.

Similarly, Emanuel Licha’s 17-minute “How Do We Know What We Know?” a skeptical glance upon journalistic practice, was so obvious as to leave at least one hack a little cold.

The BAC program complements the international works with a sprinkling of Lebanese video.

Alongside Cherri’s work in the “Disaster” program was Rabih Mroué’s “Face A/Face B,” from 2002. Probably the most successful work of the evening, this amusingly profound contemplation of image, sound and memory was derived from an informal family archive of audio letters for his brother (then living in the Soviet Union) and photos taken of him and his family, all made during Lebanon’s Civil War.

He leaves you wishing that “amusing” and “profound” were more frequent bedfellows elsewhere in the program.

“Rencontres a Beyrouth” continues at the Beirut Art Center until Thursday. For more information see http://beirutartcenter.org or ring 01-397-018.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 10, 2012, on page 16.
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