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MONDAY, 21 APR 2014
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An ad’s-eye view of Beirut
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DUBAI: Beirutis, as cliché would have it, are concerned with appearances. Residents of the Lebanese capital may wake in the morning to find they have neither running water nor electricity, but they can rest assured that, en route to work, they will find the most chic designer brands illuminated from state-of-the-art LED advertising hoardings.

That’s all for the best, obviously, yet the disconnect between style sense and infrastructure can create a vacuum. Image counts, yet electricity and Internet access are exotic enough that consumers may not be able to rely on social media sites to keep abreast of the trends.

That may be why Beirut has embraced such a 20th-century advertising vehicle as the ad truck: A self-propelled Plexiglas box into which can be placed a facsimile of whatever product the market is trying to tout.

The ad truck lies at the heart of “Birds of September,” the debut feature-length documentary of Lebanese writer-director-producer Sarah Francis. The film premiered earlier this year at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, and had its Middle East debut Saturday at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it is screening in the festival’s docs competition.

Francis’ film is not about an ad truck, nor does one ever appear within the frame. The unique inspiration of “Birds of September” is that it is completely shot from within such a vehicle’s terrariumlike mobile display case.

The moving vehicle provides Nadim Saoma’s camera with a vantage from which to capture some at times lovely images of a city whose beauty is increasingly difficult to find at the surface.

At times, the slow-moving vehicle acts as a dolly, framing the passage of the shop fronts lining urban neighborhoods – or the razed landscapes abutting empty expressways. At others, the lens gazes upon the human figures made to sit within the glass box – posturing or performing, looking self-conscious or bored – seemingly suspended above the vista unfolding before the camera.

The doc’s inspired concept is balanced not by an easily delineated “plot” trajectory but by the stories a handful of Beiruti subjects want to share – sometimes compelling or amusing, occasionally allusive. These interviews were conducted separately from the shoot, so that the figures are free to posture, squirm or ignore the camera in silence.

A veteran taxi driver is resigned to the mundane absurdities of Beirut and fearless about – anyway unwilling to acknowledge any fear of – the city’s present and future.

Her mouth and fingernails painted the same shade of pink, a longtime Ras Beirut resident, dislocated to a distant village-cum-suburb by the city’s skyrocketing real estate market, embodies fragile disorientation.

A middle-aged man, his hair receding and startlingly black, stares impassively into the lens while he can be heard boasting about how young women offer themselves to him – then discloses that he employs a dozen or so youthful females in an ill-defined segment of the entertainment business.

Sitting behind a table, atop which sits the ledgers and calculator she uses in her work, a shopkeeper shares her amusing ideas about the excessive leisure time of Beirut’s well-heeled women.

A health care professional’s disembodied voice alludes to her work with senior citizens, a description punctuated by the frail tones of the people for whom she cares. The face behind the voice, meanwhile, generally smiles at the camera, yet – with her eyes averted from the lens – briefly exudes an unfathomable sadness. A series of jump cuts show her igniting half a dozen candles, which she extinguishes before the daylight has faded enough for them to be of any use.

While the voice of a young woman chews over whether to live in Beirut or overseas and her biological countdown to motherhood, her visage veers from a thoughtful-looking, eyes-averted pose to the purposeful application of blue gel to the walls of her container, as if to use clarity and obscurity as the medium and substance of visual art.

The film’s strong narrative and visual components are complemented by a thoughtful sound design – underscored by some beautifully dissonant sound performed by Stephane Rives, Paed Concha, Fadi Tabbal and Jawad Nawfal – all well-known figures on the city’s free improv and experimental music scene.

“Birds of September” does have a shortcoming or two. As tends to be the case with impressionistic documentaries of this kind, some will find the film’s 99-minute running time in need of flensing. Others may find the more set-designed sequences (those that provide the subjects props) a trifle stagey.

A more puzzling matter is the sometimes-abrupt camerawork. As long as the vehicle is moving at the stately pace that makes ad trucks so irritating to Beirut motorists, Saoma’s camera provides a number of intriguing, sometimes surprisingly lyrical, tableaux.

Occasionally – as when Francis’ driver appears to announce (somewhat questionably) that he can drive from the corniche to Ashrafieh in five minutes – the visuals are reduced to a panicky blur, accentuated by the camera’s being whipped rapidly left and right.

The image is also marked by inconsistent lensing, with the scenes on the other side of the glass periodically knocked in and out of focus – quite a different effect from capturing a passing scene in consistently imperfect focus.

Either the editing might have been more discerning, or else the director wanted an element of visual dissonance folded into her work. If it is an aesthetic gesture, it is, arguably, redundant: Beirut’s urban landscape is already replete with dissonance.

Still, the film’s mingling of intriguing character, allusive narrative and imaginative visual and aural form conspire to make “Birds of September” a fine debut feature. The filmmaker has claimed to have no fine art background herself, but her film will play well to that edge of the documentary spectrum.

“Birds of September” will screen again Monday at 3 p.m. DIFF continues until Dec. 14. For more information see: dubaifilmfest.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 09, 2013, on page 16.
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