TORONTO: As is well-known by its residents, Lebanon is situated on unstable ground. Generally such observations emerge during discussions of domestic and regional politics, but it’s a truth with a tectonic basis. Lebanese artist Ali Cherri is sensitive to plate tectonics, and to the profound metaphorical possibilities of his country’s geological eccentricities.
“The Disquiet,” Cherri’s new 20-minute video work, includes a statistic. “Forty-five to 60 times a day the earth shakes in Lebanon,” Cherri’s voice points out. “No one feels these. I feel every one.”
He goes on to illustrate how his country has been assembled upon the intersection of four different geological fault lines – The Yammouneh fault, the Roum fault, the Serghaya fault and the Mount Lebanon fault.
Each fault line has had a distinct history of seismic activity, each of which has left varying degrees of destruction and historical reverberation in its wake. The best known of these catastrophes, perhaps, is the earthquake that destroyed Roman Beyrutus – which sent its renowned law school tumbling into the sea, never to rise again.
“It took Beirut 1,300 years to recover completely from its last catastrophe,” Cherri notes, before going on to ponder the relativity of the term “catastrophe.” Whether it’s an empire that’s collapsing or a bridge, it is the human beings trapped in the midst of the carnage that make it catastrophic.
Conventionally, he muses, “catastrophe” is seen to be as sudden, as unexpected, as it is comprehensively destructive. Yet a catastrophe can be slowed down. When such an event of this magnitude is sheathed in language, it can even acquire a seductive quality.
Intriguing as this allusive pondering is, “The Disquiet” is driven by its remarkable imagery, ensuring that it will have an extensive career as a gallery installation long after its film festival cycle has passed.
One of these is the opening vista, a sunken island in the midst of a flowing body of water, perhaps the Beirut River. The foliage of bush and other flora emerges from a surface that is neither blue nor brown but red – as if the earth itself were bleeding.
There are other strong set images – the rock faces of one of the faults, the humming seismographic machines that quietly monitor the earth’s minute vibrations, waiting to be rattled by some more profound event.
Yet the piece is carried forward by the steadicam (Cherri shares this labor with DoP Bassem Fayad), which returns to the artist’s feet as they climb over an anonymous swathe of mountainous terrain, presumably somewhere in Lebanon. Accompanied by the gasping breath of the climber, these footsteps lead somewhere of course, but not where the viewer might expect.
“The Disquiet” is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Wavelengths program, which is devoted to independent art house film. There it is paired with Joao Viana’s debut feature “The Battle of Tabato.”
Cherri’s work is one of two Lebanese contributions to TIFF this year, both by figures perhaps better known as video artists than “filmmakers.” Also in Wavelengths is “Letter to a Refusing Pilot,” the 34-minute video component of Akram Zaatari’s installation piece, the sole work commissioned for this year’s Venice Biennial.
The Lebanese presence at TIFF has been a relatively light one this year. It may be recalled that Nadine Labaki’s second feature “Wa Hala Wayn?” took the Cadillac People’s Choice Award here in 2011, starting a burst of speculation that her film was a shoe-in for the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Labaki is present at TIFF this year as well, in “Rock the Casbah,” by Moroccan writer-director Laïla Marrakchi. The filmmaker is among a distinguished ensemble cast whose principals include Hiam Abbass, Lubna Azabal and Morjana Alaoui, with Omar Sharif playing a supporting role as the deceased patriarch at the center of the story.
Otherwise Lebanon’s presence at this film festival is aural rather than visual. The Daily Star carried out no comprehensive research on this subject, but anecdotal reports echo with the sounds of Lebanon.
Composer and artist Cynthia Zaven composed the soundtrack for “My Love Awaits Me by the Sea,” the poetic feature-length documentary debut of Jordan-based Palestinian writer-director Mais Darwazah, which sieves the filmmaker’s first visit to her country through the drawings and poems of Hasan Hourani (1974–2003).
“Thou Gild’st the Even,” the bizarre, fascinating and, yes, scatological feature of Turkish writer-director Onur Unlü refracts its fantastical tale of insanity and love through several literary and pop culture references.
Among these is a pair of pop songs, aural motifs toward which the action oscillates by turns. One of these, performed by a male vocalist, is in Turkish. The other, crooned through the rueful vocal chords of Syrian-born Rasha Rizk, is in Arabic. Lebanese songbird Tania Saleh wrote the lyrics of the song, “Mreyte Ya Mreyte,” as it’s called. Khaled Mouzannar – the creative partner of Nadine Labaki, who’s composed the soundtracks of her first two features – wrote the tune.
Last, but not least, rumors drifting in from online suggest that Lebanese pop band The Wanton Bishops have contributed a tune to the soundtrack of “Horns.” This quirky Daniel Radcliffe vehicle is the latest work by schlock-meister Alexandre Aja – who’s responsible for such art house classics as “Pirhana” (2010) and “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006).
“Tell me, dad,” a son asks at the start of “The Disquiet.” “When darkness reigns, will there still be music?”
“Yes son,” the father replies. “There will be the music of darkness.”
The Toronto International Film Festival ends Sept. 15. For more information see http://tiff.net.