BEIRUT: While on a road trip, two lovers cross a border: It is a useful and much revisited trope. The line that separates “us” from “them,” a border is a cartographical feature freighted with overtones of restriction and transgression – particularly in areas, and eras, where such lines are contested. Borders resonate within individuals as much as they do between states. In “Mondial 2010” (2014), this trope again demonstrated its narrative utility, winning Roy Dib the Teddy Award for Best Short Film at this February’s Berlin International Film Festival.
In formal terms, Dib’s 19-minute work deploys the real-time tourist video as a means to suggest a more complicated, invisible reality. While the couple’s banter – by turns jokey, irritated, affectionate and disturbed – dominates the film’s soundscape, the landscape of place – generally exterior, occasionally interior – rules the frame.
The Berlinale jury was no doubt as charmed by the site-specificity of Dib’s border transgression as it was its formal expression. The couple in question are the fictive Ibrahim and Youssef, Lebanese citizens driving down to see friends in Ramallah.
Routine as weekend tourism between “Lebanon” and “Palestine” once was, this journey is quite unlike a day trip between Geneva and Lyons, say. Israel – a state with which Lebanon is officially at war – controls Palestine’s borders, making physical contact with that country a criminal offense for Lebanese citizens. As it happens, physical congress between same-sex couples is also indictable locally.
Some might object to the explicit parallelism “Mondial 2010” creates between homosexuality and transborder traffic, yet the film doesn’t come across as an ad for political normalization with Zionist occupation.
Youssef and Ibrahim aren’t on a resistance mission but neither are they bent on a doubly dirty weekend of fraternizing with the enemy. The couple are just trying to escape Beirut’s fetish with the football World Cup.
The dissonance is interior. As they near Ramallah, Youssef suggests it might be interesting to film some Israeli settlers. Ibrahim snaps that he didn’t come to Palestine to photograph Israelis. They do shoot a Palestinian demonstration against a nearby settlement on Palestinian land.
Originally excited about the Ramallah visit, Ibrahim feels ill at ease there. The unease eats away at him, and he increasingly feels that he and Youssef should return to Beirut immediately.
“Youssef, you’ve been here before,” he says as they pass through the city’s commercial sector, dotted by breezeblock housing starts. “Have you ever felt Ramallah’s disappearing?”
Like this road movie’s border-transgressing premises, the disappearing destination is as redolent of person as place.
“Mondial 2010” had its Beirut premiere at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sunday evening during Ashkal Alwan’s “Video Works.” A yearly fixture on the city’s cultural calendar, this screening cycle places six Ashkal Alwan-commissioned video works by young artists alongside four independent pieces by Lebanese artists, such as Dib, from the past year.
All the works in the program were narrative pieces whose creators aspire to bend story-telling conventions.
The evening’s program began with the Ashkal Alwan commission “Ghisha (Membrane) A thin soft layer of ...” by Jad Youssef.
This 45-minute work focuses on Najib (Nasri Sayegh), a university film instructor navigating a strained relationship with Layal – who exists only as the silent half of several on-screen phone calls, which all end with their rendez-vous postponed.
As Youssef repeatedly reminds his audience, Najib wants to tell Layal that he feels he’s suffocating. Supplementing these voiceover professions are other free-standing visual motifs: sequences of Najib against a snow-covered mountainous landscape; heavily pixelated interior shots of an older man sitting or sleeping in a darkened room; an anonymous young man, one of Najib’s film students.
The work’s technical standards (cinematography, acting, etc,) are fine but “Ghisha” doesn’t gel. It seems the relationships among the film’s motifs are meant to emerge from the silent absences between Najib’s monologue-dialogue sequences. They do, but a catalyst that might elevate the whole into more than the sum of its parts is missing.
Romain Hamard’s 27-minute “Judith” depicts a stilted dialogue about life and hate, love and death between a couple (Julia Kassar and Jadd Tank) in a hotel room. The work is rooted in Hamard’s reworking of dialogue from “The Savage Eye,” Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick’s experimental film from 1960.
The project’s first iteration premiered at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace a year or so ago as a duet performance shot and projected in real time, a form that made the adaptation interesting despite the dialogue’s eye-rolling verbosity. Tank’s U.S.-accented interlocutor in the performance, who delivered her lines with a frank “f**k you” demeanor, also helped offset the bookish dialogue.
Here, robotic lateral camera movement replaces real-time projection. A gifted actor, Julia Kassar might have breathed life into her character if allowed to speak in Lebanese Arabic. As it is, she’s weighed down by lines that would be difficult for anyone to inhabit on film.
For many in the audience Sunday evening, the highlight was the world premiere of Marwa Arsanios’ “Have You Ever Killed a Bear? or Becoming Jamila.”
Like “Judith,” the 29-minute “Jamila” is the fruit of a long, multi-media gestation process. Part of the artist’s research into the Cairo magazine “Al-Hilal” in the revolutionary 1950s and ’60s, the film interrogates representations of Jamila Bouhired (b. 1935), the Algerian militant who has been multiply represented in print and cinema – most famously in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic “The Battle of Algiers.”
“Jamila” unfolds as a first-person account of recent Ashkal Alwan alumnus Jessica Khazrik, who explains she’s been asked to portray Bouhired. She was not the first actor Arsanios approached, Khazrik confides, but she was happy to fill in when the first actor begged off for political reasons.
While researching Bouhired’s life, Khazrik says she picked up several editions of “Al-Hilal,” which featured paintings of the revolutionary woman on its cover more than once. She never actually read the articles in “Al-Hilal,” she continued, but enjoyed reciting the titles of each issue aloud.
The artists play off the historical and geographical cleavages separating Bouhired and Khazrik to question matters of revolution (not least revolutionaries’ tendency to mutate into cheerleaders for the authoritarian regimes that can take root during revolution) and how in practice the 20th-century left tended to marginalize the feminist agenda.
Arsanios has deployed a couple of formal devices to complement her inquiry. The film opens with, and returns to, shots of a nighttime landscape (approximating the guerrilla-ruled countryside) captured by a camera carried at ground-level – a nice metaphor for the stumbling-in-the-dark aspect of historical research.
While discussing her efforts to digest Bouhired’s character and life choices, Khazrik uses various issues of “Al-Hilal” to cover her face, masklike. At times, the “mask” features the face of Bouhired herself. Other figures adorn some covers, most amusingly that of Gamel Abdel-Nasser.
Intelligent and informed, perceptive yet lighthearted, “Becoming Jamila” embraces a rare range of virtues within a half-hour film.
Video Works 2014 continues through Tuesday. For more information, please see ashkalalwan.org/events/video-works-2014.