BEIRUT: Less than three months after the city’s port blast eviscerated nearby residential districts, killing 200 and displacing thousands more, MBC and its streaming service Shahed have responded to the disaster with “6:07,” a series of 15 short fiction films.
The first cluster of shorts by Lebanese filmmakers and television directors was released for streaming on Oct. 17 – the first anniversary of the civil disobedience campaign against the country’s political class.
Most learned about “6:07” via a trailer that appeared online in the run-up to its launch, a booming, high-concept series of jump cuts pushing the violence and human drama of the disaster. Based on the social media posts that arose in response to the trailer, many consider the project – certainly its tone-deaf marketing gambit – to be offensive.
“Unprofessional, disgusting, and inhuman. Your company is seeking profit out of tragedy and out of people's suffering,” wrote one Twitter user. “Disgusting and insensitive,” wrote another, saying it was too soon for melodramatic depictions of real death and widespread trauma, “capitalizing on the grief of the people for a quick cash grab.”
“We created this project to pay tribute to the victims,” said director Mazen Fayad, who pitched the project to MBC. “We started by talking to victims’ families and they were all in favor of it. They were like, ‘Thank God somebody’s doing this because so far no one’s done anything. The government’s offered no compensation ...’
“We’re filmmakers. Our job is to immortalize these martyrs and victims. The firefighters are the only martyrs in this story. Martyrs know what they’re doing. The other people were victims. Then they became numbers.”
A director participating in “6:07” told The Daily Star contributors were presented with 25 stories that had emerged from the aftermath of the Aug. 4 blast and invited to use them as the basis of their work.
“All the shorts are fictions, inspired by real events,” Fayad confirmed, but there is some thematic variety among them. “Films about individuals end with a tribute to the victim, all with the families’ approval. There are also films that weave together different stories. Then there are pieces that take up issues, like the missing, or living martyrs – those with lost limbs or family members or suffering from PTSD.
“We’ve tried to tackle as much as we can, while giving each director an opportunity to express him or herself in their own way.”
Fayad says he’s been a great supporter of the thawra that commenced one year ago. His own short, called “Abbas and Fadel,” focuses on those Lebanese who have been on the street demonstrating against change – specifically some of the residents of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, a neighborhood whose miserably poor residents are ardent supporters of the political status quo.
Fayad said that MBC covered all the series’ production expenses. Though participating production companies in Beirut volunteered their services (which, he says, would ordinarily cost about $3 million), the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based network effectively employed a swath of Lebanese who usually work in the film and television trades, and who have been idle for the past year.
“The filmmaking community hasn’t been working since October 2019,” he said. “Most of this work used to service overseas industries, a role that’s now migrated to Egypt, Turkey and Dubai.
“MBC won’t make any money from the series. Whatever proceeds do come in will go to associations in Lebanon working to rebuild. That’s what they said.”
“My first reaction was, ‘No dead people,’” filmmaker Nadim Tabet recalled of hearing about “6:07.” “I couldn’t see myself doing anything spectacular like that.”
Tabet is best known as a chronicler of Lebanon’s apolitical youth culture, a theme he’s explored in several shorts and his 2017 debut feature “One of These Days.”
“The Best Day of My Life,” his contribution to “6:07,” is based on the experience of a young doctor who on the afternoon of Aug.4 was posing for her wedding video in Saifi Village – a newly old residential area in Downtown Beirut, whose tidy streets and antique-looking architecture has made it a favourite location for wedding shoots.
“My short’s inspired by the bride’s story but it’s not her story. My character was meant to have got married in the US, but her fiancé couldn’t get a visa, so they were married in Beirut.
“I didn’t want to make a piece that’s just about panic and running in the streets,” he said. The producers “said I can make a film about the state of mind these days, so it’s about what we lost. You know, should I stay or should I go? The huge family pressure around a marriage.
“During the wedding shoot the bride gets lots of social media notifications on her phone – stupid social media crap, family stuff, wedding stuff, but also a photo or two of the fire at the port – it’s all too much and she has a panic attack.
“I like a cinema that’s closer to portraiture,” Tabet said. “You need a camera and a character to make a film, a plot, but not a helicopter or a drone.”
The film won’t try to reproduce the blast itself, Tabet says, but it will incorporate a moment from his subject’s wedding video -- which went viral online.
“I first became involved in ‘6:07’ as a sound designer for some of the other work,” Rana Eid said. “It’s a controversial project. Is it too soon? Is it opportunistic?
“Frankly I think this discussion is going too far. These days we’re too quick to stick ethical labels on people ... There are no ethical or unethical people here – unless they’re making money from it or hurting people in the process.
“I told Mazen, I can’t think properly now, but doing a film while we’re still bleeding ... Why not.”
A co-founder of db studios, Eid was a respected sound designer and editor before she started directing her own films. Her first feature, the 2017 doc “Panoptic,” is an essay that veers between autobiography and Beirut architecture, a study of the ruined residues of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
“Looking at the stories in this project, I thought all the films will be melodramatic,” she said. “I want to bring another sound to the discussion.
“We don’t know how to bury our dead in this country. I feel like I have to do something for them, or we’ll never heal.” she paused. “As far as I’m concerned, this blast happened in 1975. This is what compelled me to make ‘Panoptic.’ We have to make a link between what happened [on Aug. 4] and the general amnesty.
“Originally I pitched a sound piece that plays out against a black screen. MBC said they can’t do this on TV. We do need to have this on TV: Social media these days is very noisy. As filmmakers, we have to put forward a different sound and image.”
Eid’s contribution to “6:07” is called “Undead,” which she said is derived from a project she’d been developing with scriptwriter Fouad Halwani well before the port blast. It’s comprised of five stories that date from a period between 1975 and 2020, told by two voices.
“The voices talk as if they’re disappeared already. In one story, for instance, a voice describes being thrown from the top of Burj al-Murr, but landing in the Mediterranean.”
Eid believes the most appropriate image now is one that averts the camera’s gaze from the explosion and the aftermath itself.
“Too much catastrophe,” she said, “can make you numb.”
The filmmaker said she didn’t want to use footage from the port disaster so, in lieu of a blank screen, Eid has recycled some rushes from “Panoptic,” whose images are superimposed. The voices too are superimposed.
She didn’t seek out all the authentic cacophony of the blast either.
“The only sound that we reproduced was the worst sound – that of the oxygen being compressed.”