Sunday, May 17, 2020

Living in Times of Corona Virus: One Camera, One Week, Five Films from Beirut

Five Videos: Living in Times of Coronavirus (Lebanon)
One Camera/One Week/Five Films
April 2020

Reflections by Susan Platt, Pamela Allara, Mark Auslander

Overview:  Daraj, a collaboration of Beirut and Copenhagen-based IMS, invited five prominent filmmakers to record their day to day lives during the lockdown of Coronavirus. They describe them as “five brief encounters from a shared reality in a contagious world.” To a startling extent, they suggest themes that all of us, all over the world, are sharing. Here is a link to all the films

Here is a brief list of those themes:

Zeina Sfeir Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: suggests through looking at her own videos of her family the themes of health, illness, love of parents, witness to death, the failings of a healthcare system, memories, and especially her changing feelings toward her home which was her parents home.

Carole Mansour A COVID-eo Diary speaks with many different voices as the artist drives around Beirut. It includes a game of charades about dreams not fulfilled because of the virus, interspersed throughout the film, but the subtitles give us many wildly fluctuating feelings, the liberation from constraining clothing ( especially bras), the reliance on small pleasures and necessities.

Lamia Joreige Nights and Days in times of pandemic shot through a car driving around Beirut during the day and at night from her apartment, speaks of the protest of the government that erupted in October 2019 that has been shut down by the lockdown as well as the contradiction of following the same routine as before the lockdown, ie, staying home all day with her work, but finding it entirely different.

Ghassan Salhab Rear Window in a clear contradiction to Alfred Hichcock’s landmark film, gives us the stasis of nothing happening, empty streets, with pouring rain, thunder and lightening as the only drama;  nature is the active force( (as is the case with the invisible virus).  

Mahmoud Hojei What are you doing after the orgy?:through a series of repeated scenes framed by an opening and closing a refrigerator,  the obsession and meaningless and gradual return to the most primitive act as a result of eating alone

Susan Platt: These are the bare bones of the films and we will return to them in more detail below.  But there is so much to see here beginning with the settings. All of these artists live in middle class Beirut, a place that we never see in the news except when it is destroyed, but which as seen as they drive around the city, is characteristic of much of the Middle East (that the wars haven’t destroyed):  six story cream colored apartment building with balconies. 

Just this week, The New York Times covered the severe economic crisis in Lebanon with large photos of migrant workers, the homeless, protestors in Tripoli, one of whom was killed, and a line up outside a food bank. These images are crucial to see, and the article carefully outlines the foundations of the economic crises ( about which more below). 

The middle class rarely appear in news or photos of the Middle East. In this article though there was a fleeting mention near the end. Dr Fadlo Khuri, President of American University of Beirut spoke of the impoverished middle class that he feared would permanently migrate, depriving the country of the people that the country needs to rebuild.

For many years, as those of us in the art world are aware, Beirut has had a sophisticated group of artists working in the midst of civil war, Israeli bombing, and intense local politics.  I first wrote about them as early as 2004 when I attended a presentation, panel, and exhibition in London at an experimental space called the “Lift Theater” in London. Since then these artists have become world renowned artists, showing in major museums and galleries, and creating award winning films.

So being invited into their homes and their lives during this unique period in world history is very special. I enjoyed the details of, for example, the background noises of the serving of tea in the video by Zeina Sfeir, such a basic of hospitality that I have always experienced when visiting artists in Turkey. Or the artwork in the background of one speaker in the Mansour work or the cooking of an eggplant on the top of the stove. And finally simply the city of Beirut itself, its empty streets, its Martyr’s square or the famous waterfront.

Here is the description from Daraj:  

“Empty streets, no planes on the blue sky, hardly any air pollution and many people locked up at home. During these times of Coronavirus reality becomes still more and more surreal. Confined by your all too well-known four walls, the news feeds are more important than ever since they have become our only window to the outside world. The gravity of this new reality sneaks in – like a lazy daydream or a slow nightmare restricting your daily life. Now, and maybe also in the years to come.”

Pamela Allara: According to its website, Daraj, based in Beirut, is an ‘independent digital media platform created by experienced journalists” in order to offer Arab speakers journalism free from political influence. It employs a variety of approaches, in this instance asking five prominent Lebanese filmmakers to make videos charting their personal responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis is aggravated by the fact that the Lebanese economy is in precipitous downfall due to political corruption and lack of tourism. The government, increasingly controlled by Hezbollah and Iran, is using the crisis to justify totalitarian measures designed to maintain its power long-term. the revolution protesting the government’s actions began in October 17, 2019. It is suffering as a result, and people are losing hope. The videos must be seen against not only this contemporary context, but also a country torn by civil war from 1975-1990; even after its rebuilding during the 1990s, it has suffered from incursions from Syria and Israel. The July, 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, during which Israel repeatedly bombed both its military and civilian infrastructure, including its airport, left over 12,000 Lebanese dead and 300,000 displaced.

The five videos are all by prominent Lebanese artists, and each has chosen to depict a daily life that alternates anxiety and uncertainty with boredom. The majority contrast interior apartments with long traveling shots taken while driving through Beirut, with voice-overs recording the artists’ thoughts and observations.

In director and cinematographer Zeina Sfeir’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the artist is living in her parent’s apartment filled with childhood memories. We are able to sympathize with what is a universal experience. The apartment is a typical middle-class, unprepossessing space, but Sfeir’s voice-overs trace her journey from perceiving it as a safety net, to a miserable arena where she cared for terminally-ill parents, and finally as a retreat she could love again. The initial shots of the various rooms include taped voice-overs of conversations; these are followed by family videos that Sfeir projects onto a movie screen set up in the living room.

Rather than family celebrations, her videos show her mother sorting laundry and complaining about being filmed, and her father cleaning the bathroom with a mop. In addition, we see a close-up of her father ill and in bed, while we learn via voice over that her mother needed to go to a nursing home better able to deal with her cancer; it appears that that was not possible, and so as caretaker she was left, it seems, between the devil and the deep blue sea. Sfeir’s video reminiscence was stimulated by a recent newscast about lack of access to cancer treatment, (her video of the broadcast is included), which inspired her return to her apartment in order to remember them. In turn, the resulting video honors them. The artist layers the present and the past, and finally comes to terms with where she is, creating a moving portrait of a single space.

The second video, with the punning title, “A COVID-eo Diary is by Carol Mansour, a documentary filmmaker whose concerns include human rights and social justice. In contrast to the previous work, the ‘diary’ (until the brief last shot) takes place primarily as the artist drives through the empty streets of Beirut. It begins with a shot of a young woman playing charades in English with a group of female friends seated on a sidewalk. The word she is acting out, we learn, is Ph.D., which one friend comments she will now never receive. So, within this scene, we go abruptly from convivial play to the reality of constricted futures. This example turns to an overview of life for the general populace. As the artist drives, she visits a coffee shop to buy beans, and wine at a store two essentials from stores allowed to stay open. Extended traveling shots follow taking us through the beautiful but nearly deserted streets of Beirut, while several different voice-overs, in Arabic, speak to the uncertainty of the moment: what will happen post-corona? Will the regime continue to suppress freedom? One is terrified of what is to come, while another is upset at having to return to wearing bras. Thus mordant humor, as well as play, serves as compensatory activities for an educated middle-class with little hope for a productive future. In a final shot, Mansour is home and toasts us with the wine she had purchased, as if to say “lots of luck!”

The fourth video, by writer/director Ghassan Salhab, who was born in Dakar, is titled “Rear Window.” To the western audience, the title brings up the classic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, where using one’s window to spy on your neighbor’s life turns out to be deadly. One anticipates that the view through the window in this Beirut apartment will yield dramas as well, but the artist deliberately deflates our expectations. From the point of view of the camera, we look out of the artist’s apartment window in anticipation of something, anything of interest. Instead of human activity we see rain, followed by clearing; after a deliberately confusing intertitle—"it is not this image”—we find ourselves on the virtually empty streets of Beirut; we do not travel these streets, as in Mansour’s video, but rather watch from a stationary point of view while several cars move forward slowly toward the picture plane, going nowhere. The intertitles, we learn from the credits, are from Samuel Beckett, an appropriate choice for a work about stasis and lack of meaning. I find the Hitchcock and Beckett references to be a bit pretentious, but the video images convey a realm where absence reigns both inside and out.

The last of the group, Mahmoud Hojejj’s short 3-minute video, “What are you doing after the orgy?” consists of a woman who opens her refrigerator to take out food for various meals. We are positioned from the refrigerator’s point of view, so when she closes the appliance’s door, the screen goes black.  In close-up, a young woman eats the takings at first with distraction but traditionally good manners; however, by the third meal, the woman smears the vittles all over her face. Boredom from isolation has led to this orgy of compulsive eating, and the façade of middle class respectability is crumbling. This simple narrative arc is interspersed with quotes from Jean Baudrillard, whose texts are also posted on the wall behind the woman. Such quoted profundity does not add depth to the simple 1-2-3 action, but the question is about the future is left up in the air. (Fortunately, the Jeffrey Lewis and Deposit Returners song on which the title is based did not serve as the soundtrack, which uses sync sound…)

Lamia Joerige’s “Nights and Days in times of pandemic (a video diary on time and creativity)” is the third of the videos, and although it maintains the format of a personal response, it is the most directly political of the works. It begins with a short recording of the October, 2019 protests. Joreige’s voice-over in French comments that the virus may constitute the final blow to Lebanon, and wonders what will happen now to the protesters’ peaceful uprising. She later adds that she believes there is no place for art during the current crisis, and that she stopped making art on October 17 to concentrate on the protests. The decision is startling, because art provides solace and emotional support in a time of crisis, but one of Lebanon’s most prominent artistic voices has elected to silence herself for over six months.

Breaking her silence in this video, she ruminates on the extraordinary situation of lockdown, while alternating day-time shots of adjoining apartment complexes from her window with panning shots of the city at night, often again from her window. As she places a small green shrub in a planter, she argues that “creating a work testifying to this political moment would be pointless,” as there is room only for anger, not art. Nonetheless, this work provides the very testimony she claims is impossible. Whether grilling eggplant or looking at the rain out her window, she observes that although everything should be the same, it is different: her inner emotional space has changed.

The scene shifts outdoors to a hill covered with dead, cut brush which provides a visualization of her body that she asserts is itching badly, either because of an undiagnosed symptom of coronavirus or of the need for human contact. Returning to the still daytime window shot and the panning nighttime shot---her world during confinement—she thinks back to 2006, when Israel bombed Lebanon for over a month, another exceptional time. The final panning shots of the blue sky would normally convey a sense of peace, but instead remind her of the drones that brought the bombs, which were heard but not seen. The clear blue sky is threatening in its illusory emptiness, but in 2006 she recorded the humming of the drones, and thus was a witness to history.

“Nights and Days in times of pandemic” is a sequel or bookend to her similarly-titled video, “Nights and Days” (2007), her documentation of the period of Israel’s relentless drone attacks. It begins with a view from her window and her recording of the sound of the drones, and later the sounds of the bombs. She continues with traveling shots along Beirut’s shore, where slowly the landscape turns from the paved highway bridge to ruin after bombed-out ruin. Those final shots require no voice-over commentary. Certain images can be sufficiently powerful that no voice-over is necessary, but during the devasting economic, political and medical crisis in Lebanon, we can be grateful that Lamia Joreige has broken her silence.

Mark Auslander: "I'm sitting at home and I still haven't forgotten." So begins Zeina Sfeir's  Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In each of these five short videos, the dwelling place in which each filmmaker is confined for the duration of Lockdown becomes a kind of memory palace or model of the psyche, in which the artist is increasingly drawn into the maze of her or his own mind, encountering presences of the past and pondering unrealized pathways and aspirations.   In the Sfeir film,  early on we see empty twin beds,  evocative of the two absent presences that dominate the film, her late mother and father, who grew ill in the very house where the artist is now confined--and also signaling the artist's own childhood, we sense, within the house. 

Within this house she replays video footage of her lost parents, and engages in a kind of continuing conversation with them, punctuated with present day comments from a supportive male voice, perhaps her husband or brother.   People-less shots throughout the house are accompanied by the voices of her late parents, the hum of daily conversation from which she is now exiled.

This is, I suspect, a familiar scenario for many thousands of people around the world during these strange months, even those who are not filmmakers and who do not have access  to a great archives of family videos.  Locked into domestic spaces for such prolonged periods, we find ourselves revisiting the domestic terrain, including the presence of lost loved ones with whom each item of furniture and object seems to be deeply imbued. 

Thus, for Sfeir, the sight of the medicine pill dispenser, marked with each day of the week, triggers memories of her mother's cancer and the narrator's failed effort to secure her better treatment  This memory journey is intensified by a present day news report that under the current crisis, cancer patients and others with serious illness are being rationed care. Past and present, the personal and the political, thus converge in a deeply poignant fashion.

This integration, or sublimation, seems key to the final miracle chronicled in the film, that this home, which had been the scene of so much tragedy, now becomes a place of peace: I am falling in love with it again, she notes. In the terms of Freud and Melanie Klein, she is moving slowly from the initial rupture of painful loss, from melancholia, towards mourning and beyond, so that she is not, in the house, only obsessively replaying the agonizing endgame of her parents' final illnesses, but instead is allowing the spaces to be filled again with their quotidian presences, even allowing the sanctuary of her childhood to re-emerge once more.

A different kind of memory palace is constructed in Lamia Joriege "Nights and Days in Pandemic Times,”

in which she revisits not the loss of loved ones per se, but the loss of the promise of revolutionary action, all of which now seems stymied by the current crisis.

I find the most intriguing visual note in the film to be the brief sequence that starts around 1:55, as a hand (presumably the artist's) stirs earth in a flower pot and plants a seedling, perhaps a bean sprout, as the narrator reflects on the seeming futility of art at such a moment, when the necessity of the uprising is so pressing, even though so much seems on hold for now. I am guessing there is an implicit  reference to the conclusion of Voltaire’s Candide, "il faut cultiver notre jardin”   The phrase is sometimes misread as calling for a withdrawal from the world, but many scholars have convincingly argued that it sums up the book’s assault on abstract academic philosophy, and calls for a highly engaged, practically focused philosophy of practice, that will actively transform the world. In this sense  Voltaire's conclusion anticipates Marx’s famous dictate in his Theses on Feuerbach, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”

The closing image of the blue sky, occupied by the invisible drone, linked to the memory of the Israeli drone and bombardment of Summer 2006,  seems important: there is clearly an implied analogy to the invisible enemy of the coronavirus itself, that imposes this strange, endless state of siege, this claustrophobic confinement. Looking beyond the immediate constraints of one's dwelling place does not, in the current moment, itself offer a sense of relief and infinite expansiveness. For that ultimate sense of liberation, we are called to the difficult work of social transformation, cultivating our garden, which is the entire world itself, with conviction and integrity.

Susan Platt

These films give us intense glimpses into lives in quarantine in Beirut through the psyches of artists who each pursues a different aspect of our current condition, conditions that we share all over the world, although with distinct variations.  I will discuss three of them as Pam and Mark have said a lot already.

In the first, Zeina Sfeir Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea we have the connection of health care and its failures. One of the most significant and little covered issue of the current pandemic is the failure to give treatment to those with other conditions. The artist includes a broadcast on denial of treatment in Beirut, reminding of the fact that her own mother was denied treatment for cancer, before this pandemic, because she was on social security.

This Lebanese newscast (unlike anything we have seen here in the US!) was the trigger for her recollections of her own parents deaths in illness. Often we see her videos as we see the artist watching them in a darkened room to the right. We feel the layering of those experiences for her and for us, her present confinement, our confinement, the pain of death, the fear of infection, the difficulties of isolation, all of these come across.

In the second, Carole Mansour A COVID-eo Diary we have the counterpoint of a game of charades outside in an indeterminate space ( parking lot?) with four six foot spaced people guessing a word about “dreams not fulfilled” because of the virus. Looking closely, it is evident the group has shared tea and refreshments first: social conventions are still being observed. This game alternates with the filmmaker in a car, at first in pouring rain, around Beirut. 

Her internal dialogue is exactly how I feel:
“Every day is different. One day I’m happy, One day I’m sad, One Day I’m anxious, the next I’m OK, The next I’m hysterical. The next I’m scared. But what comforts me is knowing that I and everyone else on the planet are going through the same thing.”   

As she arrives at her coffee bean store ( note not take out coffee) she says, as I do everyday about my corner café “Thank god Sam and Younnis are allowed to stay open so I can get my basic needs met for survival”
Her second basic need is a bottle of white wine.

As she continues to drive, “My greatest fear is that everything will go back to the way it was before corona. And we have not learned anything.”
The film continues with the voices of other speakers answering the question “What scares me after Corona?” as she rides in the narrow urban streets now without traffic.  

“I’m terrified of the economic crises in Lebanon to be honest. I’m terrified of the hunger and impoverishment, of the solutions they put in place, at how we’re going to pay the prices of the losses of the injustices that we’ll be witnessing.”
A male voice “ What is most scary after this nightmare is over? My worry is not that we return to how we were, but become more fucked up.”

Another voice” That we awaken to find the regime has a stranglehold on everything – and has done what they been trying to do for ages; which is to suppress freedom and oppress people and free opinion.” ( image)

When the artist’s own voice comes on at the end with her feelings on being alone, “it’s as if we pressed the pause button, so far I am enjoying the pause, but I am terrified of what is to come”  at which point she arrives at Martyr’s Square the crucial site of the demonstrations in October 2019 protesting the government corruption, economic situation and more, as Pam outlined above. The empty Martyr’s Square with its monument to the ousting of the Ottomans in 1917 ( made in 1960), and its “poor people’s Christmas tree” to replace the tree of the rich ( top image)   We then see clenched fist of the revolution, and 

finally billboard with the first martyr of the revolution ( Thank you to Rabih Mroué for this information).
This crucial space in Beirut is empty. That is why the artist is “terrified of what is to come.” And why in the end she offers us a toast of her wine in a gesture of here we are in this moment.

Lamia Joreige Nights and Days in times of pandemic video begins with that same square filled with protestors in the fall and the empty street leading to it now as she says “Today as the Coronavirus spreads, the country is broke and the people -robbed and ruined-are breathless in a state of exhaustion. The virus has delivered the final flow to the country which was already down, and a violent blow to our uprising, a blow which is beyond us, and against which we are helpless.”

The dramatic contrast of the emotion-filed chanting of the protestors and the lonely voice of despair gives us the abrupt immediacy of the truncating of an intense political protest.

In the US , protest against the government has not yet materialized in this way, we are not storming the center of government and demanding change immediately. The government here is throwing out all the rules on immigration, the environment, indigenous land rights, even the constitutional powers of Congress, using the virus as an excuse. But we too are prevented from thunderous gathering and protesting.

1 comment:

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