Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

حقّ الخُبزات Haq Alkhubzat (Bitter Bread, 2019)

Another interesting film I saw at Sheffield Doc/Fest was this new piece by Abbas Fahdel (director of Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, which I’ve yet to catch up with), dealing with refugees displaced by war in Syria into camps scattered throughout the Beqaa Valley, a fertile region of Lebanon.


I visited Lebanon a few years ago; it’s a tiny country, and I vividly remember while driving through the Beqaa Valley seeing all these ad hoc communities of white plastic tents alongside the roads, nestled in amongst the farmers’ fields and vineyards. Looking out across the whole valley, you could see so many of them dotted around and their preponderance is of course because of the now long-running civil war in Syria which has displaced so many millions of people. The majority of them are in Lebanon, with Syrian people now making up something like a quarter of the country’s total population. This documentary gives a little bit of context, via on-screen text that flashes up to explain certain things (like the role of the Lebanese man who oversees some of the camps, or the governmental restrictions on expanding or building new tents), but for the most part this is just a portrait of what one such camp is like, how it feels to live there, the problems they face and the chronic lack of money (which must have become even worse now as the Lebanese economy has fallen off a cliff). The majority of refugees are kids, and we see them helping in the fields, or with domestic chores, playing football in the camps’ open spaces, usually by muddy flowing drains or busy roads (a fence at least exists, albeit because of a recent fatality). They live their lives, trying to remain upbeat, but it’s clear how bad things are and how little help can realistically be provided.

Bitter Bread film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Abbas Fahdel عباس فاضل; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 9 July 2020.

کفرناحوم Kafarnaum (Capernaum, 2018)

I’ve now had a week of Arabic language cinema, with several examples from the small country of Lebanon, where director Nadine Labaki has made a number of films to increasing critical notice starting with the likeable Caramel (2007). Now her latest film Capernaum (referencing ancient Palestine in the Bible, but focusing on Syrian refugees) is apparently the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film ever, so I could hardly omit it this week. I visited the country in 2017 and found it to be both beautiful and also enormously varied, with many different people living in close quarters, not least the huge number of Syrian refugees whom you can’t help but see everywhere (whether the refugee camps dotted across the valleys, or the homeless beggars on the streets of Beirut). When it came out, I remember reading some savagely negative reviews of the film, but equally I’ve seen a lot of praise, so I feel conflicted, and can understand the arguments on both sides.


I don’t exactly know how to feel about this film, though I know exactly how the director wants me to think, because it’s not exactly subtle. That said, perhaps there’s a case that subtlety is beside the point when you’re looking at the state of being a refugee (or the children of one), about being dehumanised by government decrees and forced into ghettoes, separated from parents with no legal recourse, having almost no opportunities and thus a ripe target for exploitation: perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that history has already taught us leads to the greatest horrors, and whatever creative strategy can be deployed should be applauded.

I don’t know this kind of life, of course, but this film seems to delight in presenting the most abject and dehumanising experiences and serving it up for our entertainment. I hope it changes minds and policies, because it must have been difficult to repeatedly force children to act through what’s shown here, even if it reflects something of some of their real lives. There are compensations: the central performance of young Zaid (Zaid Al Rafeea) is excellent, not precocious or cute, but just the right level of gritty determination butting up against the reality of what he can possibly hope to achieve as such a young person, not to mention the Ethiopian woman who plays Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also brilliant. But the picaresque narrative as Zaid bounces around various inadequate situations is constantly interrupted by a court case in which the kid is suing his parents for being born, which feels like a very self-consciously filmic framing device rather than something from lived experience, more like a crutch for the plot.

For all this, I admire much of the filmmaking craft, even if I feel conflicted about the way it’s used. Perhaps I’m being unfair: this is undoubtedly an angry film about a topic (children in peril) that inspires righteous fury, as it does in me when I think about it, about the plight of so many young people in such a small and under-equipped country as Lebanon, and about the dangerous futures for them, for their (new) country, for the region. I just didn’t always feel like this film was the best way of presenting it, and I felt somewhat similarly about, for example, Dheepan, but then again I’ve also just had a quick look at other online responses and I see a lot of love (and also a lot of defensive reactions against opinions apparently not a million miles from my own), so I’m willing to concede I’m misjudging it.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nadine Labaki نادين لبكي; Writers Labaki, Jihad Hojaily جهاد حجيلي and Michelle Keserwany ميشيل كيسرواني; Cinematographer Christopher Aoun; Starring Zain Al Rafeea زين الرافعي, Yordanos Shiferaw يوردانوس شيفراو; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 24 February 2019.

Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love

Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love”