The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 3

While the war didn't bring filmmaking in Lebanon to an end, but the political climate in the Arab world would try to handicap the efforts by the new wave of Arab filmmakers, writes in his third installment of 'Cinema & I' critic and film historian Mohammed Rouda.
The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 3

The war didn't bring filmmaking in Lebanon to an end, but the political climate in the Arab world would soon be handicapping every effort to form the new trend Arabic cinema needed, or to continue what was already built up in the late sixties. Meanwhile, Lebanese cinema had the war and its severe results to show.

In 1973, Maroun Baghdadi, then a new Lebanese filmmaker, shot his first film, Beirut Ya Beirut. Many considered this to be a prediction of the coming war. But one should be vigilant when it comes to this term and not use it freely, as was done recently when some arguments were raised about specific films that ‘predicted’ the Egyptian revolution in early 2011. This is also applicable when it comes to The Sparrow -- by Youssef Chahine -- whose last sequence of scenes is said to have been a prediction of the 1973 war in which Egypt regained its pride after its defeat in 1967. However, if we want to do this idea justice, we must say that what is known as predictions is usually divided into three categories: wishes, consequences or, at its best, expectations that follow the pace of the events and its causes.  

Maroun Baghdadi’s film was a social reading of a lived reality among a specific economic and religious class. It centers around a wealthy Christian family which refuses to open the door of the ghetto it lives in, in order to explore the other, like what Baghdadi himself did. This was his first film but also the last one where he dealt with characters who imprison themselves inside the walls of traditions.      

Little Wars (1981) was Baghdadi’s second film. Here he opened up to the war based on a viewpoint that cannot at all be associated with isolationism. His three main characters are a photographer, Nabil (played by Nabil Ismail), a woman, Soraya (played by Soraya Khoury) and Talal (played by Roger Hawa), the man Soraya loves. Nabil seems to be looking for reality while Soraya is the bourgeois Christian who aims at melting into the new experience to deny the past and welcome a new reality. Undoubtedly, she represents the stage in life which the filmmaker himself was experiencing. Little Wars, essentially, was the real development showcase of Bagdadi's technical knowledge. It also showed what he gained during the years between his two narrative films in social knowledge.

In the film, Soraya discovers another personality in Talal, the man she loves. A man who is attracted by ideological and political movements that are taking him away from his real self. Talal now focusses on a function that aims at acting, planning and participating in the current war.  Nabil’s character is typical of those who lived the last years’ havoc -- he is full of ambition but cannot achieve what he wants with the chances he has. As he tries to reach his goal, he finds that his way is full of dangers and that the end has drawn its lines from the beginning.

These characters meet amidst the heated nonsense of war (before the Israeli invasion). They try to become a giant, and to find a way at some points. However, it remains marginal. They are all marginal. Their wars are marginal within the bigger war, but these small wars, with their accumulations, form the larger portion of the broader war. Baghdadi meant to show this and succeeded in pointing it out and managed to create his characters and in destroying them too.

The film took from the war its pulse and features. The war is fast, crazy and denies all regulations, concepts and relations, exactly as the film does. Like life in Beirut during the years of fighting, death was crazy on screen. Baghdadi’s best expression comes in a scene during the first fifteen minutes, when Nabil and his group reach the hospital to rescue his friend who has been wounded during a battle and lost his eyesight. He becomes a third of the two blind characters in the film. The other two are Soraya’s uncle who lives in the past, thinking that the French are going to solve the Lebanese dilemma; and the other is an innocent captive who is blind-folded. Blindness is not a tangible condition as much as it is a symbolic state (even though the filmmaker, in a published article, states that he did not mean that).

Part of the content of the film is illogical in order to match the mad conditions of the war. That does not mean that an absence of logic runs without justification. That is apparent, for example, in the scene of Soraya running in “The Valley of Baalbek”. She does that only because Baghdadi liked the shot while he was standing on a cliff focusing the camera on a general scene that was artistically beautiful, but poor when it came to content and logic. For example, in one scene, Nabil’s group stands in a closed place after completing one of their adventures and starts shaking their heads and moving them with a strange euphoria that interrupts the scenes that precede and follow it.

In the scene where Talal is pursuing Nabil in the city’s ruined streets, one immediately remembers the running of Bruno Ganz in war ridden streets of Beirut in Volker Schlöndorff's Die Fälschung ("Circle of Deceit"). Both scenes are associated with the same fears and shot nearly in the same way. The differences are either necessary or imposed by the place, the natural decorations available and the ambiance. However, the desire to end "Little Wars" with an open question imposed an unjustified conclusion on the filmmaker.

Top image from 'Circle of Deceit' by Volker Schlöndorff, used with permission.

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