When Lebanese filmmaker Karim Kassem arrived back in Beirut, where he grew up, to work on a new film, his plans were bent out of shape by the massive port explosion of August 2020. He set about documenting its aftermath, in what became Octopus, world premiering at IDFA. There is next to no factual analysis in a film that says much with scarce dialogue, poetically registering the mood of a nation that had already been pushed to the brink of desperation long before the catastrophe by a political climate of entrenched, seemingly bottomless corruption. It is a wise approach from the director, who intimates that there are no sufficient words for the horror.
Just one ledge…
Given space to make my own sense of the images of widespread destruction, a famous speech by former Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel from the 1960s, published in essay form as On Evasive Thinking, came into my mind, in which he discusses the public outrage that erupted when a stone window ledge, insufficiently maintained by a negligent regime in power, fell from a building and killed a woman on the Prague street below. A magazine columnist had written that the public should not scrutinise such specific, local, and petty events. Instead, it should focus on the wider achievements of the state — and Havel offered a blistering rebuke as to why the basic rights of citizens not to be killed while walking around the city is precisely the point of any government and should not be glossed over by pseudo-ideological rhetoric aimed at quashing the ability of citizens to influence their reality. Even one faulty ledge is a safety hazard that can signify how officials view the people they are responsible for. It is sobering and chilling to consider this in relation to the undeniable magnitude of the wreckage before us in Octopus. The slabs falling off damaged buildings into the streets below are just one potentially lethal detail in a busy capital city we see extensively destroyed. Windows are torn off, there is scarcely a pane to be seen that is not smashed, and entire high-rise interiors have been blown out. Great messes of wiring hang from structures. Could anyone dare even try to argue that society is functioning as it should in Beirut in the face of this annihilation? The cognitive dissonance between the lies of the state and the lived reality of the people seems to have reached an inevitable apex here.
Though anti-government protests did erupt across the country, the film mainly shows citizens sitting pensively in silence. As well as shock and the overwhelm of yet another hardship, they appear to be resigned to the futility of panic or debate — for if the state refuses to acknowledge the implications in front of their eyes and take responsibility for the corruption and negligence that caused the disaster, what more is there to explain?
«We all heard it. We thought it was an earthquake. It was very scary,» says one citizen of the explosion. The catastrophe was one of the world’s largest-ever non-nuclear explosions. It had occurred when a large stock of ammonium nitrate detonated that had been in storage for six years, without proper safety measures in place, after it was confiscated from a ship by the authorities. They had known that it was highly dangerous to keep the chemical compound there but were tied up in interminable red tape with the courts over a solution. Lebanon was already on its knees, with an economy in crisis and hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, before the foreseeable disaster that resulted in hundreds of deaths and a wave of homelessness. As a state of emergency was declared, numerous conspiracy theories circulated, and a grave distrust of government over perceived mismanagement and corruption was seemingly confirmed and deepened. The film avoids contextualising the imagery of the cityscape with much of this background, giving the impression that the filmmaker has little desire to create an illusion of making sense of the blatantly senseless. We hear drifting through a battered home, a radio report which conveys an assurance from the president that he understands their demands for his resignation, promising that the investigation into what caused the disaster will be transparent and that he will work to compensate those who have been affected.
The catastrophe was one of the world’s largest-ever non-nuclear explosions.
Few appear to be listening or putting stock in platitudes or promises: what we see instead are moves to rebuild and everyday life going on amid the devastation – a vacuum cleaner whirrs; a head-torch searches for orientation in a room without electricity; church bells sound out from a place of worship, where nuns in face-masks gather, and a Virgin Mary statuette is being taped back together; vegetables and other produce are sold from the back of a truck driving through the streets; repair-work bustles around bed-bound patients in a damaged hospital; fishing and snorkelling resume down at the harbour – a clock ticks; rain falls; «Execution,» reads spray-painted graffiti on a public wall. Disgust and white-hot fury run deep, we sense, but life continues, defying all attacks and indignities against it.