And suddenly, everything is silent

BEIRUT / Four progressive women document the 2019 Beirut uprisings, until Covid-19 hits.
Director: Mai Masri
Producer: Mai Masri
Country: Lebanon, France

October 2019 marked another turning point for Lebanon’s decades-old tragedy. Beirut and other major cities witnessed widespread protests against the government, mismanagement, and deep corruption. Today a new government is in power, but the crisis is still there. The economy is on the brink of total collapse, and there are no signs that the present government has the ability or the will to change things.

In that context, the latest documentary by veteran Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri stands out as a relevant comment to the unfolding Lebanese drama, and – as is her trademark – she has chosen to do it by focusing on the real-life struggles of women.

Beirut: Eye of the Storm, a film by Mai Masri
Beirut: Eye of the Storm, a film by Mai Masri

Film about longing

Beirut Eye of the Storm is documentation for progressive women who, themselves, were documenting the October 2019 protests, and we get to see how a prevailing mood of hope and change evaporates when the Covid-19 lockdowns a few months later hit the Lebanese capital. We meet journalist Hanine, Iraqi camerawoman Lujain, and Noel and Michelle, two artist sisters whose often-ironic songs have made them a voice for their generation.

It is a film about longing, a wish for something better in a turbulent situation. The non-chronological story switches back and forth between hope and uprising and lockdown. You feel the contrast between Beirut’s chaotic and noisy streets during the uprising and the deserted squares of a city gone into hiding from the soaring pandemic. Everything gets a symbolic presence.

«You have a feeling that the country has become unbearable. You feel humiliated from the time you wake up till you sleep,» says Noel while watching the scenery.

It is a film about longing, a wish for something better in a turbulent situation.

The four of them participated in the uprising. Both as active demonstrators, banging pot and pans to vent their anger, and as chroniclers, filming the evolving protests. Their enthusiasm is real and tangible, as the events seem very real. You can feel the earthmoving – and suddenly … silence. The contrasts between the noise and the silence, between the action and the inaction bordering apathy, are highly symbolic and very effective when the film keeps going back and forth in time. The two events are four months apart, and it seems like two different worlds.

Noel, who is the most opinionated of them, continues: «I was afraid of stagnation, that the revolution would never happen. That’s the ugly thing you see after the generation that lived through the war. We accepted too little. Our parents thought we should sacrifice to have a better life. Should we live quietly, fearing another war?»

That is the whole dilemma of Lebanon, put in a couple of short sentences. The four young women are part of a young generation that never experienced the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1989. Their parents have lived in constant anxiety since then, just wishing that a similar tragedy would never befall them again. They have chosen to live in silence, not daring to rock the feeble balance of political power by questioning the wisdom of their own corrupt leaders.

Their daughters do not subscribe to that kind of apathy. They are part of the globalized world and long for a better life with more opportunities, so they are ready to challenge their political leadership and risk everything. And at the very moment when victory seems to be within reach, they are overcome by another enemy, just as remote and vague as the politicians at parliament. Covid-19 becomes another challenge to their dream of a new Lebanon.

Beirut: Eye of the Storm, a film by Mai Masri
Beirut: Eye of the Storm, a film by Mai Masri

Another enemy

It is not normal. From one day to the other you see Beirut on fire. And suddenly, everything is silent. One woman takes a break from lockdown by accepting a project in Doha, Qatar, while Hanine escapes to her parents in the Bekaa Valley. Her parents are elderly, and we do not know the effects of Covid-19.

Noel’s father always told her never to play the victim. She should always be ready to do something! That made her act in October 2019, the rebellion against the thieves, as she calls it. Covid-19 in a devastated country is a frightening enemy, but in a highly symbolic way, there are sinister similarities between the two enemies the four young women are up against.

Covid-19 in a devastated country is a frightening enemy…

Covid-19 makes them realize. They almost get nostalgic when thinking back to the beginning of the uprising. There were much more women than men protesting. They wanted to get rid of the garbage with their children, grandchildren, and relatives. Revolution is not only in one country. It’s worldwide. People can’t take it anymore—the same speeches in the Arab world. The same pandemic is everywhere.

They survive by making music and filming things, documenting. Mai Masry has documented a collapsing society, but at the same time, she puts a visual side to the glimmers of hope amid a seemingly hopeless situation. It is about four brave young women creating art and thoughtful images under challenging conditions. By doing this Mai Masry has created a highly recommendable and beautiful piece of art.

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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