The documentary The Sea Between Us, directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Marlene Edoyan, follows two women as they navigate their lives in Beirut, the city that witnessed the outbreak of civil war in the mid-1970s and its ensuing divisions.
The war tore through the country some three decades ago, yet the sense of separation lingered, even after barricades left the streets. The Sea Between Us is a tale of two women: Wafaa and Hayat – one Christian, the other Muslim, who face a question, «Can we live together?» The film interweaves their stories in a direct cinema style, showcasing episodes from their daily lives, but never quite reaching a culmination. Each episode allows the viewer to learn about the country’s lasting divisions through the women’s perspectives. And, while the viewer is not afforded an opportunity to stay with the women enough to form a deep connection to them, the film does what it, perhaps, set out to do – hear out their stories.
Wafaa, who fought alongside the Christian militia during the civil war, feels a separation between «us and them.» Years after the end of the war, she manifests an unyielding faith to her political views, as she vows to give to her country «through a party.» Wafaa goes so far as to say that she would «die as a Phalange’» in a bid to protect what she sees as a «threatened» existence of the Christians in Lebanon. «We’re still here, our [church] bells will keep ringing,» she notes.
Fearful of not knowing what the future brings, Wafaa trains her son Anthony, who does not seem «enthusiastic about defence», to «fire for real» and «be like your mother.» However, amid all play and games, the youngster, who nonchalantly switches between Arabic and English, poses a sobering question, «Is this all necessary?»
Hayat, a member of a Muslim Shiite family, on the other hand, is a zealous advocate of the possibility of co-existence between different religious and ethnic groups. During a meeting that brings together Lebanese and Syrian women, Hayat admits that, as a Shiite, she cannot live «in a purely Shiite area.» To Hayat, hope lies in a unified Beirut, in a wealth of religions where «Muslims hear church bells alongside the call to prayer.»
The war tore through the country some three decades ago, yet the sense of separation lingered, even after barricades left the streets.
The urgency to Hayat’s cause is palpable through the screen, charging even the seemingly mundane moments, like a visit to a manicurist. As the two engage in a routine cosmetic procedure, their conversation becomes dominated by grave concerns over the future of their homeland. The women wish to see like-minded people enter the political arena and do away with the system where power is «inherited» and «passed to kids and grandkids.»
The film grapples with the difficult question of whether reconciliation is a viable outlook in a country that remains fraught with tension. Wafaa and Hayat, who went through the civil war in their youth, now face the decision on whether they want to pass the war’s legacy onto their children. Fady, who fought with the Lebanese Forces during the war, encourages Wafaa to abandon the fear and «look at tomorrow» because «the dead alone write the endings of wars.»
Despite her convictions, moving away from the divisions of the past deems to be an arduous task for Hayat as she is «stuck buying more black clothes» to mourn the death of her loved ones. During the film, Hayat reveals that the civil war claimed the lives of her two brothers who were forced to fight alongside the Christian militia to protect their family from harassment. The recent death of her nephew Ali, a fallen Hezbollah fighter, stirs up deep-seated emotions of loss, driving the absurdity of war home, «A young university student, studying business management, and now he’s gone. I raised him, he used to call me his second mother. He died. But for what?»
«For what?» is a looming question that is left for our deliberation. As the two women go on about their lives, the question that keeps resurfacing is: Can we make peace and move forward if the divisions persist decades after the war?
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