In Beirut, one man creates a puzzle of the city’s past in order to tell some painful stories left untold but not forgotten.
(Tirss, Rihlat Alsoo'oud ila Almar'i)
In 1983, during the Lebanese civil war, artist, animator and now first time film director Ghassan Halwani witnessed the kidnapping of a man he knew. Many years later, Halwani thought he saw that man in a crowd. It was only for a moment but enough to stir the memory of a period that left thousands of unanswered questions.
Taken but not forgotten
The disappearance he witnessed was one of the many thousands of disappearances during a civil war that lasted for a decade and a half. An overwhelming amount of these cases remain unsolved to this day. Combining visual tools – from photos and drawings to maps, text and his own animations – Halwani’s debut film is an emotionally powerful experimental essay. Through his efforts to not let the disappeared be forever forgotten, the film explores what remains of a collective drama when authorities, time and the flux of life come together to erase from memory not only what happened but the very identities of those people who lived and are no more.
Halwani was not alone in witnessing that man being taken away. Someone else took a photo, and that photo appears at the beginning of the film. It’s not the original version. Halwani modified it to erase both the kidnappers and the victim. Only a shoe and a hat are still visible, and he placed the text from the t-shirt the kidnapped man was wearing on a wall in the background. «I gave it my best shots» the text reads.
In the place of the people in the photo is now what looks like a cloud, a ghostly shape, a clue that something critical is happening. The image has magnetism and not seeing the people in it does not take away from its power. If anything, it strengthens its impact on the viewer. A kidnapping is taking place – we are told – and we are now witnesses, our eyes scanning the photo for clues and trying to penetrate that blurred cloud where the people used to be.
«The viewer is absorbed in a narrative of mysteries and injustice in which its characters are present without being there at all.»
Seeing this kidnapping scene brings an incredible urgency to understanding what has happened, and this tension sets the premise for the rest of the film. The viewer is absorbed in a narrative of mysteries and injustice in which its characters are present without being there at all. The only human faces that appear are those of the disappeared, and this lets their presence be felt in their absence.
Traces of the past
The film is a reflection on the nature of collective memory, and on what’s left when the public agenda moves on and time creates enough distance to silence all echoes of the harm that was done. The traces of the past are found in details and in the eyes of the ones who remember. The director brings light to memory – doing research, uncovering traces and bringing back memories – all this while uncovering the mechanisms of how things disappear.
The truth about that past never saw the light because the Lebanese officials had no interest in revealing it and in finding the bodies of the disappeared. Time was on their side. And just like in the case of other historical traumas, with time each individual that disappeared lost their individuality in the collective mind to become a faceless victim of those historical circumstances. Yet their records in the public registers remain open, and so they live on symbolically, the lost citizens that will never be marked as gone.
From beginning to end the film invites an incredible wave of compassion and empathy. Halwani’s efforts to reveal the traces of the past hidden in the city’s present point to how we are all actually living among ghosts. The sites of our present life, the landscapes of our daily routines, they all hide old stages of collective traumas caused by the conflicts that took place in the past.
Experimental in nature, and in the absence of real characters, Halwani combines in his work various media such as drawings and animation, voiceovers and top down shots of papers and documents. The story they weave and the preciseness of their order are not to be underestimated. They result in a powerful and emotional narrative.
One recurring scene stays with the viewer long after watching the film. On a street in Beirut a wall is covered in layers of posters, the sum of them a portrait of the city told in the events that were announced on that wall. Two hands start peeling down this surface, each poster a layer of time. They peel and peel, and somewhere deep the hands excavate a mosaic of small faded photos, part of the poster of the missing men. In black pen the hands add a name to each one of them, a symbolic gesture of giving them back their individuality in the public eye. Despite the fact that time went on and life went on, the city changed but did not forget. Their memory is still there behind the layers of time, their faces and names on the wall waiting for justice.