Beirut, which exists only in dreams

BEIRUT / Short doc crafts a visceral portrait of post-war Beirut.

«Beirut is deserted. I’m running between people barefoot. I didn’t have time to put my shoes on. Suddenly, I’m on the corniche with the others. There is only silence and the sound of the sea. We hug each other, and we cry. There’s a burning smell behind us. We survived the massacre», a woman quietly narrates in a voice-over as her recollections arise from the depths of the shared past.

Maya Abdul-Malak’s poetic short documentary, A Lost Heart and Other Dreams of Beirut (‘Un coeur perdu et autres rêves de Beyrouth’), crafts a visceral portrait of post-war Beirut that is still in agony. This is the third film by Abdul-Malak, a Beirut-born director and screenwriter based in France, following In the Land That Is Like You (‘Au pays qui te ressemble’) and Standing Men (‘Des hommes debout’).

A Lost Heart and Other Dreams of Beirut Maya Abdul-Malak
A Lost Heart and Other Dreams of Beirut, a film by Maya Abdul-Malak

Crumbling soundlessly

Images of today’s streets of Beirut and observation sequences of the city’s daily life are juxtaposed with permeating voices of its residents as they divulge their experiences and dreams, coalescing into one. A cluttered alleyway, Palestinian flags are strung overhead, cats are wailing tirelessly. The woman recalls (a dream of) the walls of a Palestinian camp closing in on her as she was trying to climb out but was slipping and falling to the ground. In a terrifying recollection, another woman remembers running out of a building as heavy smoke began billowing and the walls crumbling soundlessly. Fearing that the ceiling would collapse on her, she found herself in Hamra Street: «Like me, many people are running over there. I wonder if they’re running away from something or if they’re jogging.»

The film features no archival material or onscreen interviews, leaving out any particulars that would attest to the verity of the tragic events. But in the absence of certitudes, do civilians’ treacherous memories make the ravages of war less true or valid? Once the dust settles, the rubble is cleared, and stains of blood are washed away, what are we left with but our memories and dreams, or rather our nightmares?

Once the dust settles, the rubble is cleared, and stains of blood are washed away, what are we left with but our memories and dreams, or rather our nightmares?

Cascading violence

The 2006 Lebanon War between the Israeli and Hezbollah forces broke out in the month of July, lasting for some 34 days until August 14. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, more than 1,100 Lebanese people, the majority of whom were civilians, were killed, and at least 43 Israeli civilians lost their lives in the conflict. Among the victims who perished in the 2006 war was one of the resident’s grandmother, whose body was found under the rubble on July 17. In the woman’s dream, her grandmother is sitting in her beloved floral armchair, her flat looking exactly the same as it had before the bombing. Yet it would be the last time they would see each other.

For years, Lebanon has been reeling from cascading violence, political and economic turmoil, as well as corruption and mismanagement. Yet, on the face of it, Beirut’s cityscape today appears rather unscathed; the film does not mention the October 2019 protests or massive port explosions that rattled the capital in August 2020. Life goes on, as they say, with boys basking in the sea, radio music blasting in a minibus amid bustling traffic and cheerful honking, and a throng of youths energetically moving their bodies and hands to popular Arabic hits. But as the city falls silent and the sun dips behind Beirut’s hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean, the air feels restless and almost defeated. We are reminded of the film’s earlier scene, of a man grieving the loss of his 14-year-old son Omar, longing to speak with him just one last time, peel an orange for him and scold him for smoking a cigarette at such a tender age.

«They are the people of a ghost town: Beirut, which exists only in dreams.»

A Lost Heart and Other Dreams of Beirut is a 2023 Cinéma du réel World Premiere.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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