Eric Motjer’s new feature film portraits four of the most prominent members of the Lebanese Christian elite, and is a fascinating look into a lifestyle most people never see, or perhaps never knew existed.
A degree of seclusion
About 40 per cent of Lebanon’s population is Christian. Seemingly numerous, this number is shrinking and so is its privileged community of wealthy people. They pass their wealth from one generation to the next, navigating the region’s instabilities by partying and looking for economic opportunities in its changing state of affairs. In their world, there is money to be made when disaster strikes and parties to keep spirits high. It is an approach that seems eccentric – if not outrageous – and is reserved for the few who can afford to stay safe, both from harm and from the need to secure daily necessities. Yet the benefits of their situation come with a degree of seclusion. Wrapped in beautiful clothes and inhabiting beautiful houses, they pass through common life realities only in transit, safe in their expensive bulletproof cars. They connect with each other and their common past, but seen in perspective, their existence is bittersweet, as their golden age has passed and is not coming back.
The opening scene sees the camera approaching from over the sea, reaching Beirut’s shore at sunset, while a man and a woman recall a story in voiceover. Soon we get to see them, a middle-aged couple looking well and tanned. They recall how when the war with Israel ended in 1982 – together with their friends – they made t-shirts with their names on the back, the front saying «Alive and tanned, Summer ‘82’», the text placed around an Israeli boat and a sunset. «War or no war, life goes on. Good life goes on, I’m sure», says the man. «Stay with us for a week and you will see how we live, just enjoying life. You won’t believe this is Beirut», he adds.
Except for the women’s Botox excesses, everything about them is good taste.
Indeed, for over an hour, their unbelievable life unfolds on the screen, aristocratic with Middle Eastern flavor. Their world is nothing like the Middle East usually seen in the media. Polyglots, elegant and preoccupied with all sorts of aristocratic pursuits, these people find it natural to reflect on things such as the importance of having a beautiful garden, with peacocks and gardeners to tend to it. Their pretentiousness and priorities are not even ostentatious, but rather fascinating. It feels incredible to see, for example, a lady recalling the time she was kidnapped. Of all things possible, she tried to convince her kidnappers to play music for her. It all feels like if the world came to an end tomorrow, the first thing these people would do is take out the silver cutlery and ask it be polished, just in case.
The film features members of the Edde family and Sheik Maurice Torbay, amongst others. Born and raised this way, they are all well educated and classy, and don’t have the need to show off what the newly rich have. Except for the women’s Botox excesses, everything about them is good taste. Their world is draped in an aesthetic of its own, one that Motjer captures in beautiful cinematic shots. One might be outraged by all this luxury and decadent freedom, but at the same time one cannot stop wondering what it must be like to live life this way.
An alien species
This need to grasp their reality, combined with their stories and luxury – and with Motjer’s cinematic shots – all feed a certain voyeuristic urge to keep looking. The camera enters their luxury parties, floating around in slow motion, looking through the layer that separates them from life outside. The images of women dancing and socializing in perfect attire and men smoking cigars feel surreal at times. It is this sense of floating in an exclusive world that creates a layering effect, an invisible coat separating this circle from the waiters and staff catering to their needs, looking at them from the side, just like the viewer. In a way, seeing them feels like looking at an alien species, a disappearing one, living a life that seems both desirable and odd.
Seeing them feels like looking at an alien species, a disappearing one, living a life that seems both desirable and odd.
Yet their existence is not all happiness. Belonging to a small circle and – most of all – to a world now only living in photo albums, gives them an air of solitude. From their privileged bubble they keep the spirit of the past alive and put their efforts into preserving and restoring the heritage of those days. Yet preserving and restoring will not bring that world back, but only keep alive the shadow of nostalgia. The world has already moved on and nothing can bring back the glory of those past days.