Netflix is a cinematic rummage sale: some authentic treasures gleam enticingly atop a pile of junk, within which even rarer gems lurk—but it requires some digging. Reader, I dug—and found that Netflix is offering a batch of several dozen Lebanese films from the past fifty years, at least two of which are extraordinary fusions of imagination and observation. Both of those films, “Whispers,” from 1980, and “The Little Wars,” from 1982, are by the same director, Maroun Bagdadi; the first is a documentary and the other is a work of fiction, but both, remarkably, prominently feature the same person—the photojournalist Nabil Ismaïl, who is a subject in “Whispers” and an actor in “The Little Wars”—in an overlap that exemplifies Bagdadi’s original approach to both forms.
The documentary follows the poet Nadia Tueni as she travels through Lebanon, which at the time was physically and emotionally devastated after five years of civil war. The format is something like a virtual, fictional road movie, albeit one in which the drama lies not in a specific narrative but in the question of Lebanon’s immediate future. From the start, there’s death in the air—at a gathering of young people, a man sings a melancholy ballad of a mother’s grief for a son killed in war, and the song continues on the soundtrack as Bagdadi shows images of a city’s bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets. Tueni and Ismaïl wander through the desolate cityscape, the labyrinth of Beirut’s ruins, as Ismaïl takes photographs. Then, on his own, Ismaïl plunges into the busy heart of a market street, in an extended and exciting handheld shot that’s accompanied by his voice-over, which—like the voice-overs in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”—creates a virtual image of the past, which, fused with present-tense observations, renders the past seemingly more present than what’s seen on the screen.
In her own voice-overs, with her pained and incisive reflections on civil war and civic life, Tueni expresses her prime idea—that “a country, a nation is ending.” For the rest of the film, she does her best, devotedly and hopefully, to refute her own grim reflection. In her travels, she interviews people from various backgrounds about the country’s fortunes and their own prospects. With a sense of cinematic composition as keen as his investigative ardor and emotional sensibility, Bagdadi often films the interview subjects from behind or in motion, emphasizing their connectedness to their surroundings; at other times, he roots their ideas in a sense of place by turning their talk into voice-overs for fervently, ruefully observed images of the wounded country.
In the Bekaa Valley, Tueni speaks with farmers, and visits a school where young children are being indoctrinated in national unity. In Baalbek, she visits a hotelier who keeps the business open despite the absence of tourists, an artist and his young niece who wants to become a doctor, the administrator of a port, a street-side newspaper vendor, entrepreneurs, a movie-theatre manager, the members of a dance troupe, and even sportsmen who’ve brought horse racing back—gathering their thoughts on surviving the war and rebuilding the country, hearing their expressions of patriotic unity. Visiting a night club in the capital, Tueni observes that the revellers “are actors who want to forget” and that “the Saturday-night fever that exists in the world exists in Beirut every night.” She describes the fear that she sees in their festivity, the despair in their longing.
The hopefulness that some express is refuted by a musician named Ziad, who explains that, even at a time of relative peace, the causes and the specifics of the civil war can’t be discussed publicly or confronted frankly for fear of sparking new violence—and that this inability to face the underlying issues is itself a likely source of new fighting. The expansive mood that Bagdadi finds in Beirut’s young people seems to belie such pessimism. The movie later returns to the gathering of young people with which it began—and, now, the group is festive and effervescent, the musician playing a jaunty tune and a young woman dancing exuberantly. Bagdadi follows Tueni to a school auditorium where a pop-rock band is rehearsing, and to an outdoor festival where the group is playing for an enthusiastic young audience. Yet, just before the end credits, Bagdadi offers a coup de cinema that editorializes with a harrowing assertiveness: freeze-frames of closeups of the young festivalgoers, intercut with images of the bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets. This terrifying and devastating ending, a montage of foreboding, hit me like the apocalyptic freeze-frames at the end of “Fail Safe”—it casts a retrospective pall on the film’s entire proceedings. Far from being hopeful, “Whispers” is a self-questioning poetic meditation on the lack of hope—it’s a work of hoping for the very possibility of hope, and it achieves its many layers of introspective reflection and wide-ranging observation with a sophisticated and intricate sense of cinematic composition.
“The Little Wars”
In this dramatic feature, Bagdadi depicts the daily, deadly details of the civil war that no participant in the documentary dares to specify. He doesn’t do so ideologically or historically, and he doesn’t trace the politics of the conflict; rather, he looks closely at anarchy and violence, at the moral and immoral decisions, the dirty secrets and intimate betrayals on which each killing, each kidnapping, each plot of revenge depends—and the aimless, fruitless absurdity of life and death in the face of such chaos. The film is set in Beirut (a title card at the start specifies that it’s set in 1975, at the start of the fighting), and it’s centered on a loose triangle of young people: a woman called Thurayya (played by Soraya Khoury, the director’s wife; IMDb calls the character Soraya, too), who seeks merely to avoid the conflict, is in love with Talal (Roger Hawa), who has distanced himself from her by getting involved with one faction’s fighting. Meanwhile, Nabil (Nabil Ismaïl), a photojournalist, is in love with her and, during her estrangement from Talal, tries to attract her interest.
From the start, the characters’ daily lives are plunged into mourning—they are grieving for a friend who joined the fighting (abandoning his lover to do so) and was soon killed. The streets are dense with roadblocks formed by armed men; a taxi driver apostrophizes about kidnappings and reprisals in the name of saving face. Talal comes from a prosperous family; his father, a Beirut notable, has been kidnapped, and Talal’s mother (Reda Khoury) summons him to the family home in Bekaa Valley. Yet Nabil’s war is something else: he’s a small-time drug dealer who owes his supplier money and has a little more than a week to pay up. With no other prospect, he joins in with Talal to kidnap a rich man from an opposing faction in order to exchange him for Talal’s father—but, instead, plans to demand ransom with which he’ll pay the drug lord off.
The sound of gunfire is the ambient soundtrack to city life. Fighters casually carry machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades through the streets; the rooftops are infested with snipers. A hospital lobby becomes an emergency room when a shooting victim’s friends hold nurses at gunpoint. An evening’s entertainment involves shooting out the letters on the roof of an office building. A bar fight escalates into an act of war—and Nabil tragicomically inflates his private danger into political heroism, even as he pursues, with frivolous vanity, his journalistic career.
Bagdadi’s cinematic imagination here is apparent less in his style than in his fine, fragile control of tone and sense of telling, troubling detail. He films the action with a furious and fragile blend of intense sympathy and rueful contempt; his eye and ear for the shrieking anguish behind quiet conversations is matched by his fury at the cavalier cruelty and reckless violence of ideologues and profiteers alike. (The agile, sharp-eyed camerawork is by Heinz Hölscher and the American cinematographer Edward Lachman.) The war comes off as the devastating result of men who play at war; the ruin of the country is as heartbreaking as it is ridiculous. Accordingly, the film includes one of the most ludicrously heartless murders in all of cinema, and a chase scene that fuses sincere passion and deadly menace with the clumsiness of the Keystone Cops. “The Little Wars” is a film of no future, produced in the abyss between living and surviving. Its only element of hope is in the title card at the beginning—the claim, and the wish, that it’s a film not of the present but of the past.
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