ALONE WITH WAR
A film by Danielle Arbid
2000, Icarus Films, 58 minutes
In this film, Danielle Arbid -- a 32-year-old filmmaker living in exile from Lebanon -- returns to her native land to search for the truth of what happened during Lebanon's civil war from 1976-1991. About 150,000 people, both militias and civilians, died in the war, but so far significant public or scholarly analysis has overlooked it. Arbid, like a public prosecutor with moral urgency on her side, is determined to expose the guilty. She accuses those she meets of either guilt or complicity in hiding the brutal reality of the war.
This interrogation mode sets up an uneasy moral dynamic between the filmmaker and her subjects: her questions assume her own innocence and their guilt. This may rub some viewers the wrong way. One of her subjects calls attention to Arbid's moral posturing; in his view she was untested because she lived through the war as a child. Is she innocent because she didn't literally fight in the streets?
This film is a hybrid form, part autobiography, part documentary, focusing on Arbid's personal and very subjective pursuit of facts and causes. In some ways, it reveals more about the filmmaker and the process of her search than about the causes of the war. Arbid's presence is a constant, whether in her voice-over commentary or as the interviewer on- or off-camera. This documentary does not pretend to be objective in its presentation of material, nor does it present any new information. It makes the implicit claim that, as its title indicates, the experience of trying to understand and interpret this war will ultimately be a solitary one.
"Arbid finds in her search through Lebanon that there are no public memorials to the victims, no markers for the terrible graves of massacres. Scars are the only reminders: the bullet-riddled walls everywhere; the ruins of militia cells, where summary executions and torture were performed, unnamed monuments to horror."
The resistance to public discourse on the Lebanese civil war has been the subject of much commentary, some of it on Al Jadid's pages. Arbid finds in her search through Lebanon that there are no public memorials to the victims, no markers for the terrible graves of massacres. Scars are the only reminders: the bullet-riddled walls everywhere; the ruins of militia cells, where summary executions and torture were performed, unnamed monuments to horror.
She talks with a variety of people to record their individual views on the war: men on the street; children playing at the site of the Sabra and Chatilla massacre; a couple of state ministers; mothers, wives, and daughters of men who disappeared in the war; women behind barred windows in their homes. Most of these interviews are superficial, impromptu encounters. More interesting is her civil war "tour guide," and the three longer interviews with former militiamen from the Christian and Muslim communities.
Near the beginning of the film, she meets with guide Abou Lello, who will sell his "tour" to anyone for the right price. "Lines of demarcation and sharpshooter posts, it's $200 per day. For sites of massacres, torture or kidnapping, it will be $400…. Believe me, it's not expensive. I'm not selling you radishes; I'm selling you heritage.… I know both sides. I went in one way and came out the other."
He shows her the ruins of a militia cell, with rooms for judgment, torture, and "liquidation." He prances around, bringing the scenes to life in a one-man show. "How do I know I can believe you?" Arbid asks. He trumpets back his credentials --"Because I was here" -- and angrily defies her disbelief.
Arbid next interviews children playing on the site of the Sabra and Chatilla massacre. The camera surveys the former campsite. There is no sign of any violence or crime in this place; it is merely a playground of garbage, rubble, and dirt. The children tell her that when they dig up holes for garbage, they find skulls.
"We found a dead person's head with no eyes."
"No, it was a doll's head."
"It was plastic but it looked like bone with no eyes."
"Yes, it had eyes. They were blue."
Is this interaction meant to parody Lebanon's discourse -- such as it is -- on the war?
She corners a man on the street and asks if there is a war monument nearby. He urges her to forget the war. "It was a psychological affair . . . not a religious war, not a class war. It was a dirty war, an insignificant war.... The war was imposed on us. We were a weak people, you understand?"
Joseph, a former militiaman on the Christian side, presents another view: "Lebanon was the country of experimentation. All weapons were tested here." He refuses to admit guilt for what he did during the war. He fought because the Muslims wanted to annihilate the Christians; it was a battle for survival. Besides, everyone was granted amnesty. "Do you ever think about the bombs you threw that killed innocent civilians?" she asks. "No," he answers. "If I did, I'd have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life." Evidently, amnesty sanctions amnesia.
The emotional power of the film is in the last two interviews with former militiame, both Muslims. Hassoun spends his life reliving the war, when he was a hero -- even though he was usually drugged while fighting. Rambo is his role model. "I live in a dream. I want [the war] to come back."
"What do you think we need to live in peace?" she asks him.
"We have to guarantee a future for younger generations, who couldn't build anything during the war. Give me work, a good salary, an apartment, and a car, for example.... Then maybe I'd forget the war." He would like the government to say to him, "Give us the war that's deep within you and take this [in return]."
The film comes full circle near the end when we are again given a tour of the ruins of some militia cells -- this time for free. As Mohamed shows Arbid the places where he killed people, saw them die or burned them to prevent a stench, he says, "I'm very happy here. When I come here, I'm at peace." By his delivery, gestures, and affect, Mohammed seems disturbed. He looks around nervously to see if anyone is watching; he speaks very softly, with intensity.
His honesty is chilling. He points to his heart: "Evil comes from here. I'm living a crisis. I live with evil. . . Once there's blood, there's evil."
This film review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 36 (Summer 2001)
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al JadidAir Jordan IX Low