Curated by Beirut DC | Essay by Filmmaker Bassem Fayad
A year has passed since the Beirut Port explosion. 15 years have elapsed since Israel’s July War on Lebanon. 18 years since the fall of Baghdad at the hands of Americans. Almost 40 years since the Israeli invasion of Beirut. 45 years since what we term the Naksa and 73 years since what we call the Nakba, and so forth back to the fall of Baghdad into the hands of the Mongols 736 years ago. If we take a look at our history, we see a continuous series of catastrophes that barely leave this part of the world room to breathe. It is a history of collapses that has left its mark on our collective memory. It has shaped by virtue of nature, physics, chemistry and biology, our ways of thinking about and our emotional interaction with all the external stimuli that our senses perceive and the internal stimuli that our minds create. Today, whether we like it or not, we are the products of this astonishing accumulation of catastrophes, barely out of one disaster before falling into the next.
For example, if we look at Lebanon’s modern era, we will find a history of internal conflict and foreign wars, one that is full of death and devastation. From the massacres of 1860 to the massive explosion on August 4, 2020, disasters have destroyed large swathes of Beirut and displaced thousands of families; families who have not yet overcome the horrors of the civil war or forgotten those who have disappeared. Lebanon is just another example that applies to most Arab societies, which have suffered from a long series of ongoing catastrophes. Indeed the bloodshed continues in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and others.
Modern scientific studies show that the human brain is constantly changing and evolving: It keeps reproducing, restructuring, and rewiring its neural connections from birth until the moment of death. That means that the brain can reshape an individual’s personality. Provided it is allowed to create new neural connections to replace older ones. New connections are created by new experiences. Old neural connections stop receiving and transmitting electrical charges, and so, they wither and fade away. They are replaced by new ones, which in turn transfer the electrical charges on a new pathway. That is how people can overcome trauma and reshape their lives in a way that allows them to move forward. And that is how learning and development take place. However, this does not always occur, so we find that the opposite is prevalent: a path of regression and collapse on several levels, the most important of which is perhaps the emotional level, connected to others in a solid, organic, and interactive manner. The ability of the human brain to reconfigure itself is a cornerstone of any successful psychotherapy. But how does a person get over the trauma of war, for example, if it is ongoing? How does one come out of an emotional shock if faced daily with all the stimuli that produced it?
On the other hand, every intense emotional experience changes the brain’s DNA. That means that our traumas are trans-generational, carried by DNA from one generation to the next. The horrors of war affect people’s behavior and education but also their biology. That is a terrifying fact. Our children will bear the burden of our wars unless we embark on a path of healing and replace our now familiar neural connections with new ones.
Specific neural structures produced by the immense catastrophes extending far back into our history govern our response to stimuli of daily life. Examining our response to all past disasters on the intellectual, artistic, social, or political level is an enormous task. And it must be addressed by specialized scientific studies at the intersection of several disciplines. But what concerns us here is to build on what was mentioned above as we watch the films of the August programming cycle.
An obvious question arises here: Is the response of filmmakers who tackled the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, for example, separate from their response to all the catastrophes that befell us before that fateful date? Can it be separated from the July war, for example, or the Lebanese Civil War? And is it possible to distinguish the response of filmmakers who tackled the July war from the disaster of the fall of Baghdad years ago, and so on? Any study addressing the content of Arab films that tackle catastrophes could deliver surprising results that may identify significant commonalities between these films and indicate a common language—we say perhaps because such research has not yet been conducted. We must take all of the above into account when watching these films and asking the question that was the launching point of this programming: How do we film the catastrophe?
This programming could offer a starting point for researchers who might one day decide to take the plunge. The explosion of the fourth of August in the port of Beirut explicitly announced the collapse of Lebanon. The Israeli war of July against Lebanon tried to build on the idea of constructive chaos and the resounding fall of Baghdad established that chaos. And, of course, the great catastrophe in Palestine instituted a new and prolonged phase of colonialism. Those are the main titles of the film programming for August. Here is an opportunity to reflect on how Arab creativity dealt with disaster. How do we understand disaster? How do we deal with it? And how do we portray its effects on our souls? It is an opportunity to ask some questions and perhaps search for the hope to heal, unlocking the doors to reflection and construction.
In the film The Beirut Encounter (1981), director Borhane Alaouié tells a story of forbidden love during the Lebanese Civil War. A man sends a recording to his beloved telling her that language has been destroyed and words no longer refer to their original meanings. All words pass through barriers of ruin, rubble, and death, and their meanings change. Amid the catastrophe, language, which is governed by rules that make it intelligible, becomes practically incapable of expression as it attempts to convey reality. The catastrophe creates an area of fragmentation around itself. All that is familiar breaks apart, materially, intellectually and spiritually. Even memory becomes fragmented, and with all this fragmentation, any attempt to formulate a narrative arc is futile. Language here is not only written words and sentences, but also every form of communication and expression, be it words, drawings, sounds, images, or perhaps even silence.
The Beirut Port explosion created a huge radius of material destruction, and it will surprise no one that such an explosion would devastate everything within that radius. Here we are placed in front of the unlimited space made possible by modern means of communication. Coincidence had it—or perhaps the brain behind the explosion in case it was intentional—that a fire and minor deflagrations preceded the main blast. That allowed cameras to document the gigantic explosion and transmit it to millions of Lebanese in a semi-live broadcast. It means that the reach of shock went beyond those within the explosion radius to include all of society. An entire country saw the explosion; then felt its indirect effects in the days, weeks, and months that followed. It was a collective trauma imprinted onto the collective memory. It was a fragmentation wider than the country. Anyone who recalls the explosion conjures a mental picture that resembles Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By this, we mean to say that the non-material damage caused by the explosion is far greater than the area of material destruction. Many of those who did not witness the explosion firsthand are today experiencing major trauma. Amidst this reality, some filmmakers attempt to address the catastrophe, and their films clearly show the fragmentation.
These films do not attempt to adopt any narrative; rather, they evade it completely, to the extent that some films ignore the event itself. It is perhaps an inability to face the catastrophe, or perhaps an attempt to escape into the dark depths of the soul, into silence, into “non-language.” The fragmentation of language and memory makes any film created in the shadow of a catastrophe look exactly like it. Who among us is able to recall images of the catastrophe in an orderly and logical manner? Our memory is scattered: a picture from here and sound from there, beyond any clear timeline. Memory is governed by scattered, chaotic neural connections. This is what turns one wound into many scattered wounds, and into chaotic emotions that can erupt at any moment. We are doomed to fragmentation, and the language of these films is fragmented, reproducing our fragmentation as a community in astonishing ways.
The enormous energy of the explosion spread out and found its way into hearts. There, it waited for the moment to express its existence, with anger, with hope, with violence, with death perhaps, with a new transformation—because everything transforms and nothing disappears. Beyond obvious questions raised by the films, such as dialectics of survival, departure, life/death, past/future, a strident fundamental question emerges: How and where will this energy reappear? Will it take on the shape of new violence or new death? Or will it transform into something that may be used to build a future, no matter how unclear? Will this unbearable emptiness and heavy silence, this attempt at expression, result in the production of a new language? Is this possible, before the production of new neural connections, before leaving the void and the silence? Are we in the process of creating a new (film) language? The only constant now is that the expression of the catastrophe resembles the catastrophe itself. All of these films bear witness to the condition of their makers, revealing deep-rooted pain and immense powerlessness.
Accepting one’s powerlessness may represent salvation. Is this a pessimistic view, or does it offer a sort of liberation?
Of course, the Beirut Port explosion brings back many memories of ongoing wars and confronts us, whether we like it or not, with the last devastating war we witnessed, the 2006 July war, and from there to our series of internal civil wars. Here we have a set of films attempting to address catastrophe as it happens and after it.
The memory of trauma is, by nature, chaotic. Our neural connections, which are the product of an accumulation of fear, death, and darkness, cannot distinguish between the causes of different wars, whether an existential war with the outside or senseless internal fighting. They cannot differentiate between one massacre and another, between a car bomb and an ammonium nitrate explosion. All the different catastrophes constitute one stimulus that nourishes our neural connections and keeps them alive and active. The smell of death from under the July war rubble is identical to the smell of death emanating from internal conflicts, and our brain treats them as one smell. All of today’s images and sounds evoke the images and sounds of yesterday, and the memory of centuries of wars, if we consider the trans-generational nature of trauma.
The July war and the port explosion films are not that dissimilar. Perhaps the only difference lies in the ability to anticipate the catastrophe, and in so doing, slightly mitigating the severity of its effects. One could arguably prepare as much as possible for war. But how could one prepare for a sudden, massive explosion?
Nevertheless, the fragmentation in these films remains clear. But the most evident difference lies in the viewer. We are watching these films 15 years after the catastrophe. Today, they remind us of another war to come. They remind us—strangely enough—of the future. That is what was, and that is what will happen! Do we anticipate the catastrophe and outline a shape for it despite itself, since it has none yet? Its only characteristic is fragmentation, and fragmentation has no shape. The bird of death is imprinted in our memory, neural networks and language, thus governed by this shapeless fragmentation.
Let us start here then. Our language is fragmented, and this is what distinguishes it. In other words, any expression in this reality is a diligent search for a language, and research by its very nature is an act that runs counter to stagnation and heralds the continuation of life. We find in these films, in their search to outline the smell of death; in their attempt to capture parts of the fragmented memory; in their quest to retrieve people missing from the picture, an insistence on production, resistance, and an exit from the icon to life.
Many of us are unable to approach the catastrophe until a long time has elapsed. We may think that we need considerable time to reorganize the fragments before attempting to express the quivering in our souls, but isn’t expression the most effective way to reorganize what has been fragmented? This is only a question, the answer to which may differ from one person to another. But expression__ any expression naturally creates a valuable document that we can review later. And that may be useful in re-forming a constructive memory that contributes to the healing of the community as a whole —provided, of course, that the group shows a desire to heal.
We see, for example, the value of such documents in films that address the occupation of Iraq and Palestine. Two wounds, like most of ours, that are continuously bleeding. When a wound heals, its scar remains to remind us of what has passed. As for the open wounds that bleed daily, their memory is different. It is a memory that is being renewed day after day, year after year. Any document that refers to an open wound reminds us that we have not yet reached the stage of healing. So, we say, for example, we have not yet had the opportunity to treat the wounds of the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, and any talk today about the American occupation of Iraq refers us immediately, by virtue of the human brain, to the first fall 736 years ago. We cannot see the hurricane, we cannot understand the catastrophe when we are caught inside it, we cannot truly understand the fragmentation. We cannot even bear witness to the catastrophe. Looking at it requires us to get out of the vortex and observe it from a distance. Is this possible?
We don’t claim to have an answer. However, films produced from within the catastrophe must bear witness to our situation for future generations. That is what the films of this cycle have probably attempted to do. They did not try to comprehend the catastrophe; they did not search for answers. The search for fragmentation’s shape was impossible. All they did was ask the only possible question: “What remains after the catastrophe?” Anyone who watches these films should try to answer that question, after a while, when the wounds have begun to heal.
What is most striking when watching these films is the constant commonality between them: the act of love. In some of them, it is clearly displayed, in others it is hidden in the details, but they are always present. Emptiness and fragmentation can only be faced with this strange, inexplicable feeling that stands, ever and always, outside of language: love. Perhaps it is because language is just as impotent before love as it is in the face of catastrophe, or perhaps because love, by nature, has no shape. It is similar to fragmentation but at the same time stands in contrast to it. It looks like a void, but it’s the only thing that is capable of filling it! Thus, we find that the films of this programming cycle started off in disaster then went to love. Perhaps it’s because they found in love, by virtue of human nature unrestrained by the brain’s materiality—that is, the spiritual nature—, a magical ability to fill the void created by the catastrophe. Thus we can say that the catastrophe has not overcome us, despite its magnitude, because we are made of love and wired by it. This is how we read these films despite the scientific dismantling and understanding of the effects of catastrophe.
“I was a hidden treasure, and I wished to be known, so I created a creation, then made Myself known.” The act of creation in our culture stems from love. We may have nothing else, but this is what we can distinctly observe in the films of this programming cycle. Only love can overcome catastrophe.