In the mid-70-s political and religious tensions in Lebanon resulted in a civil war, that lasted for about 15 years (1975-1990) and made the whole country witnesses of devastation, bombing attacks and massacres on the background of a complicated mosaic of religious and ethnic factions: Maronite Christians, Sunnites, Shiites, Druze, Palestinians.
Triggered on the surface by the clash between the Phalangists, a Christian militia, and the Palestinian faction fighting against Israel from Lebanese territory, the war soon evolved beyond its initial causes becoming a fight over the Lebanese political system fueled by with outside interventions (Syria and Israel) and undercover meddling (Iran and Western powers).
Today, more than 25 years after this terror, Beirut‘s appearance is rapidly changing through processes of new construction, modernization and gentrification, and the new look of the city is burying the traces of the huge collective trauma beneath the renovated surface. Some parts of the horrifying wartime narrative are prohibited by the Lebanese authorities: this specifically concerns the stories of 17 000 of people who were claimed disappeared and missing, and whose personalities dissolved, but their shadows still stay with the families.
Lebanese filmmaker Ghassan Halwani works with the topic of the memory after the civil war both through means of cinema and beyond it. ERASED, ASCENT OF THE INVISIBLE is his debut feature film premiered and awarded in many festivals across the world, including Locarno, Toronto, Cairo and Carthage Film Festival.
The project developed from Halwani‘s inner and very personal urge to search for the voice loud enough to pronounce what stayed silent and invisible, and to find new ways of preserving memory of the past tragedy for the new generation. It is important to know, that the film is only one side of the director’s work in this direction, bearing its message through the artistic essence, but beyond it there is a bigger project of creating a national archive for disappeared and missing to which Halwani also contributes.
The search that the director himself puts into the centre of ERASED meets a lot of obstacles, one of the most severe being time, that plays along with the official policies of Lebanese government. Halwani feels that the existing narrative that established itself and circulates among families, whose members became victims of kidnappings, might also be restrictive and end up nowhere as a trauma that has no way of being spoken out. He explores the topic using multiple approaches, each of them being able to represent a new trait of the frozen story: his actions construct an experiment aiming to transform the images of the disappeared, revealing their connection and at the same time, disconnection to the real people.
The opening sequence of the film shows an animated couple walking in a blank non-existent space – later explained that they are among those who disappeared. The next sequence places the viewers in exactly the opposite situation: a photograph of some Beirut street, portraying an erased scene of a man being kidnapped with only small hints of the scene itself visible. The picture only keeps the traces on the people who were present in it, with a parallel to the couple who were extracted from anything resembling a real world. The only way to learn the story becomes to listen to those who witnessed it, but the narrative cannot be complete. When people lose connection to the world, they become images and their humanity dissolves.
Halwani shares his personal story: “Thirty five years ago, I witnessed the kidnapping of a man I knew. He has disappeared since. Ten years ago I caught a glimpse of his face while walking in the street […], parts of his face were torn off.”
We later learn that he was not speaking about a person anymore – the torn face was part of the image on the collective poster from the exhibition, that became the starting point for the director to put his effort into the topic he explores. These posters set the ground for an important discovery: a single separate photograph from it is no more a symbol of a particular person, but only collected together with others it may remind of what happened. Halwani seeks for the way to do more and to bring back the personalities. He starts from scraping the wall in a street, picking layer by layer until he finds the remains of more posters; still this poster is silent – so he proceeds with helping it to speak, carefully writing the names of the people under each photograph. The procedure Halwani uses is the one he learned at the forensic workshop, and by treating the images as people, he tries to bring some extra meaning into them.
The film develops in a slow tempo, paying careful attention to each ritual the director performs. Its soundscape is created by ambient sounds, highlighting the meditative rhythm as the story unfolds. One of the important sounding objects of the film is paper: thick layers are cut from the wall by a knife and then scraped and torn away to reveal the insides. Halwani utilizes a range of methods to revive the images he sees and keeps in his own memory: he digs into the city wall, transforming the physical space keeping the memory; manipulates photographs, and creates a literal (re)animation of several people, trying to give them at least several more minutes of existence. This symbolic existence may not be effective as an attempt to bring real people back, but this suddenly brings up the absurdist reality that exists in Lebanon: the documents never state the disappeared people as dead, thus not allowing them to leave the world despite not existing anymore. It is thus not possible to set both live and dead free, as there are legal obstacles to exploring mass graves.
This leads the film to shots of Beirut maps, that open the hidden darkness of several city districts, including Normandie dump, that subsequently pops up as a rebranded construction site, turned into a contemporary area without signs of a tragedy – all this to authorities’ words about closing the investigations. Anyway, “What’s the use of digging up thousands of bones from anywhere?” The people are pronounced martyrs, but Halwani questions the status of martyrdom itself and claims that it brings the real people further away from being found. No matter how different the bay looks nowadays, it still remains a place of history and a memorial by itself. Images of Beirut and its walls keeping history frequently appear in Halwani‘s work. While acknowledging the changes that the city experiences, he still feels important to bring the history out for those who have been hidden and silenced.