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In the Shadow of Beirut

Two marginalised communities of Lebanon see no hope and no light, in gloomy doc about the country’s refusal and inability to integrate its most vulnerable people - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

The wellbeing of Lebanese people collapses after Covid and the 2020 Beirut explosion. This documentary informs us that many were living in abject poverty long before that. They are the citizens of the districts of Sabra and Shatila. This is where original Palestinians, Syrian refugees, Roma (the Domari) and marginalised Lebanese people forge a precarious existence. More than 30,000 people live in just one square kilometre. Drone images provide photographic evidence to support these figures: the density of tightly crammed buildings reveals a community where the light can barely penetrate. Darkness prevails both at day and at night. The souls of the inhabitants are equally gloomy.

This Irish-Lebanese production interweaves the tragic stories of countless residents. A Palestinian widow with three of her seven children (the other four are missing), a tiny and scrawny toddler with her body covered in rashes, a mother mourning her dead child during Eid, and a vast string of people failed by the establishment. Lebanon is a country that has no desire to integrate those who do not fit the norm: a former inmate is unable to get a job, an education or even a driving license because of his drug convictions. He does odd jobs for as little as $8 a day. A Syrian man married complains that his children cannot get Lebanese nationality, despite being born on Lebanese soil to a Lebanese mother (that’s because citizenship is determined by paternity).

To make things worse, the television announces that the poverty rate in the nation has soared from 42% to a whopping 82% in just a few years. Inflation, unemployment and Covid have shattered the nation. The film just never returns to the topic of the explosion mentioned in the very opening. There is some harsh however extremely vague criticism of the government, which fails to enlighten viewers. In the Shadow of Beirut isn’t a particularly educational movie.

This movie conveys no sense of joy, no sense of hope, and no sense of humour. We learn that “a caged bird cannot be freed” – hardly a inspiring symbolism for these hapless souls. A morose and sorrowful music score adds yet another layer of misery to the tragic stories. There is an attempt to rectify this is the movie’s final 10 minutes when some characters eventually dare to dream and find some sort of redemption. The former convict sees beauty in his nation as the bathes his beloved toddler in the Mediterranean. But that’s too little and too late. By that point, viewers are emotionally drained, have been put through the wringer for nearly 90 minutes.

The two directors create a compelling exposé of poverty in a familiar Middle Eastern nation. They keep a distance from their characters, opting for the fly-on-the-wall, observational approach, never appearing in front of the camera or even interacting with the people from behind it. The outcome is very dark and cold, in a movie that lacks spontaneity. The voice overs are narrated by some of the characters, but they feel contrived or perhaps even scripted. Some of the interactions don’t feel entirely natural. While the film itself does not cosmeticise poverty, the still at the top of this article (which is used in the film poster, and on most marketing collateral) clearly does. An unfortunate lapse into poverty porn territory.

In the Shadow of Beirut shows at the 3rd Red Sea International Film festival. It premiered earlier this year at the Doc Edge Festival, in New Zealand.

By Victor Fraga - 07-12-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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