As Above, So Below
In: How Iranian cinema triumphed at the Berlin Film Festival. Mohammad Rasoulof's There Is No Evil takes top prize while documentaries from Lebanon and Israel intrigue and compel - by Joseph Fahim in Middle East Eye on 10.3.2020
Sarah Francis’ As Above, So Below (Kama Fissamaa’ kathalika ala al-Ard) makes for a hypnotic contemplation on the growing schism between the physical inner and outer spaces as embodied by the Moon."
Sarah Francis’ As Above, So Below is a compelling and poetic meditation on the human relationship with the Moon (Sarah Francis)
Devoid of narrative, this Lebanese piece surveys the various connotations of the moon – the mythical, the poetic, the scientific, the political – through visual motifs which include texts designating the satellite’s diverse definitions; audio snippets from US politicians about the space race; and a staged panoramic view of a group waiting for their turn on a swing, in a sparse, disorienting space that looks similar to the Moon’s surface.
Some of these sequences overstay their welcome; others grow repetitive. But this is a sensitive, mature work; poetic, playful, and cynical, Francis demystifies the myth of the Moon and how it is commodified by governments and corporations.
Francis’ last film, Birds of September (2013), remains one of the outstanding Arab documentaries so far this century; As Above, So Below cements her reputation as one of the most original, most unpredictable voices in the MENA film scene.
Sarah Francis’ handsome orphan of a film - by Jim Quilty in Daily Star, 9.7.2020
BEIRUT: Even at the best of times, there’s a danger that an unconventional film won’t find an audience. If you happen to premiere such a movie on the eve of a major disruption – a global pandemic, say – the chances it will be missed multiply.
Take “As Above, So Below,” the second feature of Lebanon’s Sarah Francis. The film scored a world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February – in the Forum section, the natural habitat of artistic film and filmic art at the Berlinale.
Berlin was the last major festival to run its course before international film events cancelled or retreated online, and cinema exhibitors shuttered.
For years Lebanon’s art house filmmakers had had a small but resonant roost for their work in Metropolis cinema, which became the venue of choice for national premieres and Lebanon debuts of regional and international films – art house and otherwise. Metropolis lost its twin exhibition halls early in the country’s economic crisis and is nowadays working to reinvent itself.
For the moment, then, Francis’ handsome, down-to-earth rumination on some lofty ideas has been orphaned.
Sarah Francis’ work resides on the artistic edge of nonfiction cinema. Her debut feature, 2013’s “Birds of September,” is made up of off-camera interviews with Lebanese about how they see the country and their place in it. This straightforward premise was made lyrical by the director’s decision to film individual informants as they sat in a plexiglas box on the back of a mobile ad vehicle, suspended above Beirut as the city slid past.
“As Above” is a more ambitious and elaborately constructed work. It has a modular sort of structure that’s closer to written poetry than narrative. Its audio-visual components – location, choreography, monochrome cinematography, visual “effects,” voiceover, sound design, score – seem to move separately from one another, in parallel.
Visually the film is preoccupied by people moving about a swath of harvested agricultural land, with an arid mountain range rearing up behind. (Some will recognize the location as Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, but the film’s themes are more universal than its setting.)
Among the narrative conventions the film eschews are plot and protagonist. Of the dozen or so humans who appear on camera, one, a gaunt gent with elaborate facial hair (Naji Adwan), is allotted much of the film’s solo camera time.
DP Bassem Fayad’s camera follows him as he wanders across the field, occasionally veering off frame, then returning to resume his ambling stride, as if in search of something. As he pauses, or turns to peer into the distance, a female voiceover narrates his meandering – “Here, anxiety.” “There hope.” “There ecstasy.” “Here love.”
Speaking in formal Arabic, this voiceover could be reading from the journal entries of someone who’s undergone an elaborate, generationslong experiment. Before suggesting that movement is a metaphor for existence, she also alludes to issues of identity and narrative.
“We were told we’d live and wander the earth,” she recounts, “ ... hopping from one story to another. No one can exist without a story.”
The Daily Star asked Francis to reflect upon how her perception of “As Above” has been inflected by her experience of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Responding via email, she said she was unsure how the pandemic had affected the reading of her film.
“I was mainly trying to reflect on how to find our position in the world,” Francis wrote. “Where do you stand, or how do you move from point A to point B for example (what motivates the move but also what is considered a starting point or a transition).”
The reflection, she said, was an existential one.
“The landscape in the film is understood as a physical one and [a] mental/emotional one. [That landscape] can be the planet, the cosmos or your living room. The quest is the same and the questions related to navigation, exploration and movement are valid anywhere, including in the space of the mind.”
The film’s elastic sense of movement through spacetime did find an echo during lockdown, Francis wrote, as folks found that confinement at once collapsed and (depending on their internet connections) expanded the space enclosing them.
She points to one online meme in circulation – inspired by mental health experts’ advice that people forced to work from home stick to their routines as much as possible – showing a fellow standing in his bathroom, fully dressed, dead-eyed, clutching the rod of his shower curtain as though he were on the subway.
“Some people had to reconsider their relation to objects around them,” she mused, and “had to remap their surroundings and to find/reinvent their position within this new network. There was [another] funny meme in which names of subway stations were replaced by areas in the house.”
The film returns to its ensemble of humans – queuing politely in the razed field, awaiting a chance to joylessly ride the pendulum of a child’s swing set (or deciding against it); standing separately (in such splendid isolation that they might be practicing “social distancing,” had the term been coined when the film was shot) – but the real protagonist of Francis’ film is the moon.
The voiceover remarks that “the moon, we were told, would be our first story” and the film’s title suggests Francis’ work is mostly interested in noting how our species has projected itself upon the moon and in how humans have made use of the satellite, and other things extra-terrestrial.
Francis ruminates upon her subject from several perspectives.
She samples the wide range of Arabic terms referencing the phases and qualities of the moon – and the meanings these words have acquired. She also revisits the international convention (drawn up and signed only by states without their own space exploration programs) delimiting the legal scientific and commercial uses of off-world bodies like the moon.
It’s not an encyclopaedic list. “As Above” tends to shun the moon’s appearances in genre fiction – whether gothic horror literature (no werewolves or milder forms of lunacy) or science fiction movies (no silent-movie rocket ships wedged in the right eye of a man-in-the-moon mask).
More recently, of course, both science docs and sci-fi flicks have set the bar quite high when it comes to imaging celestial bodies. Francis’ depictions of the moon are defiantly low-tech.
Once the Earth’s nearest neighbour is evoked, a bright orb begins appearing in the upper right hand side of the frame. Viewers will be forgiven for mistaking it for the sun – occupying the daytime sky, as it does – and when the bargain-basement technology used to image this “moon” is unveiled, the deflation is amusing.
The film’s resolute indifference to hard science can be traced back to its title. A stroll through Wikipedia would probably inform curious viewers that the phrase “As above, so below” is derived from an ancient (there’s no agreement on how old) treatise on alchemy.
Francis never mentions this, or the fact that the Latin text was translated from an older Arabic original.
“As Above, So Below” is distributed by MEC films. See: mecfilm.com