from the press
Ayyam Beirut al-Cinema’iyya: Stories of love and displacement
in L'Orient Today, by Jim Quilty, 08 June 2022
Among the contemporary titles packaged in In this Place is Simon El Habre’s 40-minute non-fiction work “Re-destruction.”
This film began life when research and advocacy nonprofit Legal Agenda commissioned a film on corruption in Lebanon. As a director, Habre is not known for fact-heavy institutional documentaries. His two feature-length docs (“One Man Village,” 2008, and “Gate # 5,” 2011) are on the artistic side of non-fiction film — perfectly framed, highly personal, character-driven works centering on family members.
Habre and co-writer Petra Serhal decided that corruption was too sprawling and complex a topic for the 20-25 minute film the commissioners wanted, so he suggested they focus on the reconstruction policies implemented in Lebanon since the end of the Civil War, and the effect of these policies.
“I suggested this topic because I read a lot about it while working on ‘Gate # Five’ [whose title names a zone of Beirut port, significant during the Civil War]. It was easier for me to tackle corruption from this perspective in the short period of time they provided.”
From commission to post-production, the project took four months to complete.
“I wanted to insert a subtle question mark in the film,” he says. “Now, after the explosion, what kinds of reconstruction policies are we going to apply? Are we going to work on the same strategies, with the same mentality? or did we learn anything from everything that’s happened? I did this subtly. I didn't want to tackle the explosion in a direct way.”
“Re-destruction” is not about Beirut’s Aug. 4, 2020, port explosion, though it does include a moment of footage of the blast and its aftermath. Habre’s film treats the state’s complicity in, and incompetent response to, the destruction of Beirut’s port-side neighborhoods as an episode in a longer story — a tale of the symbiotic relationship of Lebanon’s political class and members of the business elite, which reinforces their impunity at the expense of the rest of the country.
Visually, the film combines layers of archival footage and still images.
“There are several types of visuals,” Habre says. “The challenge was to put them together in a way that they’re complementary to each other.”
Much of the archival footage and still images, he says, came from filmmaker Bahij Hojeij, from his documentary work in the 1990s. The Lebanese Army provided historical aerial photos of the city — part of an archive of high-resolution images they started compiling in the 1960s. These are complemented by fixed drone shots, gazing down on various Beirut neighborhoods as they look today — inspired by the idea of mapping corruption in the city.
More challenging for Habre are new images of Beirut he shot with his longtime collaborator Bassem Fayed.
“Frankly, I didn't know how to shoot the city in its current state … I really don’t want to do something about the city, with anything that is happening. I think anything you say or try to do is gonna look dull and silly and shallow … Psychologically, how can you shoot what is happening in the city at this stage while all your emotions are so fucked up?”
“So we came up with the idea of shooting just fixed shots of details from the locations that we visited — details that I’ve had in mind for a long time, that I didn't know what to do with. They created a certain feeling in me. I'm not sure what it is exactly.”
“All these types of images are linked by voice,” he says, “the voices of the witnesses and their stories.”
“Re-destruction” is a documentary full of facts — all of them expressed in the testimonies of Beirutis who have witnessed and studied the city’s harrowing post-Civil War changes — all accented by images that veer from documentation to lyricism.
Pretty good for a four-month commission.