In her new film, the Lebanese director Danielle Arbid explores the Arabic vocabulary of intimacy. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports.
In 2005, the programmers of a French radio station approached the filmmaker Danielle Arbid and offered her two hours of Sunday evening airtime to do whatever she liked. So Arbid called up several of her friends in Beirut and recorded them talking in detail about their sex lives. She manipulated the anonymous recordings into a seamless, stylised barrage of explicit stories, confessions, reflections and observations rendered in colourful language and crude slang. The show went out on Radio France Culture, and Arbid got 10 scathing letters from angry listeners in response. "All French and one Lebanese who was listening by mistake," she says.
Three years later, Arbid ends this anecdote with a triumphant smile. She has since taken her radio footage and turned it into an elusively beautiful yet unabashedly bawdy 20-minute film, which, after screenings in Beirut, Locarno and in the French city of La Rochelle (where it was projected onto the ceiling of a church at midnight), is now being hotly pursued by film festivals on three continents.
Arbid belongs to a generation of Lebanese filmmakers that includes Ziad Doueir (West Beirut), Nadine Labaki (Caramel), Philippe Aractingi (Bosta and Under the Bombs), Ghassan Salhab (The Last Man) and the team of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (A Perfect Day and I Want to See). In terms of subject matter, there is a lot of overlap among them. They have all made films whose subject is the civil war, the disappeared and the destruction of Beirut (by war, reconstruction and other means). They share a tendency to produce short, cinematic love letters to the city's resilient visual culture, and an affection for the visual codes and rhythms of art-house cinema.
All of these filmmakers, Arbid included, struggle to negotiate between Lebanon and the rest of the world to make films in a place where there is little audience and less funding. But her work makes clear that Arbid's relationship with the country of her birth is more tortured than that of her peers. Her films do not simply expose a wound - whether it is the tear ripped between Lebanon and France, East and West, past and present, memory and amnesia or masculine and feminine. They dig into it and extract from it something both playful and productive.
Arbid's sense of playfulness is not actually lighthearted. The game she sets up in film after film is a dangerous one. She deals not with the fun of play but the terror of escape, the act of a prisoner plotting a jailbreak into the unknown. It is probably no coincidence that the main characters in both of Arbid's features flee from different forms of confinement. Escaping, rebelling, breaking rules - these are crucial, necessary acts in Arbid's cinema. They are its oxygen and, one suspects, hers.
Arbid, who is 38, was born in Lebanon and moved to France when she was 17. She studied literature and worked as a journalist for five years. She wanted to be like Hunter S Thompson, but ended up writing hard news and hated the rigid, formulaic storytelling of the genre. So she quit, wrote a screenplay, won a competition and began making films. She has produced 10 films in 10 years, and her work has been the subject of four festival retrospectives - not bad for a director under the age of 40.
Arbid has screened both of her features in Cannes, and her documentaries and shorts have won a slew of awards. But she has met a hostile reception from critics and audiences at every turn, in part because her films refuse to be what they appear. Her 2004 debut feature, In the Battlefields, seems at first a sweet fable about innocent children during the Lebanese civil war but turns out to be an evocative study of adolescent sexuality and young women coming into their own through the bursts of rebellion that follow bouts of humiliation. "I like this period between 12 and 18," Arbid says. "When you could go crazy; when you are not an adult and not a child."
In the film, one young girl, Lina, befriends another, Siham. But Lina is the daughter of a middle-class Lebanese family while Siham, slightly older, is a Syrian maid. Siham leads a wild life outside of her place of employment, a few floors up from Lina's apartment. She brings Lina along on her adventures, until Lina discovers that Siham plans to run away to marry her boyfriend and snitches. Siham gets locked up and never forgives Lina for the transgression. The film scholar Lina Khatib, in her new book Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond, reads the film as a treatise on the deep class divisions in Lebanon. It is also a study of the rite of passage that is getting dropped, ditched or left behind, and the act of throwing off burdens both social and cultural.
Arbid's second feature, Un Homme Perdu, from 2007, tracks the story of a man who goes missing from Lebanon in 1985. He turns up as a day labourer in Syria many years later and then, after spitting on his employer and taking off, encounters a photographer on the Jordanian border. As the two men travel together, the photographer, whose character is based on Antoine d'Agata (a Magnum photographer with a cult following in France), attempts to wrench open the man's story. He pulls the man into brothels and pushes him into street fights. He tries to break the man down so he will confess who he is and what he has done. He does not succeed, but he manages to return the man, against his will, to his life in Lebanon. Reunited with his wife and reinstalled in an atmosphere of domestic bliss, the man smoulders in silent anger. And as soon as he can, he runs, leaving the photographer with nothing but images to illustrate their unfulfilled adventure.
Like In the Battlefields, Un Homme Perdu could have been an earnest account of the need for remembrance and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon. But Arbid's film suggests that uncovering the truth isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and that obsessive engagement with the dark episodes in Lebanon's tumultuous history might ultimately be a dead end. In place of meaningful redemption or a tidy resolution, she emphasises the assertions of power, cruelty and desire at play in the relationship between the two men.
But critics were preoccupied by the film's explicit content, and slammed Arbid for having the audacity to take on a figure as large as d'Agata, arguing that she should stick to her home turf in war-torn Lebanon and leave France's artists alone. Variety called Un Homme Perdu a "pointless exercise" and "a big step back" for Arbid, and blasted its "typically Gallic mix of erotica and existentialism." But Arbid considers such criticisms a kind of chauvinism: "If I had been a man making Un Homme Perdu, it would have been OK" for western critics, Arbid says. "The Arab critics, I knew why they hated it. It wasn't for this purpose, me being a girl. For them, it was just out of the question to make this film at all, boy or girl." Out of the question, presumably, because Arbid filmed in brothels on Arab soil.
In the end, the film was neither well reviewed nor widely seen. But Arbid has pressed on to two new projects: her third feature, which she will begin shooting next year, an adaptation of an American novel, Salt Water, transposed to France - and This Smell of Sex, the film featuring her France Culture radio footage, whose explicit language and exuberant lewdness will probably infuriate Arbid's Arab critics even further.
But for all its prurient content, the film's real subject may be language - Arbid captures the graphic precision and expressive imagery used to describe these physical intimacy in Arabic. Seen in the context of Arbid's other work, This Smell of Sex continues a fascination with language that the filmmaker has been exploring for years in an open-ended series of videos called Conversations de Salon, which feature older women (including her mother and her aunts) speaking about the lives, their prescription drug habits, their husbands and their sons. The works open a window onto a particular class of Lebanese women that some viewers find them claustrophobic and unbearable (others find them revealing and amusing).
"I've always been interested in the Arabic language," says Arbid. "I've been in France for 20 years but when I come back to Lebanon I like very much to speak Arabic. I love to hear how my mother's friends 'image' things. The whole thing becomes an image and they lie and they use the language in a great way, whereas in France they don't do this. People here always tell me in Arabic how they [have sex]. You know, my friends and I, we speak about this. I have friends in Dahiyeh [Beirut's southern suburbs] and they always tell me lewd things. They slang the language, they change it, and it's very inventive."
"So I decided to record it. Maybe because I wasn't filming them, I knew they wouldn't censor themselves. Because when you speak about this, you have to be precise. And in a way, I like joining this to the idea of the Arab world, where sex is out, where it doesn't exist, where it exists behind the image, where it is blacked out." But transforming disembodied voices into a film was no small challenge. "When I did this in 2005, I thought I wanted to make a film out of it but I didn't have the idea of how to illustrate the words with images. When you have a text like this and you put erotic things on screen, it isn't good. I tried lots of things, but it wasn't there. So I had to wait two or three years for the idea to come."
Each year, the Né à Beyrouth Festival of Lebanese Film (which Arbic has helped organize for the past six years) holds a special screening of found Super 8 footage discovered and donated by filmmakers and members of the public. One day, Arbid was reviewing the reels and watched a home movie that had been found in an old, abandoned Beirut marketplace. It features a young woman posing innocently, for a camera in her bedroom.
"I liked it very much," says Arbid. "It's amateur, unknown, but it's definitely Beirut. I zoomed it and sped it up. It was already very good but I worked on it and it became the film." Arbid asked the singer Yasmine Hamdan to do the music, and she improvised on old Arabic love songs, which are full of rich, sensual metaphors to begin with. As a result, This Smell of Sex consists of voices, images and songs sliding in and out of the audience's range of perception. Arbid added an introduction, a fictional voice-over narration in the style of a promotional tourism spot on Radio Monte Carlo circa 1960, about the magical city of Beirut, a playground for the easy-going and the adventurous. Arbid's film suggests, in extremely subtle ways, that this idea of Beirut as a hothouse for licentious behaviour never died, despite the Lebanese capital's subsequent plunge into patterns of self-destruction.
"It's very joyful," Arbid says. "It has nothing to do with secrets or shame or things that people are not supposed to say. It's not sad. It's very dirty and very funny." "I wouldn't have done it if there were [only men and] no [women] speaking. I don't believe in the sexual exoticism of the Arab world. When I show the film in Europe, people don't tell me: 'They're exotic.' People tell me: 'They're like us.' I don't want people to go see the film and say to themselves: 'Let's see how the animals speak about sex.' I'm attacked here, but really they should pay me, because I show people as they are, I show them as human beings."
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.