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York Film Festival
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Joanne Nucho on In the Battlefields
Dir. Danielle Arbid, Lebanon, No Distrbutor
In Arabic, the word
for civil war is literally translated as “family war”
(harb il-ahleyeh). In the Battlefields, the courageous
debut film from Danielle Arbid, is set during one of
the longest and bloodiest civil wars in recent history.
It concerns two concurrent battles in the life of 12-year
old Lina, externally that of the Lebanese conflict of
the Seventies and Eighties and the concurrent internal
breakdown of her family. Atypical of many coming of
age stories is In the Battlefields' ability to
depict the fragile balance between the innocence and
cruelty of childhood, as no character in the film is
uncorrupted in some small part by the world around them.
In Lebanon, the nightmare of this war paralleled familial
breakdown in many ways. The illusion of a peaceful,
pluralistic society with all groups sharing an equal
civil presence was shattered when Sunni, Druze, Catholic,
Shiite, and Palestinian militias clashed in the streets,
and foreign armies joined in the confusion. The subsequent
division of Beirut into the Muslim west and the Christian
east was the dramatic eruption of years of unresolved
tensions, and no family was left untouched by the resulting
In Lina's world, this is all backdrop to the tensions
of her Maronite Catholic family: war is a brooding,
menacing character just off-camera that makes its presence
known through thundering explosions and the words of
young militia boys carrying Kalishnakovs. The battles
she directly experiences are much closer to home. Her
mother and father's marriage is quickly deteriorating
as her father's gambling addiction and violent tendencies
place the family in a dire financial situation. Her
pregnant mother pleads with him to leave his gambling
behind, even inviting a priest as witness to his promise
to abstain. His solution is to repeatedly turn to his
sister, Lina's sadistic aunt Yvonne-a brooding, heavily
made-up dragon lady who looms over the family-for additional
funds to feed his habit. The matriarch of the disintegrating
clan, she refuses to help, though she clearly has enough
to gamble away herself, humiliating him in the process.
Lina's only escape from
the corruption of the adults is her bond with Yvonne's
maid, the Syrian teenager Sihab. Lina's family discourages
her friendship with Sihab, but Lina is undeterred, telling
Sihab, “We are the same, you and I”-words that will
return to haunt her. One day, as the family is eating
dinner together and Yvonne takes turns degrading everyone
at the table whilst repeatedly insulting Sihab, Lina
overturns the food on the table and locks herself in
the bathroom in a dramatic outburst of solidarity. She
fills the sink and submerges her head underneath the
water, an action she repeats throughout the film. Underneath
the water, she escapes the sounds of the battle raging
outside as her father tries to bang down the door, and
her mother pleads with him to stop.
Sihab too tries to escape the chaos of Lina's family.
Being a few years older than Lina, Sihab has discovered
that boys with cars can take her away from Yvonne's
cruel gaze. Sihab lets her tag along on a few of her
adventures, giving Lina her first glimpse of sexuality.
The war is nowhere in sight here, just the open road,
the shining sun; the oppressive shadows of the crumbling
apartment buildings and the thundering sounds of shells
crashing into them have disappeared, if momentarily.
The girls could be anywhere. Sihab turns up Blondie's
“Heart of Glass” on the radio and dances around in the
front seat, dangling her arms and then, precariously,
half of her body out the window. For a while, it seems
that Lina's friendship with Sihab will be the sole consistency
in a chaotic world, an escape from the corruption of
the adults. However, when Sihab confesses to Lina that
she plans to run away with her boyfriend and get married,
Lina refuses to help her. How could she let her most
precious friend escape?
There is a river in Beirut called “Nahr El-Kelb,” or
“Dog River.” Beside this river, carved on the rocky
cliffs, you can read inscriptions of Egyptian Pharaohs,
Assyrian kings and Roman commanders. One tablet tells
of the entry into Damascus of General Gouraud's troops
in 1920, and some of the most recent celebrate the 1946
evacuation of foreign troops in the wake of Lebanon's
independence in 1943, and Israel in 2000. The Dog River
speaks of the history of Lebanon, a meeting ground between
east and west, the congregation of foreign armies in
this place since time immemorial.
It's no accident that
Lina's dearest friend and savior Sihab is not Lebanese.
Syria, Sihab's native land, is not inscribed beside
the river, as it is well understood that Syria still
occupies Lebanon. The history between the two countries
is complicated, as is the history of all nations in
the Middle East. The very idea of a nation-state is
one imported from the west. Most of these countries
were joined under one empire or another for millennia.
For a long time, Lebanon and Syria were considered one
place-Greater Syria. The decision to make Lebanon a
separate country has a controversial history that involved
a new questioning of identity along the lines of nationalism,
religion, and even ethnicity that are only really as
old as this idea of the nation-state. The two countries
are still linked in many ways, and would be regardless
of the occupation-they are sisters with a very problematic
Lina and Sihab's relationship traces the complexities
and confusion of the war-the loyalties between friends
and neighbors as fragile and corrupted as the relationships
between foreign occupiers and their complicit militias.
In trying to keep Sihab from leaving her beleaguered
family, Lina has isolated both of them, as Sihab will
not forgive her for informing Yvonne of her plans to
escape. Hence the corruption of the world of adults
has seeped into Lina's world, as she realizes her own
cruelty and selfishness.
When Sihab screams that the two are not the same, that
they never will be, we see the painful separation of
Lebanon from the rest of the Arab world. Lebanon felt
as though everyone turned their backs on them, while
battle tore through the streets of its cities and villages
for nearly 20 years. When Lina loses her Syrian friend,
the battlefield moves closer to home, and she is completely
alone in her fight.
The film ends with the moment of Sihab's escape. We
are left with no solution as the battle of Lina's family
and the war itself rage on, regardless of the casualties.
No epilogue is given for either girl-there is only a
fade to black. In Lebanon today, the situation is similar.
Many of the political inequalities that existed there
before the war are still present. There is the feeling
of disquiet in downtown Beirut's newly remodeled hotels.
Somehow, one gets the impression that this is a thin,
shiny façade for a city still deeply in pain, trying
to delude itself into thinking it will again be the
“Paris of the Middle East.” No, it's the bullet ridden
walls, the wrecked modernist cinema in Martyrs Square,
and the abandoned skeletal buildings along the Green
Line that speak to the reality of Lebanon. It is a scarred
place where neighbors and friends killed each other,
and now live side-by-side again, while history is kept
quiet, questions remain unanswered, and resolution seems
like a hopeless delusion.