Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Opening the Gate


This year, Dubai has seen remarkable Lebanese productions shine at its annual International Film Festival which is wrapping tomorrow, December 14. (Feeling very proud).

And I have had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of Gate #5 by Simon El Habre (I honestly have Ruba and Simon to thank for that)

Photo: R. Abouzeid

It is always something special to enjoy documentaries at large venues. It gives me some sense of pride, inside. To be able to sit and watch an unusual and counter-mainstream film, moreover a documentary, at one of the busiest theaters in town; well, it feels good.

And I was not disappointed by the story either. Far from it.

Documentaries are a difficult genre. They do not appeal to all audiences. But lately, there has been a rise of outstanding filmmakers worldwide who are turning this under-appreciated art into what making films is all about: sharing. Sharing with all sorts of people. Sharing with those who never thought they could ever even cross paths. Sharing.

And this is exactly what Simon El Habre did with Gate #5. The inspiration behind this whole project being his own father, and featuring both of them in intimate, yet always beautifully set confessions; it cannot get more "Sharing" than that. In a nutshell, the filmmaker is allowing us inside private family moments. 

Photo: Gate #5

The rhythm of the film itself slowly becomes orchestrated by this intimacy. At first it is just the heavy breathing of this aging man that resonates like a loud heartbeat in between scenes, subtly underlining the thread that connects all the stories together. And at other times, it is the sound of his dialysis machine, cruelly following that same beat, that sustains this audio-storyline in a smooth, endless continuation. Just like life. Just like the protagonist's life. 

But this aging man, sick and yet always optimistic, is nothing but the inspiration behind the documentary. El Habre moves on to expand from that small circle of memories through the Gate that controlled his father's life at one point. A gate that controlled many lives back then. And still does today. Once the Gate opens, the people open up as well. And the story begins. A story of men. A story of Lebanon. And life. A beautiful story. 

Yet, it is an unsettling gate that the filmmaker chooses to open in his first scene. The disturbing images of cattle being pushed and shoved out from one narrow box to another, fear and pain overflowing from their eyes as they pass that gate and step onto the truck that will undoubtedly drive them to their end put us all on edge in our comfortable theater seats.

One thing is for sure, El Habre got our attention from the first shot.We knew right then, this would not be a regular film. And although they were selling pop corn and sodas outside, we understood: this was no pop corn movie.

It would not be one of those "tedious" documentaries either. Clearly, the conventional archives, voice over and interview style was as far from us as it could be. 

It would be cinematographic instead. The images would speak when the people or the filmmaker could or would not. 

Indeed, and moving on from those shocking opening moments, and as if thanking us for being there and attentive, El Habre takes us for a drive on the beautiful mountains of Lebanon, through the powerful eye of cinematographer Bassem Fayad. Almost forgetting we were about to watch a documentary. Simple beauty on a big, big screen. It felt like cinema. It felt like Lebanon. And I missed it so much all of a sudden.

Photo: Gate #5

That is probably the key winning touch of this film. It is personal. And it gets personal to the viewers too. Unavoidably. 

It is the story of certain men. Yet, all of us can relate. 

The story takes place at a certain point in time, and with Lebanon, it usually implies the war will be somewhere in that timeframe. Yet, it is not an narrative recount of those years. 

The story happens in old Beirut. Yet, it is not images, and archives, and black and white footage of that era. 

(And thank you so much for sparing us those overused and abused videos and photos which are just about everywhere as if every artwork should serve as public service announcement for the ministry of tourism!)

The story is human. And through these humans, we see the past. As it was. Unedited memories of what real life used to be. No voice over. No script. No interview. Just regular, ordinary chats. 

Photo: Gate #5

These men talk to each other, or the filmmaker, casually. Simply. As if no camera was there. As if they were having one of their daily informal discussions over coffee. Because this is what these men do every day. They remember. They talk. They reminisce about their golden years. That day, they just happened to be recorded while doing so. 

We know these men. Not them particularly, but others just like them. That is how we know these moments in the film are genuine. That is how we know this movie speaks a truth. Maybe not the Truth. Maybe some even take pleasure in storytelling and embellishing a little. Just like those other men we know and we have listened to before. At our family dinners. In a cab. At an old coffee shop.  

And that is why this film speaks to us. At a personal level.

By the end, I could not help but lean towards my husband and whisper: "you know next time we're in Beirut and you have one of your drinks with your dad, just take the camera and record". He is always saying something. They all are. 

And the fact that Gate #5 inspired us to actually pick up a camera and listen is the plain proof that this film works. That it achieved its purpose. That it created something, beyond that theater, even after those end credits rolled on that big screen. That it touched real people. And that it affected real life. 

Q and A with Simon El Habre following the screening
Photo: R. Abouzeid

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