Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Out Loud

First published on BIKYAMASR

“A city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”: Those are the words used by Samer Daboul to describe Lebanon and the city of Zahlé, in the Bekaa Valley, against the background of which his 2011 full length motion picture is set.
One of the first things we see in his film, “Out Loud”, is the famous statue by Attar Samih, “Vin et la Poésie” placed strategically at the entrance of the city, and that if seen on a postcard and severed from the noise of Lebanon’s violent history, would reveal something else completely:
The libertine Bacchus welcomes visitors to the capital of the valley with a naked female torso, voluptuous breasts, a hanging grapevine and the quiet Greek lyre standing obliquely to the side, almost inebriated.
It would be worthwhile mentioning here that Samih’s works, to be found all over Lebanon, from Beirut to Jounieh to Hadath, deal mostly with themes from national history and are not precisely known for their pagan and erotic appeal.
The one exception besides “Vin et la Poésie” would be the tiny figurine “Fille de la Marine” found in Sidon. But when you situate yourself back at the site where the statue belongs in Zahlé, the noise takes over.
That is where and how “Out Loud” starts and the way the director has put it, all the noise we hear at the beginning and that engulfs the square and the statue, isn’t necessarily that of war alone. It’s the noise of conflicting views, of personal tensions, of an un-mastered something.
The unusual film – though it might seem something of a commonplace to Westerners, not sufficiently acquainted with the regional industry – is a graceful tale of love and friendship set against this selfsame noise; fraught with hate, with love, with violence, with kindness.
Unlike the conventional plot of Lebanese cinema, dealing mostly with the decades-long civil war and occasionally with the role played by Israel in it – a film for example, about the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is still missing; “Out Loud” belongs to a different genre.
Films that tell stories and that deviate from the format of the documentary – are rare in Lebanon and have emerged only in the course of the last decade with films such as Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel” and Marc Abi Rached’s banned-shortly-before-release film “Help”.
The commercial alter ego of the documentary, namely, the action historical film dealing with war, became the benchmark of the scarcely produced Lebanese cinema and the equivalent of tradition film in the Arabian Gulf.
Against the background of classical Egyptian and Lebanese cinema, the Lebanese couldn’t exactly succeed in grounding an emerging – particularly postwar – cinema culture around the topic of the conflicts of modern life with tradition; what doesn’t mean this wasn’t attempted.
After a number of truly successful films – among which “West Beirut” might be yet the best ranked – the genre of civil war films may well be considered to have timed itself out, and while titles still appear, they are no longer suitable items for the history of film.
The documentary (particularly of war) on the other hand, has been questioned and challenged over and over since the decline of social realism as an established aesthetic category in film, and nowadays many fiction and non-fiction films are concerned with representing conditions over actions.
Filmmaker and theoretician Maya Deren writes:
“If particularly in film, the flowering of the documentary has almost obscured all else save the “entertainment” film, it is because the events and accidents of reality are, today, more monstrous, more shocking, than the human imagination is capable of inventing.”
She continues:
“The war gives rise to incidents which are not only beyond the inventive powers of the human imagination, but also beyond its capacity almost to believe. In this period, we are concerned with the unbelieveableness of incidents, we require a reportage and a proof of their reality. But the great art expressions will come later, as they always have; and they will be dedicated, again, to the agony and experience rather than the incident.”
This is exactly what begins to take place in Lebanon after Labaki’s “Caramel”, which focused on women issues such as love, traditions and sexuality – but without costumbrismo – and dealt with universal issues rather than showcasing again a war-torn country.
“Out Loud” comes into this scene with far bolder proposal in terms of action, condition and aesthetic representation. The story revolving around eastern Lebanon deals with three thorny topics in Lebanese society: human rights, gay rights and freedom of expression.
Five friends – each of whom bears upon himself one some difficult baggage, often related to alas, the Lebanese wars, social struggles and political cul-de-sacs – chance upon a young girl, with whom they begin a life-changing journey, with an unexpected result.
Rami and Ziad are a gay couple who has been “found out” by their families and have to run for their lives, escaping from the infamous honor killing and find temporary shelter at Jason’s home, from where they flee once again to Nathalie’s chalet in Zahlé.
The portrayal of homosexuality and the homosexual couple in the film is nothing short of graceful and dignified, unlike the commonplace portrayal in Arab cinema – particularly Egyptian – of homosexuals as deviants, prostitutes, androgynies and emasculated.
In “Out Loud”, the entire group of friends participate in a condition – life, that is, in which there’s joy, there’s violence, there’s redemption, there’s defeat; all of it very human, and in it, everyone participates, without exclusion of religion, gender or sexuality.
The defiance of certain taboos – not only of sexuality but also the role of women, the institution of marriage and facing up to violence, are framed by quintessential human responses that define the possibility to evolve as a culture.
It is the human miracle at stake always in new beginnings, in leaving the past behind and beginning something completely new: Be it an institution, a movement, or simply a destination in life. To choose your fate as your destiny and transform it into your destination.
As the central difficulties at the heart of the plot evolve, it becomes clear that only a promise – and every decision to act together as people is in itself a promise – might interrupt the flow of events and cause the unexpected to succeed not in resisting reality, but in transforming it.
Hannah Arendt writes: “Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible”. The group of friends makes then a promise to stay together and thus, circumvent averting danger.
Sometimes, however, promises are not enough and life will still play its tricks on you, but the durability of promises – and it is this on which the human artifice is sustained – is the only insurance to the continuity of the human community as such.
“Out Loud” is a surprising film aesthetically, if only because the storyline of the film is by no means analogous with what is done in prose novels and short stories, and more than anything it resembles poetry, without descending to the category of abstract film.
The imagery remains horizontal throughout and the different parts of the film are connected in a linear sequence that however, does not stay at the level of simply telling a story but constitutes itself into an experience constitutive of reality, critically so.
Deren writes:
“It is therefore relevant to underline, here, the fact that the appreciation of work based on experiential, on inner, realities consists not in a laborious analysis based on the logic of a reality which a prepared spectator brings to the work. It consists rather, in an abandonment of all previously conceived realities. It depends upon an attitude of innocent receptivity which permits the perception and experience of the new reality.”
This is true for “Out Loud” both at the visual and conceptual levels that ultimately blend into each other. The film captures with uncanny precision the miraculous nature of human speech, promises and the unpredictability of the world: It is a celebration of life.
Spectacular dinners like those prepared by families – with a singular twist here, childish play with paint and colors, dancing at the square surrounding Attar Samih’s “Vin et la Poésie” physically and musically. Men dance with women, men dance with men, men dance alone. Then a wedding, with spectacular colors and sounds, like never seen before in Arab cinema.
The scene across the “Vin et la Poésie” in Zahlé – and probably the very first of its kind, in which a gay couple dances under moonlight – is very telling about the purpose of the film and the status of human rights and freedom of expression in Lebanon.
In a documentary film made about the difficult realization of this film, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, Samer Daboul and his crew of actors and production tell us about the ordeal they had to go through in order to shoot this scene.
Insults, angry mobs, threats, disruption and more disruptions. Anyone who has seen the beautiful statue – and is surprised it was never demolished – can only wonder if the dancing into freedom in the film wasn’t actually a very subtle way to reclaim the statue to what perhaps Attar Samir had in mind when he created it: Freedom, beauty, peace.
Maya Deren insists: “When we agree that a work of art is, first of all, creative, we actually mean that it creates a reality and itself constitutes an experience”, and Susan Sontag completes the thought by writing decades later: “Cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences”.
“Out Loud” is something of this kind. It opens a magic door to view a very controversial tale about the limits of freedom and the limitations of human rights in the Middle East, in a way that is entirely whimsical. It breathes so much hope, while pinning itself in the history of regional film as an entirely innovative product, and therefore, as a role model.
The resolution of the film brings a melancholy note between sacrifice and heroism. Sometimes human promises involve sacrifices and sometimes those sacrifices invoke the end of life. And while this is one reason more to contemplate and participate in the beauty of this film, the writing on the wall for Lebanon remains as it was then, when Bertolt Brecht wrote in his play “Life of Galileo”: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”.

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