Society / Liban
The Wars of Love
Hassan Daoud - 26/10/2005
Older filmgoers, more experienced in such matters, also refrained from passing comment on the film's artistic merits. One man made a brief comment about scene in which the middle-aged actress Ludi Arbid got out of bed to prepare herself ready to go downstairs. So profoundly affected was this viewer by her pale, wrinkled face--as if she were rising from her grave rather than her bed—that he declared that it wouldn't have been out of place in a foreign film. Then there was the 12-year-old girl through whose eyes the viewers observe everything going on in the building and the street outside, and the lively maid Suham who appears on screen in a variety of different situations and scenes, unique amongst the other one-dimensional characters: nasty old Aunty Ifun the compulsive gambler, the pregnant wife who spends the entire film weeping and wringing her hands, the young men whom nothing seems to affect. For example, the death of the husband at the end of the film doesn't seem to affect them: they stay as they are. The death doesn't even change the way the viewers see the husband himself. The incident has no real dramatic value and fails to bring the film to a convincing end by providing the necessary point of transformation allowing characters to start their lives anew.
Nevertheless the director, Danielle Arbid, set aside a long funeral scene for this crucial scene with all the characters either sitting together or greeting each other. While the director may have imagined the scene to stand out from the film's linear narrative, with all the actors gathered together in the the ritualism of the funeral, in actual fact it provides nothing new to the viewers. The funeral scene, or any scene where the actors gather together, is a cliché of Lebanese cinema--a cliché whose banality is further reinforced by including the all-too-familiar conversations the Lebanese are accustomed to having whenever the subject of war comes up.
Films set in wartime are inevitably accompanied by the oaths of the fighters, the sound of artillery fire and the wretchedness of life in the cities. Danielle Arbid's portrayal of an extended family at this time in our history has nothing new to add. Life and cinema have left us overexposed to the war: everything is inter-textual. Even the scene where a dog is gunned down reminds of the horse that is shot dead in one of Marwan Baghdadi's films.
All these clichés return in "The Wars of Love". The subject is so worked over that all the director can hope to do is change some of the details. This is what Arbid achieves with her 12-year-old girl and the character of the maid who is willing to pay any price to escape the fear and stagnation that imprison her. The other characters are not so compelling. We are faced with a canvas already crowded with images and ideas; all we can do is fill in the few small gaps that remain. Indeed, however new the film, however cutting edge the producer, the film could have been made in the years immediately following the end of the war (1991, 1992). Fifteen years have made no difference to how we see the war. When we watch the film we feel as if we are still there, sitting in a cinema in wartime.
This isn't Danielle Arbid's problem alone: I would guess it holds true for the Lebanese in general who remain incapable of changing the way they think about their trials and tribulations. Nothing we see or read makes us feel that the ever-growing distance between our present and the war should compel us to change the way we see things. Sometimes we feel that we can never escape the war: that our progress has no real permanence.
At other times, we think that by leaving the war, the temporal and topographic focus of the conflict, will leave us estranged from our lives that still carry so many traces of the past. So this is war: sounds and scenes that we can all agree on. One clichéd image of the militias, one for their victims. Cars passing down deserted streets. Pockmarked buildings mutilated by gunfire; buildings that made us wonder how far and wide Arbid must have searched in order to find them. Perhaps a building or two in some unreconstructed alleyway, left there for when we need it... for when cinema needs it. This serves a vital need: to insulate ourselves against the changes that are taking place all around us and leaving us trailing in their wake.
Maybe it is the fate of writing and cinema to revisit a vanished past and to relieve the burden of comprehending a complex and entangled present. Lebanon's history is overshadowed by this single period. Whenever we set out to write our history we must start from this menacing bulk we call war. We all return to its embrace. Those who lived through it are unable to move beyond it in their writings and films. Even those who were only young at the time must return.
My guess is that the 12-year-old girl is Danielle Arbid herself. Although there is no positive evidence of this, the day after watching the film we decided that this identification can only be to the film's advantage: it renders its characters and events closer to real life. Rather than a vision of war we are confronted with a personal testament. When dealing with such testaments--and not just this film, but each time we glance back at our burdened past--it is preferable to soften one's critical faculties. Hassan Daoud