Shatila's Whirlpool

Shatila's Whirlpool
Just as a military commander explains the battlefield and his plan of attack by sketching out a rough military map, Maher Abi Samra's film begins with a short but intense explanation of the history and geography of the Palestinian camp of Shatila, first established in 1949; a kilometer long and 600 meters wide. Lines, symbols, words and numbers--as if scribbled by hand--begin to appear on the screen accompanied by Maher's voice as he recounts events and explains the significance of the rapidly unfolding map.
Yet these two fleeting minutes that precede the film proper are like a guide book to this narrow strip of land, telling half a century's worth of Palestinian and Lebanese history; a Middle Eastern biography--if one can call it that--that takes a few square yards of earth, catches a glimpse of a suburban neighborhood or observes people gathering in the streets, and tells the story of a whole country's troubles, past and present.
These two minutes relieve the director of the burden of telling the story of the camp; of relating its history and conjuring up its memory. He is then free to plunge straight into the film itself, telling a contemporary story in pure cinematic language.

The film consists of a camera wandering over 150 square meters of the camp's main road and the first floor of Gaza's hospital. For the duration of the film (i.e. 52 minutes) the camera "lives" in the camp. One could say, in fact, that the camera becomes one with the street's residents: it sits, walks, talks, falls silent, gets angry, rests and plays with them. Yet it never steals from them, attacks or dominates. Even the woman, angry at this intrusion of foreigners and their camera, stands on her doorstep and berates them as if they were family or neighbors. This woman gives Abi Samra's camera its unique quality, unless it is Abi Samra himself who has convinced the camp's inhabitants that far from objectify them his filming is part of the tapestry of day to day life. Perhaps he spent time in the camp before filming began to remove the stigma of "foreignness" from the camera. People appear before the camera almost devoid of any theatricality or self-awareness and make no attempt to step out of its way. It's a little bewildering that these people, living by the rules of the camp, suspicious of any foreigner or stranger in their midst, imprisoned in this narrow strip of mud should be so willing to subject the details of their daily lives to the camera's scrutiny.

Despite the dense population and the camera's natural bias towards the "human", the film is best described as a record of walls and enclosures. Indeed, the walls have the starring role. The arrows and numbers on the walls of the camp recall the handwritten symbols of the film's introduction and the signs and symbols of engineers and builders. They form an obscure vocabulary surrounding an uncomprehending population that Abi Samra links, implicitly, with the camp's geo-historical map: prophetic, seer-like signs that map out the future of the camp and its inhabitants.

There are no tales in Shatila's Whirlpool, only fragmented stories, glimpses of daily life, broken admissions and snatches of memory. The camera is left to its own devices. Like a patient listener embarrassed their own insignificance it records the stream of words and deeds with deep compassion.
Avoiding conventional labels such as "documentary" or "dramatic" cinema Maher Abi Samra prefers to describe his work as "reality cinema". This term should not be be confused with "reality television" and programs such as "Big Brother" and "Loft Story". These tendentious fantasies defy any attempt to pin them to real life, which they mirror with artifice.
Abi Samra's realism, however, is built on the conscious decision to disregard artifice and technical considerations. This means that the movement of the camera is determined by considerations of "intimacy", not the composition of the shot. There is a deliberate randomness in the transitions from scene to scene, from story fragments to an unexpected image or from one perspective to another, that frees the director from the restraints of narrative convention. Concealing methodology and technique is the hallmark of this form of realism, the means by which is narrows the gap between the act of filming and the subject. What sets it apart from amateur home video is its effortlessness and the unmistakable hand of the director in the filming and editing.

Shatila's Whirlpool presents the camp as an enclosed trench, holding an ever-increasing jungle of concrete walls. The inhabitants of this maze of rooms, walls, basements and doors appear to have lost their ability to distinguish between what is within and what is without. Their houses spill onto a street that is little more than an extension of their rooms; all normal classifications have disappeared. The qualities that make a shop a shop, a street a street or a house a house have been vanished. In their stead we are confronted with unclassifiable architectural jumble. It a travesty that has come to define the camp dwellings of Palestinian refugees.
Like their surroundings the camp dwellers are a confusion of eras, stories, professions and times. For example, it is impossible to tell the difference between the clothes they sleep in, their house clothes and the clothes they go out in. Unable to perceive the difference, they drink their coffee and play cards in their livings rooms and on the pavement outside.

Abi Samra has also noted the role played by the chair, a role equally as important as the walls and their obscure postings. Whether outside the house, the shop or in the street the chair is omnipresent. Aimlessly, pointlessly, the residents take their turn to sit down. Most of the time these randomly scattered chairs are an aim in themselves; a job for the forcibly unemployed. The mission? To sit down. In the film, the chair provides a steady rhythm to the camp-dweller's life, a way to organize his days and nights and regulate his confusion.

We see a young man stripped to the waist. He has the hair and beautiful features of the African, rippling muscles and tattoos cover his chest, biceps and back. He turns his back to the camera to show a huge dragon, coiled to spring. "The man who tattooed me, drew this and died." He doesn't add another word, nor show any grief. This unemployed youth, whose life is spent idling on the street, is representative of a whole generation. Self-reliant, proud, even boastful, he doesn't complain or avoid the camera.
Abi Samra's camera doesn't go looking for any grand tragedy. Even the two women who tell him about the camp wars and how they had to bury one of their brothers are lighthearted, laughing and joking as they dice tomatoes with enormous knives. The drama in the scene is not to be found in their violent, harsh stories but in the dicing motion of their huge, gleaming knives.

The language the people use and the stories they tell one another are similarly indefinable: a strange brew throwing off fleeting sparks. One man speaks to his friends as if in imitation of a politician making a speech at a press conference. Others talk as if the words themselves cannot bear to remain unsaid. Even the zajjal (folk poetry) sounds as if it is issuing from an old speaker rather than his mouth. Then there is the woman, standing in a group in front of shop one evening who suddenly turns and starts speaking to her audience, not about the massacres in the camp but about the doll her father bought her when she was a little girl. She still dreams about it and searches for it in shops' display windows. That little talking doll that told her the Israelis had stole her home from her was a metaphor for a life stuck in childhood. She, too, laughed as she told her story, aiming to amuse her friends and neighbors but never demanding pity.

And in exchange, the camera never tried to take more than it was given. Never greedy, it suppressed the instinct to tell tales and reveal secrets. This restraint and decency allows viewers of Shatila's Whirlpool to stop being voyeurs, but leaves them even more bewildered.

(The film was shown at the "Reality Cinema" festival last March as part of the World Cinema season at the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris.
It was first screened in Lebanon at the Shatila camp on Friday 29 April 2005.)
Youssef Bazzi

Related Posts

Umam: en route towards a national project for the future


Umam: en route towards a national project for the future “Civil courage is necessary to construct memory”. Overview of Umam Association, a citizen adventure with a crucial and ambitious objective for Lebanon: “a national project for the future”.

Cultural resurgence in Beirut and an idea under the threat of assassination


Cultural resurgence in Beirut and an idea under the threat of assassinationThe mood swing that overtook Lebanese politics after the events of the 14th of March manifested itself in the cultural sphere with a resurgence of local-international cooperation, and Western countries in particular. A reflection on a cultural month in Beirut, not capital to a Lebanon of factions and leaders, but the capital city of an idea living under the threat of assassination.