A general's daughter: Meet the filmmaker who defied Lebanese censors
BEIRUT - Lebanese documentarian Rana Eid knew she was treading on dangerous grounds when she decided to film Beirut’s army-controlled detention centres.
Eid acquired shooting permits from the military but did not reveal the context in which the footage she captured would be used.
The feature-length documentary, Panoptic, premiered last year at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland, embarking on a successful run that included competition slots in film festivals held in Dubai and Jihlava, in the Czech Republic, 75 miles southeast of Prague.
When her film was due to premiere in Lebanon at the Beirut Cinema Days a month ago, Eid presumed it would go smoothly since she had met with a couple of army generals that had requested to meet with her five months earlier to get screening permission. After they saw the film, they told her they respected her point of view and would allow the movie to be screened.
An act of defiance
A day before the film’s first public screening, however, the General Security – the acting censorship authority in Lebanon – summoned her. They would pass the film, they told her, provided that she removed a line from the voiceover.
“Some of the people in the detention centres came searching for a living. They may never get to trial. They may end up forgotten underground,” it said.
They also demanded that the prisoners’ faces were blurred, even though their consent had been acquired and the entire shoot was done in front of the military’s eyes. When she refused, she was denied permission to screen her documentary. Like many countries in the Middle East, being critical of the army or even addressing issues surrounding it is a taboo topic.
“By complying with their demands, I would’ve compromised my integrity,” Eid told Middle East Eye. “It would’ve been no different than throwing the entire movie in the garbage. I couldn’t not say no.”
By complying with their demands, I would’ve compromised my integrity
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
Outcry on social media from both the international and Lebanese film communities had no impact on the censorship decision. Additionally, a large number of local filmmakers including Eliane El Raheb and international figures, such as Carlo Chatrian, the director of the Locarno film festival, denounced the censorship decision in a series of speeches made on the night the film was supposed to screen at the Metropolis cinema in Beirut.
On 23 March, Eid decided to upload her film on a foreign online server so that the censorship authority would not shut it down, making it available for public viewing for three days. By the end of that period, more than 5,000 people would see Panoptic, making it an early contender for the Lebanese cause célèbre of the year.
A rare documentary
The most remarkable facet of Eid’s story is the cinematic nature of the work itself. An essay film with numerous experimental flourishes and no narrative, Panoptic is the rarest of Arab documentaries: it is a film that employs suggestive imagery, evocative sounds and meditative narration to produce one of the most vivid, authentic portraits of present-day Beirut.
The daughter of a deceased army general, Eid’s relationship with her father functions as the anchor of her film. It is the starting point from which she explores the shady foundation of Lebanon’s post-war military institution, the "slave society" the country has been transformed into, and the grand state of hypnosis engulfing the generations of today.
Before making the transition to filmmaking, Eid was, and remains, one of Lebanon’s foremost sound designers. Her credits include films such as The Mountain by Ghassan Salhab, The Lebanese Rocket Society by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and Tramontane by Vatche Boulghourjian.
Panoptic, Eid’s directorial debut, is an extension of her previous work, a springboard in which she “attempts to understand Beirut; to discover the identity of Beirut”.
The idea for the film came when she learned about the underground Adlieh detention centre and she started to imagine what sounds it might contain.
Once an undergound parking lot situated under a bridge in Adlieh, in east Beirut, it was converted into a detention centre in 2000. The facility itself has no relationship with the civil war that plagued Lebanon for 15 years between 1975 and 1990 but is, according to conflicting reports, used to hold foreigners held on various charges, numbering in the hundreds.
The people that Eid filmed in the detention centre were from Ethiopia, the Philippines and Egypt, and they were jailed for different reasons including not having work permits, or domestic help who have run away from their sponsors due to alleged abuse.
Our relationship with the city, with disease, with death, and with the military system…this is what gave birth to Panoptic
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
Eid was also struggling with grief over her father, unable to have closure after he died about six years ago from natural causes.
“Our relationship with the city, with disease, with death, and with the military system…this is what gave birth to Panoptic,” Eid said.
An integral part of Eid's quest for closure was to have her film shown in her hometown.
“I succeeded in conveying my dad’s voice, and my own voice, to the whole world, except for Beirut,” Eid said. “I needed to show it in Beirut - to have the people react to it. But I failed, and by default, I failed to bury my father.”
Eid is upfront about her distrust of the army. Ironically, her father did not nurture the love of the army in her.
I needed to show it in Beirut - to have the people react to it. But I failed, and by default, I failed to bury my father
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
According to Eid, her father's enrolment in the army was in part a reaction to the denial of an American visa he had applied for, as he wanted to leave Lebanon for good. He, nonetheless, believed that the army could have had a useful function, namely protecting the country from militias.
For Eid, this turned out to be nothing but wishful thinking. “The army didn’t protect us. It was divided unto itself during the war,” Eid said.
Most teenagers have no sense of belonging. Many leave the country, turn to drugs and decide to remain ignorant about everything
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
Eid has no qualms regarding the universal idea of an army, yet she cannot fathom the reason behind the multiplicity of different security forces in Lebanon at a time “when the judiciary system, when justice, is non-existent”.
The multiplicity of the security forces in Lebanon is owed largely to the country's sectarian-based power sharing system, which must include a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.
“We’re on the verge of another general amnesty for the Islamists who are said to have killed army soldiers, despite the fact they haven’t been put on trial to begin with,” Eid said. “Why are there so many security forces? What are they afraid of exactly? The militias have ruled the country, that’s a fact. So, do the security forces genuinely want to improve the conditions of the country, or are they protecting those militias?”
After the civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon approved a general amnesty for most political crimes perpetrated during the war. The government is discussing another general amnesty which might be issued ahead of the country's first general election in nine years, scheduled to take place in May. If approved, it is expected to pardon tens of thousands of wanted and convicted Sunni and Shia Lebanese citizens.
The invisible antagonist
The film's visual structure is divided into two: underground still vistas, shot on a tripod, and the more dynamic overground panoramas, photographed via handheld cameras, creating a contrast between the foreboding ambiance of the detention centre and the numbing breathlessness of Beirut life.
Recurring wide shots of the Tahweela bridge in Adlieh, below which lies the detention centre, are dotted throughout. The jail acts as the invisible antagonist of the story: noiseless and decaying, yet intimidating at the same time.
Images of abandoned buildings, such as the Beau Rivage which doubled as the Syrian intelligence headquarters from the 1990s until 2005, or the Burj-el-Murr tower, which was known for being a sniper hideout during the war, act as silent witnesses to the horrors of the war and its aftermath. As Eid says in the film, “the city calcified the past”.
In the most discussed scene of the film, a pro-military rally - entertained by a civic orchestra and adorned with posters of assassinated general François al-Hajj, who was killed in 2007, is shown without commentary, giving viewers the space to reflect on this nationalistic carnival unguided.
Deliberately recorded via low-quality iPhones, the sound is mostly distorted, penetrated by chants asserting that “only the army can judge; the army is above suspicion”.
It felt like a celebration of death
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
“It felt like a celebration of death,” Eid said. “Everywhere you can see fascist faces full of hatred. It felt like automata who went up to celebrate the army the day before going back to their hiding place.”
The pro-military intonation is juxtaposed by the effortless singing of an Ethiopian congregation whose churches are located underground. Ethiopians have an omnipresent role in the film. Eid highlights the cultural appropriation of blacks in Lebanon via uncommented sequences of local marathons and choirs. Their presence in Beirut, Eid hints, is only to serve.
Ethiopians make up the biggest group of migrant workers in Lebanon. Government data shows that an estimated 48,000 Ethiopians entered Lebanon between 2013 to 2016, despite the country banning its citizens from working in Lebanon since 2008.
“The detention centres were brought to my attention by an Ethiopian girl who was incarcerated at one stage,” Eid said. “Later, I was jarred by the sight of Ethiopian athletes running over the Tahweela bridge.
"I realised that we’ve created a strange duality for Ethiopian existence in Lebanon: the many who’ve been forgotten, imprisoned and without trial underground, and the lucky few like the fast runners paraded to the masses.”
Lebanon and Gulf countries have long been criticised for the treatment of domestics workers and the implementation of the Kafala system, a "sponsorship system" that facilitates the exploitation of workers and denies them the ability to travel or change jobs.
A denial of the past
The last section of the film is punctuated by images of Beirut nightlife. Glaring lights, gigantic billboards and cars in endless traffic give way to dimly lit nightclubs, populated by youngsters swaying aimlessly like zombies on the dance floor.
The multilayered sound – shot live throughout – is out of sync, reflecting the alienating nature of the city. The pervading sentiment is inexplicable loss mixed with apathy: a snapshot of a post-war generation searching for meaning.
This generation is in complete denial about our past. They refuse to delve into politics. They have no desire to understand
- Rana Eid, filmmaker
“This generation is in complete denial about our past. They refuse to delve into politics. They have no desire to understand,” Eid said. “These are the sons and daughters of those who waged the war; those who received amnesty and consequently lived a life of complete disillusion - a disillusion they passed on to their children. Most teenagers have no sense of belonging. Many leave the country, turn to drugs and decide to remain ignorant about everything.”
As for the censorship debacle, Eid believes the General Security will not back down on their decision. “I challenged them with the way I portrayed the detention centre. I challenged them again when I put the film online. They certainly regretted granting me permission to shoot there,” Eid said.
“And if I weren’t the daughter of a general, they would’ve banned the movie altogether.”
Panoptic is screening in Egypt on 28 April as part of the second Cairo Cinema Days.