The experience of war has been mediated through dramas usually exploring the classical distinction between good and evil, with clear protagonists and antagonists who confront either in blood-soaked battles or lawless gunfighting. Probably the most masculine of the genres, the war movie consistently deals with men confronting loyalty and guilt in life-or-death stakes. The immediacy of combat is transmitted through adrenaline fuelled soldiers who decide the destinies of countless civilians pejoratively considered collateral damage. Even when shame and resentment are acknowledged, the focus is more on the perpetrators than on the victims. In this context the Lebanon War is known to larger audiences through its Israeli depictions such as the Academy-nominated Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) or Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009), but firsthand experiences from Lebanese filmmakers have had a lesser impact. Against this backdrop, Rana Eid’s Panoptic is not a war movie, but an investigation of trauma and national identity that feels more authentically claustrophobic than tragic. Panoptic brings to the surface an alternative image of post-war Beirut through its underground maze, narrated with the help of exchanged correspondence between the director and her deceased father, a former officer in the Lebanese Army.
A respected sound designer who worked on projects such as Vatche Boulghourjian’s Tramontane (2016) or Mai Masri 3000 Nights (2015), Rana Eid communicates her conflicting feelings towards the city through a customised audiovisual language that favours complex soundscapes instead of war-torn scenery. With a non-narrative structure, her film speaks about oblivion through conflict. In a city where checkpoints and patrolling soldiers are still part of the quotidian, the juxtapositions between the present volatile peace and the previous tumultuous conflicts are depicted through schizophrenic layers of sound paired with organic editing. The film opens with a three minutes black screen composition that reproduces the sonic environment of Beirut by combining the constant buzz of traffic jams, reckless driving, construction works and call for prayers with harsh drone-like constant noise. The director explains through first person voiceover how she took ‘refuge in sound’ as the war forced her to retreat into the shelters as a little girl. It’s an effective approach to depict this fear since the Lebanese, cannot see the violence, yet it is heard constantly. This unnerving soundscape becomes the film’s leitmotiv.
Beirut was affected by fifteen years of civil war from 1975 to 1990, a war which divided the city in half not only physically, by its notorious Green Line that served as a demarcation between different factions and militias, but also between people torn apart by political ideologies, confessions and support or hostility towards the Palestinian cause. The threats came from within as much as from afar in the neighbouring countries, with Israeli invasion placing Beirut under siege in ’82, and Syrian intervention and extremist paramilitary factions alternating the attacks. By ’91 a general amnesty pardoned all prior political crimes in order to close the chapter on this enduring war. Instead, the lack of interrogation or sentencing of the perpetrators left the impression that the war had never truly ceased. This lack of closure left a tormented society in uncertainty and like the director’s father declared, it felt like they went through a war that no one had fought. Panoptic lacks confrontation, yet it operates through metaphor and dualities. Without narrative continuity, the film favours an architectural approach, with shots from above alternating with the underground. Instead of wide shots of the disputed territories, the director preferred to focus on depth and height, with the camera broadening the perception of space with ascending and descending tilt shots of the buildings in question. While for the civilians the underground was an escape from the above atrocities during the war, Beau Rivage Hotel’s lower level was a venue for the torture of political prisoners used by the Syrian intelligence. Ironically Lebanon is home to one of the biggest refugees population in the world, where people turn for protection from war, yet this turn of events is neither celebrated or highlighted, although from Panoptic it seems little has been learnt from this experience.
In Rana Eid’s Beirut, nothing is what it seems. The aerial shots of a congested city, with sparkling billboards and cosmopolitan lifestyle, are followed by a slow-motion descent into a secret detention centre for illegal immigrants. The flickering light dramatises the occasional military figures that appear on camera, looking drained and alluding to the film’s motto: “Honour your dead through burial”. Another zombie-like military unit is depicted through a rigid mannequin that raises above the crowd in a public pro-army nationalistic manifestation reminiscent of Jem Cohen’s Little Flags (2000) nationalistic frenzy. Along with the Lebanese flag and the mosque in the nearby background, the image of the mannequin soldier best encompasses the reigning mentality that celebrates sacrifice with the blessing of the secular and spiritual authorities alike. Although Lebanon is not a military dictatorship, the popular vote of confidence and the symbolic power of the army are alarmingly high for a country with a wounding past.
Sometimes an unusual, suggestive single piece of architecture is enough to describe such a complex and divided space and Panoptic adheres to this idea by exploring the legendary Burj El Murr building. An unfinished 40-storey building destined to be the headquarters of World Trade Centre, the imposing tower was quickly claimed by militias and snipers. Due to its strategic position, the building was ideal for firing rockets and artillery fire from the upper floors into the Christian-held neighbourhoods below, either for snipers to aim at the combatants residing in the nearby hotels. Prisoners were tortured in this building and the emotional burden of the past still lingers in Rana Eid’s personal characterisation of the city. She refers to the vertical wrap-around windowed box as the mythological creature of Argus Panoptes, an evident, yet necessary comparison to understand the ceaseless monitoring of citizens as potential enemies. In fact, as history comes in full circle, the building went back to being a military facility. Although degraded, the massive block of concrete is shot from a low angle that highlights its intimidating structure. On the inside, the ambience and acoustics of the place is immensely loaded with emotional debris as a travelling shot wanders in the darkness through the trenches and perforated walls of the mastodon. In fact, the separation between the levels seems fragile and almost invisible, as the camera seems to be floating like the unrested souls linked to the building’s past. Similar to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement (2017), another film essay set in Beirut, Panoptic proves that the architecture of a place is not only a mirror, but a defiant witness of war. However, unlike Ziad, Rana doesn’t explicitly show war, yet she masterfully uses overlapped images of the sea and dissolved combats to draw attention to her deepest fear, the killing of memory. It is the underwater scene when artillery and shooting noises are enhanced and the blend with the sub-aquatic ambient sounds feels like repressed pain finally kicks in. Once again, Rana Eid reminded me of Jem Cohen’s cross-genre hidden geographies guided by a hypnotic voice-over and sound. Like in Lost Book Found (1996), where the invisible became visible, the Lebanese director unveils the unconsidered paths of the city by following threads between emblematic architecture turned trivial.
For the moment Beirut is peaceful. But Panoptic is a strong reminder of how temporary this situation can be. Rana Eid’s film doesn’t only confront her traumatised memory through pieces of history, but warns about the invisible structures of power that can possibly lead to another war. In her film, unknowingly citizens run marathons by the detention centre. The apparatus of power is like the panopticon, like an observation tower with unseen watchmen. Michel Foucault’s said that “Discipline is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”1 to refer to the perverse consequences of surveillance. It feels like one doesn’t know when he or she can turn from a subject of observation into a target and the harrowing sound design of Panoptic is a constant reminder of it.
I interviewed Rana after watching her film at Locarno Film Festival and I wondered what kind of repercussions she would have to face after revealing the scars of Lebanon’s past. Although she obtained the permits to film in the war-torn buildings and the detention centre, that didn’t guarantee her the authorisation to screen the film. A screening of Panoptic was scheduled at the Metropolis cinema as part of the Beirut Cinema Screenings Festival, yet the film didn’t pass censorship. Rana declined to make the alterations the General Security asked her to do and in response, she revealed the password to her private link for a couple of days so that the audience could see and hear for themselves what the authorities didn’t want them to.
A: You are quite known as a sound designer. Can you tell me a little bit about your first directing experience?
R: At first I wanted to do this documentary as a sound documentary because when I discovered this place, the detention centre under Tahwita bridge, I wanted to do a sound composition about what it’s like there. But then I realised some images would benefit the story. So I talked a lot with my crew and the DOP because I was afraid a lot, I was nervous because it was my first experience. Actually I went to the locations with the sound recordist first and then I went with the DOP. It was a long process, back and forth. By the time we finished filming and started to put together the rough cut, the editor advised me to go and hear the sounds so that I could take the rhythm from there. So the sound and the narration dictated the rhythm of the film.
A: The film begins with a black screen for some minutes. You suppress the image and let the voice-over and the sounds of the city guide us. Do you feel we can pay more attention to the story this way?
R: Yes, it’s more about the hearing process because for me listening creates the identity of the place. Even from the beginning of the film it’s supposed to be two minutes and a half of a sound composition because I wanted the spectator to go into the world I know the way I know it through sounds and the sensitivity of sounds. I establish the identity of the place through hearing.
A: Yes, and sometimes the sound and image don’t even match. You have an image and the source of it is someplace else, did you deliberately choose to separate the two components?
R: Exactly, thank you for noticing that. If I should put it that way, the main theme of sound was the synchronicity of the city. For me Beirut is out of sync. So we’re moving in one place and the city is moving in another one. It’s as if we’re not living properly in the city. So that’s why I wanted to break the perspective and break the synchronicity. And even when you see a shot from above, the sound is taken from under a bridge or underground, so that I obtain this out of sync effect, because for me this is how we feel every day. When you hear a sound and you can’t detect a visual source you feel a little bit disturbed; it’s uneasy.
A: Is this also a way to interweave the present and the past? Since the sounds from the underground are placed above?
R: It’s more than breaking the perspective of things, to me it’s more architectural. Beirut was divided between East and West, for me it’s divided between up and down so that’s why the sounds should be divided too.
A: Can you expand a little bit about these layers of your cinematography that are, as you said, very architectural. Did you want to offer something like a panoptic view of the city?
R: Exactly, because you know what panoptic is, it’s this huge monument that they used in prison for surveillance, it’s a reference to Michel Foucault who talked about the mechanisms of power. I read him a lot, he was a main reference for the film and I wanted to transmit a feeling that every monument in Beirut, especially those related to war and to the atrocities that took place, are in a way, a panopticon: they can see us and we can see the danger as if someone is watching us all the time and we really don’t know who is doing it. Is it the war, is it the Police State, is it the militia, the dead people? We don’t know who’s watching us. This is our everyday life here. We’re always on the edge of having a war, another war.
A: At some point you say that wars have multiplied and you don’t even know who your enemy is. How is this relativisation of the enemy affecting you?
R: For me the enemy was at first – the very obvious enemy of Lebanon – was Israel, because they invaded Lebanon and there was a war. But after that, there were a lot of other smaller conflicts between other factions and there was the Civil War and the Syrian army came and occupied Lebanon too, so we lost track of the enemy. We were always fighting each other and fighting everything, but during the process we lost a cause, we lost everything.
A: Even if we get a sense of the situation through your letters, the images are not violent and you hardly show people, almost like a glimpse… Was this a way to achieve a balance between the personal story and the facts?
R: It was curious for me because every time I had a sickness it was related to a political issue. I didn’t want to be dramatic, or to be a victim, or to accuse anyone. It’s just a process for myself and for other people to try to understand the situation and the conflict. We are all in conflict in a way, and life is a conflict, but we have to deal with it. I had more letters between me and my father, but at some point some letters were a little bit melodramatic, so I wanted to reach a balance between being on the edge of objectivity without the melodrama, without pointing fingers. So I tried as much as I can to have a limit, to find the right dosage between the situation of the city and my own personal story and having few people filmed was a part of it.
A: It’s a little bit ironic that you are a sound designer and you were on the verge of becoming deaf.
R: This is why I decided to dig into my own experience and on a personal level the film was very therapeutic because I have to mourn many things, to try to mourn my father, my relationship with the city. For me it became clear that the cause was psychosomatic and I figured out why I chose to have the sickness. Otosclerosis is a sickness that is very widespread in the Middle East and apparently my family has it so I inherited it, but I have a personal belief that you don’t get sick unless you want to. It’s a sort of a psychological response to the trauma, it’s as if I didn’t want to hear anything anymore. So I had the operation and it went well, but it was a terrifying experience and it was linked to a very tough period in the country. I realised these tough situations that we live in are going to alter our body, the stress and fear puts pressure on us as much as on our minds. And I think sickness always comes to the weakest part of your body. So it was a message, like a wakeup call. Lebanon’s politics affects everybody. Like in the letters, our relationships are very heavy, not only mine with my father. Sometimes I feel that there’s an unexplainable tension between people, even between friends and lovers, because the situation here is extremely tense. It’s challenging, but it’s very rewarding to have something to say and to be able to put this in cinema. But it is frustrating, yes, and I think we have to be insane to live in these kind of countries, really.
A: It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s difficult to be there, but hard to leave too… The film is based on dualities. On one side it’s you and your political beliefs, on the other side is your father, then there’s the aboveground versus the underground. How did this dual structure come to be?
R: As I told you, it was a defining moment when I realised that there’s a prison underground beneath that bridge and also, I spent a lot of my life in the shanties because of the war. So the seeds of the dichotomy were planted and then I was trying to search all the duos – my sickness, my calcification versus the calcification of the city, my personal life and our society. I agree with a quote by Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, that stated something like ‘if you want to talk about your personal story, make it universal’. People don’t care about your personal story, they care about something to which they can relate to and identify with. The first idea was about the above and under, so then I went further and thought about all of the contrasting elements that can be put; the synchronicity and out of sync of the audiovisual, the personal and the political issue. Life is a series of layers because our psyche has layers, we have conscious, unconscious, the ‘me’ and the ‘ego’, so I transferred this to the city and to understanding it. We should relate and make links between the layers to solve our problems.
A: Weren’t you afraid of the reaction of the authorities? Because you said it was forbidden to shoot in some venues.
R: Well, I waited a lot of time, it took me almost three years to obtain the permits, but everything was authorised. Before I show it in Lebanon, the censors had to watch it. So we’ll see if it is going to be banned or not, I have no idea because I don’t know about their rules and how they work. They don’t care what is happening outside Lebanon. But inside Lebanon I can’t screen the film in cinemas. At this moment I have to have private screenings and the Lebanese press can’t write about the film. But the film has to go to festivals before I show it in Lebanon. I don’t have any problem to wait and see.
A: Were there other challenges to make such a movie apart from obtaining permissions?
R: The permits are a huge challenge and other than that it was very challenging for the crew. When the crew went to those places it brought trauma into their lives too, because everyone has its own stories and being there brought them to surface. So especially in Hotel Beau Rivage we were extremely depressed while shooting. We couldn’t talk to each other for two weeks. The main challenge was to stay professional and to have an eye and an ear to film and record those places because we were all affected. To be honest I recorded my crew, their reactions, but somehow it didn’t work in the film because I didn’t want to talk about other stories, the film has already so many layers that I didn’t want to augment.
A: Do you plan to direct again?
R: Yes, because I realised there is a lot to say. If the authorities let me.
A: Do you believe in that quote that says that the people who forget their history are bound to repeat it? Was this process of making the film therapeutic?
R: Of course. For me what the general amnesty did in 1991 to the country and how the Lebanese people accepted it is a general amnesia. We forgot everything. So that’s why I feel Lebanon is not going to be stable ever because we didn’t solve anything. That’s the Lebanese mentality, we put layers on top of other layers and we hide the reality. We hide everything and we put it underground and it’s been calcified. The history of our city is being calcified day after day, year after year and we don’t talk about it – there were seventeen years of civil war and we didn’t talk to each other. We didn’t solve our problems. Of course now other problems have arisen like the refugees situation, but we moved on without closure to our previous issues and we tend to ignore them. Personally, I’m not very optimistic towards what is going to happen to this country.
A: I was thinking that you explore a very innovative type of storytelling. It resembles known techniques closer to Chris Marker’s film essay style, yet it also explores new forms of filmmaking. Can you explain your approach to technique and what visual references you had for this movie?
R: It’s very strange that you mentioned him because the main reference for my film was Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, so I’m very happy you mentioned him. Sans Soleil and Joris Ivens and the drawings of Enki Bilal, the Serbian illustrator, really inspired me in depicting the city. I tried to work with the images like I work with the sounds because in my work as a sound designer I put layers and pieces of sounds altogether, so that’s why I used the superimposed images. And I used a lot of mixed media, there’s several kind of cameras throughout the film, because with mixed media you see the movement and it’s more dynamic. Technically I wasn’t very involved because I don’t know much about the cameras and the lenses, but I consulted a lot with the DOP and I gave him texts and references and I talked about myself and what I wanted. For example at Burj El Murr we didn’t have much time to shoot, we were allowed only about three hours so we had like seven cameramen so I could film everything I wanted. We planned ahead and we heard a lot of sounds that I wanted as a reference and I asked the DOP and the crew before going to the location that they listen some music and sounds that I found very effective.
A: At some point you said that your father dreamt of a Pan Arabism and that he believed in his dreams and you were afraid of them. Why were you afraid of them?
R: I was dreaming this dream of the dragon that is coming and burning everyone except me and sat next to me and it scared me. It’s another duality that had the Palestinian cause in common because it was a big defeat for Arabs and the generation of my father. It’s a long story, but it was really a turning point of a whole generation, the loss of Palestine was the beginning of the end of the Arab world. And I remember that my father told me every year that the next year we would go together to Palestine but he died and never went, because Palestine doesn’t exist in a way anymore. So my dream was about the enemy or my unconscious telling me about the the danger. It’s also about defeat, I was afraid to see him defeated. All my life I was afraid that my father was going to die because he was in the army and then he died because he had some heart problems. I was afraid that these dreams and this huge sadness of losing Palestine and the Arab cause are going to kill him. Because Pan Arabism doesn’t exist anymore. The Arab world is collapsing now. And you can see after the Arab spring what happened.
A: Your father regretted his military career, but ironically he was buried with military honours. Did you feel you finally got to terms with him?
R: That’s true, but I was very sad. Because it was very sad for me to see a man who had a lot of wisdom and who was very kind and open-minded to feel like he wasted 35 years of his life. It was very hard, but in a way I was happy for him to see the truth too. He raised me and I was in the Communist party. And he raised me to be free. He raised me to make my own choices.
A: How did you choose the locations? Did you have a personal relationship with them or was it more like you came across them through research?
R: All these places except the detention centre that was a trigger point for the film were related to the army, militia and the war. I heard during the war they used these buildings and I heard stories that there are four floors underground. Burj El Murr is an army base, Hotel Beau Rivage was a Syrian intelligence base during occupation, so it’s all related in a way to the army, to the atrocities that took place. I didn’t have to do much research because everybody knows these places. I wanted to face my fears and work out my problems with them, especially with the long building, Burj El Murr with those windows like eyes; I’ve always been very afraid of this building because a lot of people died there.
A: Can you speak about the tanks under the water? I felt it was related to this phrase you keep repeating during the movie: “to honour your dead is to bury them”.
R: I was really shocked to find out there were military tanks underwater and we don’t know why they ended up in the sea. So it was all this symbolism of this country that hides everything, we throw the mess under the carpet. I chose to put this superimposition of the war because these calcified tanks are tearing apart along with all our history. So the consequence is we don’t know how to mourn our history. A lot of people died in Lebanon and we celebrate martyrs who died for our country. For me it’s a metaphor, we cannot die anymore, we are all undead, we’re like turning into zombies, so I think maybe one therapeutic thing we can do to solve our problem is to really mourn our dead, to bury them. Because you know, in the Arab world and in the Arab mythologies there’s a lot of importance to the dead and putting the dead underground. It’s very related to the Arab tradition and we don’t do that. We’re always celebrating death, we are happy when someone dies for the country, we call them martyrs. We don’t have to celebrate the dead, we can be sad that we lost someone. It’s this contrast once again between celebrating death and putting those people on a pedestal, we don’t know how to deal with loss. They died in vain. The people who died during the war died for nothing. And even now, even when the army has clashes with other factions, we say they are martyrs and that we are happy because they are dying for our country. We are undead, we really have to realise that the underground is for graves, we have to delineate between underground and overground to be able to go on with our lives.
A: The Arab world has a strong filmmaking history. Were you influenced by the political Arab films in any way?
R: I watch and I am interested in political films. Not particularly this one, but Schlöndorff did a film in Beirut during the war, it’s called Circle of Deceit (1981). I also like Costa Gavras’ Z (1969) because it’s a whole film about army and military. This is the cinema that I like and I am very fond of those filmmakers because for me cinema and art are extremely related to politics. And Bertolt Brecht said life is politic. It is my personal opinion that I cannot be a part of what’s happening in my society and not talk about it. Especially in our world, in our region, where we have turmoil everyday. I’m not saying everybody should to be an activist, but we have to be aware. We have to be alert and aware, not only in our region and this is also what Panoptic is about, about paying attention.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York, Pantheon, 1977, p. 201 ↩