By Thomas M. Puhr.
What emerges is a record of a people that is unwaveringly empathetic in its portrayal but incomplete in terms of either interrogating its position as a historical artifact or providing cultural context.”
The poor Lebanese neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatila are the subject of Stephen Gerard Kelly and Garry Keane’s new documentary, In the Shadow of Beirut (2023). Between 2018 and 2022, the filmmakers captured the trials, tribulations, and all-too-brief moments of hope experienced by four families based in these deeply impoverished areas; an opening title card explains how the hundreds of thousands living there “have been surviving on the margins for generations.” What emerges is a record of a people that is unwaveringly empathetic in its portrayal but incomplete in terms of either interrogating its position as a historical artifact or providing cultural context.
We first meet the Abeeds, who fled Syria at the onset of the war against ISIS and settled in a place where – to quote an early line – “about 30,000 of us [are] crammed inside 1 square kilometer.” Among these family members, most screentime is spent following Abu Ahmad, a little boy who works at a juice stand and shovels garbage from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for 3 U.S. dollars. Being able to go to school is a vague, distant goal; he doesn’t know how to read or write. “What makes me happy,” he says in voiceover, “is to make sure my Mum is always proud of me and for me and my family to be united.”
It’s fitting that Kelly and Keane begin with Abu Ahmad, since most of their story threads concern the toll such struggles have on children. Sanaa, the 13-year-old daughter of the Kujeyjes, for instance, tries to come to terms with her engagement to a neighborhood man named Nasser (the family eventually ends it, when they learn he has started abusing drugs). One of the film’s tensest moments shows the different family members’ contrasting perspectives toward the impending marriage. “I told her, ‘Listen my dear, I am not forcing you into anything,’” Sanaa’s father tells the camera. “‘This choice is yours. What matters to me is you.’” The daughter remembers things differently: “That was my parents’ decision.”
The most painful story involves 11-year-old Saarea (the film is dedicated to her memory), daughter of the Dahers, a Lebanese Dom (or “gypsy”) family. Suffering from a debilitating skin disease, she spends much of her time on the floor, wrapped in medicine-soaked gauze. She passed away during filming, and her mother observes that “she would not have died if it wasn’t for our poverty.” This line is not only heart-wrenching; it also calls into question the directors’ position in all of this. Were these families, one wonders, financially compensated for their time? How involved did the crew become with them over the course of those 4 years? More importantly, how involved should they have become? These questions are never addressed (let alone raised), though the footage regularly highlights them.
Aboodi Ziani is the subject of the fourth and final family documented. Having spent 5 years in prison for robbery and drug dealing, he is unable to get a worker’s permit and survives on odd-jobs: helping out at a friend’s tattoo parlor, mixing cement. As with all the other adults interviewed, his primary concern is his child: Ali, an infant at the film’s beginning.
In the Shadow of Beirut offers a piercing, intimate look at a people whose government would rather they kept quiet. This quality alone makes it essential.”
Kelly and Keane are clearly more interested in covering these families than they are in tracing the historical factors that led to their abject poverty. This approach is fine – by no means do such documentaries have to be history lessons for the uninformed – but even a touch more background information would have provided a fuller picture of the world the directors spent so long recording. One scene shows police arriving and shutting down shops that violate regulations. “The government needs to consider our status,” one man says. “It’s forbidden for us to study or get a job or practice a trade…We are not asking for charity, just give us permission to work.” Another interviewee briefly discusses his memories of a 1982 massacre perpetrated by Lebanese Christians and Israeli military. However, these scenes comprise mere minutes of the runtime. Lots of screentime, on the other hand, is dedicated to lyrical, slow-motion shots of the neighborhoods: an aesthetic choice that becomes morally questionable in light of the daily horrors the population endures.
What saves the film is the intimate footage of the families, whose candor is sometimes shocking and always moving. Consider the pained look on Sanaa’s face during her engagement party with Nasser, who was chosen in the hope that he’d provide her a better life. Or Aboodi Ziani’s sister describing her sadness over her brother’s drug use (“Ali looks at me and asks, ‘What’s wrong with daddy?’”). Or Abu Ahmad’s mother finding joy in the fact that she is able to remain with her kids, away from the war in Syria (“I wish I lived a different life with my boys…But we have love. My children and I love each other”). In this sense, In the Shadow of Beirut offers a piercing, intimate look at a people whose government would rather they kept quiet. This quality alone makes it essential.
Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.