East Side Story

Neglected women, abusive men and crumbling family values are all to be found in Danielle Arbid's film set in Beirut in 1983 - but nothing of the war.

In a long, slow opening scene, the camera follows Lebanese youth Marwan as he is enchanted by Siham. His face, invisible at first and revealed only at the last moment, is burning with clumsy, forceful desire. The other men in Lebanese director Danielle Arbid's film, "In the Battlefield" ("Maarek Hob"), are portrayed in all of their ugliness and villainy.

This film verges on banality in its basis and conclusion, despite the high acclaim it earned at Cannes. It is a story about a Christian Lebanese family from East Beirut. The pregnant mother, Therese, is neglected by her gambling husband who brings the family to the brink of bankruptcy. This is mainly the story of 21-year-old Lina (Marianne Feghali) and 18-year-old Siham (Rawia Elchab). Lina is the family's daughter and Siham is the maid of their Aunt Yvonne, who lives in the same building. The family's misfortunes, precipitated by the husband's gambling, cause Therese to leave her home, while Lina tries to motivate her to stay.

Miserable, neglected women, abusive men, symbolism rife with flight and displacement, in which women always carry the brunt of the burden, crumbling family values, and adolescent girls exploring the limits of their sexual urges - these might summarize the overall impression of the film.

But one detail rouses curiosity and wonder. Arbid, a journalist turned director, decided to place the plot in the year 1983, one year after the Israeli invasion of Beirut. One might expect the director, who has produced a film every year since 1999, to contribute another film to the archive of Lebanese war films, a ubiquitous genre in that nation. But Arbid had a surprise in store. Blessed with a relatively large endowment, $200,000, from French and Belgian companies, Arbid nearly ignores any mention of the war. There are several gunshots in the background and we see a few demolished homes in Beirut, but the film moves from the closed alleys of East Beirut to the rooms in the home where its characters reside.

In every interview she granted, Arbid does not explain the reason for the decision to place the film in 1983 while nearly avoiding any reference to the war. Even the civil war in Lebanon, which provided material for most Lebanese films produced in the `80s and `90s, fails to make an appearance in this film. Arbid, age 35, was only 12 years old in 1983 and it is possible the events of the war took place at a distance from her, but this does not appear to be the explanation for the omission.

"In the Battlefield" may be interpreted as a response to a superb film, "West Beirut," produced in 1998 by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri. (He later emigrated to California to work as a cinematographer in Quentin Tarantino's films.) References to "West" and "East" in Lebanese films have profound ethnic and political connotations: The West is Muslim and the East is Christian.

Doueiri's "West Beirut" is a film about life in the shadow of the civil war that began in 1975. It depicts the life of a young, Muslim boy who falls in love with a Christian girl, and the concurrently increasing complications in their lives and the war. Doueiri, who left Lebanon in 1983, created a Lebanese tapestry in which an entire culture is at risk: Paul Anka represents the devil and militia fighters are modern-day heroes. Muslims and Christians meet only in a West Beirut brothel to engage in common sin.

Collective narrative

In contrast, "In the Battlefield," set in Christian East Beirut, prefers the intricacies of personal life to the war that transpired in Lebanon during that same period; the Western music in the soundtrack is significant only as it sets a rhythm for the longing of hearts, and Lebanon appears to be merely a set. The explanation may be as simple as that cited by a Lebanese film critic in the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper, "We are sick of the war genre."

This pronouncement is not necessarily accurate, because the abundance of Lebanese art, film and literature that still examines civil war indicates Lebanon is only beginning to profoundly comprehend its historic tragedy, and to reconstruct its collective narrative. But none of this was penetrated by that other war - the war with Israel. Because when Israel attacked southern Lebanon, expelled its citizens to the north, and "destroyed Hezbollah targets," Beirut continued to celebrate. The rehabilitation of central Beirut reached an all-time peak while the south was embroiled in a difficult war. Emigrants returned to their homes and investors flooded the nation while Israel and Hezbollah traded calamities.

"Beirut matured more quickly and overcame the war more quickly than other parts of Lebanon," says Omar Shabar, a journalist active in the Parisian Lebanese community. "Beirutis, particularly those who emigrated like Doueiri and Arbid, were freed to handle banal problems, like love, abandonment, relations between parents and children and other subjects that arouse consternation in Westerners, who do not understand how Lebanese artists betray `the major issues.'"

This maturity is also witnessed in other Lebanese art forms, like painting and the plastic arts, where the civil war makes a rare guest appearance. From the Israeli point of view, it appears that little more than a few, passing shots from Kalashnikov rifles are "etched in the conscience" of Beirut after our longest 18-year war, and the civil war ultimately won the battle for Lebanese collective memory, at least in film.