Documentary. Dir. Simon El Habre. Lebanon, 2008. 86 mins.
Simon El Habre brings a painterly vision to the unexpectedly involving tale of his uncle in the elegiac, low-key documentary The One Man Village. Frame after frame of careful compositions work to build his portrait of a Lebanese village devastated by war where now only one man remains, tending to his animals. Wistful, but never tragic, The One Man Village gives us an unchanging landscape in a fast-changing world.
What’s remarkable in this story is first-timer El Habre’s confidence in spinning out his 86-minute story, which won the Dubai Connections project market in 2007. It’s a full 20-odd minutes before he introduces another character to the piece; 35 minutes before any explanation is given for what happened in Ain El Hazaroun that left it so destroyed (the exact reasons are never fully detailed). Wide festival exposure is assured, although other markets will be tricky. Word of mouth will be a vital tool in getting this seen. Simon El Habre certainly emerges as a talent to watch, and his gift for composition and mood indicates he could be equally comfortable in the fiction arena with his next.
After a brief moment with El Habre’s uncle, Semaan El Habre, and his cat Zizi, The One Man Village kicks off as the cock crows with a beautiful establishing long shot taken outside the house in the dark as the day dawns in the crisp Lebanese snow. The one light at Semaan’s house is enough to convey his solitude; he explains the small farm used to belong to his grandfather and his father moved the family there - all 13 of them - when he was little. But Semaan’s parents died when he was very young, and they could no longer manage the cows; five years ago Semaan moved back to Ain El Hazaroun and is now the proud owner of some very good-looking, suspiciously clean cattle, bearing names such as Princess Vicky, Mrs Hanouni and Mr Misk (the calf). A gorgeous gray horse is also part of the family. The slightly other-worldly Semaan keeps a meticulous log of all the momentous occasions, such as ‘marriages’, in his livestock’s lives. ‘It’s nice to live in peace and quiet,’ he says, as he sings the cattle to sleep.
Regarding his own marriage, the no-longer-young Semaan is waiting to finish the bathroom first, he tells his nephew.
El Habre’s story shows the scars left by Lebanon’s bitter civil war, both on the landscape, where the destroyed Ain El Hazaroun once housed 45 families, and internally, for Semaan and other villagers who come back regularly to till their land although they will never return. ‘Our children know nothing of building and planting,’ laments one. ‘Soon, nobody will come’.
Still, 20 years later, his ‘witnesses’ chose to forget much of what happened in these mountains outside Beirut, and The One Man Village has narrative holes which may get in the way for some viewers (Semaan’s past, for example). With his artists’ eye, almost still-life-life compositions, and fluidity in the HD-CAM format, though, Simon El Habre captures this moment in time both precisely and movingly.
MEC Film, Germany
+ 49 30 66766700
Simon El Habre
Simon El Habre
Semaan El Habre