Dir/scr:Danielle Arbid. Fr-Bel-Leb. 2004. 90mins
The war thatengulfed Lebanon in the early 1980s, turning Beirut from the Paris of theMiddle East into a scarred wasteland of pockmarked and rusting buildings, isonly a metaphor for the chaos and turmoil that most interests the youngLebanese documentary and shorts film-maker Danielle Arbid in her feature debut.
Althoughthe film deals with explosive emotions, the opaqueness of the central characterand the slow pace of the film as a whole makes In The Battlefields farless involving and sympathetic than intended. It may win plaudits from festivaljuries - it played in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes - but will fail to connectwith all but homegrown audiences.
Twelve-yearold Lina (Feghali) is far less concerned with the bombs falling outside herupper-middle class Beirut home than the war erupting inside it. Her fatherFaoud's gambling addiction has turned her and her mother's lives into anightmare. Repeated attempts by family and friends to get Faoud to acceptresponsibility and change have failed. Were it not for Faoud's imperious oldersister Yvonne (Arbid), the family would have no place to live.
Ignoredby everybody, Lina has developed a crush of sorts on her aunt's 18-year-olddomestic servant Siham (Elchab), who was effectively 'sold' to Yvonne and istreated as little more than a slave. Siham has befriended Lina, the only onewho treats her kindly, but actually considers the girl little more than a toolin helping her to sneak out of the house to meet her boyfriend. When Linarealises that Siham intends to run away for good, she feels betrayed and sinksto the kind of revenge that she sees practiced outside her window every day bythe various warring parties involved in the Lebanese conflict.
Arbidintentionally fails to provide any historical backdrop or political context forher story because the outside war is far less important to Lina than thebrutality inside the household. This lack of background, however, makes itdifficult for audiences who know nothing about the region's recent past tofully engage with the characters.
Evenmore problematic is that the viewer never connects fully with Lina, the onepotentially likeable character. By masking so many of her thoughts and feelingswith a poker face, she keeps the viewer at a distance. Certainly things aregoing on inside her ' the end result is that she sinks to the politics ofrevenge that have doomed her homeland ' but we do not identify with the painand anger she feels.
Director/writerArbid definitely has something to say, but her reliance on long and staticshots of abandoned apartment buildings (intercut with hand-held scenes ofdomestic unrest) never feels terribly poignant. Despite some fine acting and apowerful sense that life never seems to change, In The Battlefieldslacks the emotional impact of a film like West Beirut, which depicted threeteenagers at the start of the war.
Itis a measure of this film's failure that the only real character the viewer'sheart goes out to is a dog that is being abused. The terrible things people doto one another should elicit a similar response.
Prodcos: QuoVadis Cinema, Versus Prod, Taxi Films, Selavy, La Rtbf
Int'l sales: Bavaria Film Int'l
Prods: JeromeVidal, Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Sabine Sidawi-Hamdan, Elie Khalife, ChristianBaute
Prod des: AndreFonsy
Main cast: MarianneFeghali, Rawia Elchab, Laudi Arbid, Aouni Kawass, Carmen Lebbos