Monday, January 30, 2017

Film Notes: Under the Bombs

Phillippe Aractingi's 2007 film Under the Bombs (French: Sous les bombes, Arabic: تحت القصف; taht alqasf‎‎), is a deep lament for civilians caught up in the violence of war. The setting is Lebanon in 2006, just as the almost month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is drawing to a close under a UN brokered truce. While the war is raging as the film begins, it ends with French-UN forces arriving and a tense cease-fire generally holding sway. While the respective armies and politicians no doubt count their successes; this film focuses on the people who are left to bury their dead, and rebuild their roads, homes and families.

The film centres on two characters, Zeina and Tony; she has arrived back from Dubai in a desperate attempt to locate her sister and son, who have not been heard of since their town was bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Tony is the one taxi driver at the airport who is so in need of money (and it turns out with his personal dreams in tatters) that he is willing to drive Zeina into dangerous areas in search of her son. He is from 'the South' too, and knows the back-roads and diversionary routes around bombed out bridges, and unexploded ordnance which makes the post-combat zones enduringly dangerous. Nada Abou Farhat as Zeina and Georges Khabbaz as Tony, delivery memorable performances; begining the film as strangers, who in the course of their harrowing road-trip, discover more and more about each other's complex lives. The contrast between the fragile beauty of their humanity and the devastation which surrounds them is haunting.

Under the Bombs is superbly filmed too. According to Aractingi's interview with The Daily Telegraph, a lot it was filmed during the war, or in its immediate aftermath in 2006. The footage of ruined cities, of motorways junctions in fragments, of fleeing refugees, are real scenes of the horror of war. The cameramen took real risks in capturing this remarkable footage, which is on occasion spliced togther with archive news footage from the conflict too.

The obvious question which viewers want to know is which 'side' in the conflict the filmmakers take. Here in the West, people typically come to a film like Under the Bombs, wondering if it will be an anti-Israeli polemic, an apologetic for Hezbollah, or the inverse; a right-wing American funded justification for the Israeli bombing. The film itself turns out to be far more subtle and complex to be simply any of those things. For a start we met sympathetic characters who are Muslim as well as Lebanese Christian. Furthermore, we soon learn that one of the main characters has a brother who fought for the South Lebanses Army, who has fled to Israel, where he lives with his family  - and whose children speak fluent Hebrew. "We are not so different, we and the Jews" says one, "I don't care about politics, I don't care about religion - I just want to find my son" screams Zeina. The demarcation line
highlighted in this film is not racial, or religious; but between people of war, and those who simply want peace. "When the bombs stop, I pick my figs; when they start I hide in the caves" laments a elderly Palastinian man, who seems to speak for all those who simply want to get on with their lives. That doesn't make Under the Bombs a-political, or a piece of naive sentimentality though; we are introduced to friends and family of Tony the taxi-driver; who engage in passionate and informed debate about the many sided conflict. Tellingly though; Zeina interrupts the debate, and she and Tony leave to continue their tragic search. For her part Zeina looks as disgusted with the Israeli planes who kill her sister, as she does with the Hezbollah leaders who politicise the funeral.

Under the Bombs is a remarkable, poignant and unforgettable film which will remain branded in my memory for a very long time. There are simply too many war films which celebrate the heroism of combatants; and too few which expose the truth that the bravest of them all are usually the ordinary people, who face the task of finding some way forward when the bombs stop falling, the funeral processions are gone; and they stand alone in the rubble of all they once knew. Under the Bombs does all this and more; watch it and weep as the sorrow unfolds.

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