Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Incendies: Lebanon is Scorched, Burned and Blistered

To say that the Middle East has been scorched, burned and blistered by war is an understatement. In Incendies–a ground breaking diaspora film, set in both present day Canada and in Lebanon in the recent past–we get to see in painful detail the intricacies of how the war burned many families into horrific mangled messes.

The idea of return is common among diaspora films of the last few decades. Usually the protagonist of the film returns to their family's place of origin and discovers the rubble and ruins that have been vacated by their parent's generation. Usually we do not see the atrocities that happened, but we are told that they are too terrible to talk about or to show. The protagonist walks around looking traumatized which, I have to admit, despite my devotion to these films, is part of the growing pains in the development of a genre.

Where Incendies distinguishes itself is in the crafting of a story that really is too terrible to tell and too terrible to witness. And then it makes us witness every terrible moment of it.
A cinematic moment. The image comes first and the explanation comes much much later.
The brilliance of Incendies is not simply in the visceral moments of violence--the shock of a child being ripped from her mother's arms before the mother is burned alive--it is in the crafting of a story that makes visible the back and forth of retaliation: like an equation where each variable, each action has a predictable and increasingly despicable reaction. Details where planted early in the film and later revealed their terrible significance. At the same time, the film avoids didacticism, and instead reaches for and finds mythological resonance.
Violence and pain become sources of empathy and identification for the audience
The film is based on a play written and directed by seasoned writer, actor and director extraordinaire, Wajdi Mouawad. He is of Lebanese origin and has received the highest accolades for his creative work in Canada. The Incendies stage play has travelled the world and has received rave reviews. Mouawad directed a film in 2004, Littoral, that was also an adaptation of a script he had written and directed for the stage. His initial transition to film was bumpy. Littoral was similarly a story of returning to Lebanon to burying a parent. Unfortunately, it was heavy in dialogue and the emotional tone of the film was forced. This time, Mouawad's story has been better cinematically served by teaming up with director Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve has spent the last decade working on the project of cinematic representations of violence. Even with an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language category, Incendies is doing far better than its distributor had expected.

Seen through a feminist lens, the intersecting oppressions on the protagonist’s life do not simply come from the war planes overhead--which are never named, but are likely from Israel. The old world familial relationships that are what could loosely be referred to as pre-capitalist are further entrenched rather than displaced by war. The political, religious, and gender divides as well as ideas about honor and group loyalty are part of the web that entraps the protagonist. The story is written with non identical twins, a boy and girl, returning to Lebanon to search for their father and brother while uncovering their mother's past. Each child is able to search in different spaces based on their respective genders, further revealing a splitting in the already fractured narrative.
The now classic diasporic subject returning to the 'homeland' and looking
The incredible violence we witness in the film is shot and edited with emotional rawness and, importantly, respect for women's bodies. The rape scene is a good example, we are first told through dialogue that it is going to happen. We see the woman sitting in a chair and then see the rapist enter the room. The camera cuts to a close-up of her face as she is waiting, then cuts to a close-up of the rapist's face as he looks at her. It cuts back to her on the ground crying. The editing implies the act of rape, and reduces the voyeuristic impact on the audience. Instead, we share in the victim's anticipatory fear and in her pain afterward.
The protagonist is played by Lubna Azabal. A Moroccan actress who is a contender to be the next generation Hiam Abbas.
Hiam Abbas is the Arab world’s Meryl Streep.
The press releases claim that the film is set in an unnamed Arab country. The film itself evades realist details that would pin it to an exact location: the cityscapes are not Beirut, because they were shot in Jordan. The prison which is referred to as “in the South” is undoubtedly modeled after the notorious Khiam prisons in Lebanon, but in the film it is given a new name. The Nationalist party and its leader are fictional, although they occupied a similar position in the ideological landscape of Lebanon. License plates on cars are from several countries. The protagonist is modeled after Souha Bechara, a famous Lebanese freedom fighter who was in prison for assassination and sang through her solitary confinement. Unlike the character Nehal, the historical figure of Souha did not have children. Obscuring, renaming, and deliberate obfuscation are perhaps the historical equivalent of mythological strokes in narrative structure. The lack of geopolitical specificity is perhaps what allows the film to breathe the symbolic into the Lebanese situation. Make no mistake – some things are obscure, but the important details situate the film with utter literalism in Lebanon over the last few decades.

The film is traumatic to watch and perhaps cathartic too, especially for anyone from the region. I sobbed at least six times. The film allows a flood of memories to return, and stimulates after-film conversations about things people have repressed for years. In one of these conversations someone asked why the mother would bring the memories of violence onto her children. “They live in Canada, they don’t even speak Arabic, why do they need to unearth a painful and terrible history? Why not live in ignorant bliss,” she asked. What are the assumptions operating here? Do those in diaspora ever really live in ignorant bliss, when they are raised by parent(s) who have been through trauma, and war trickles down through their actions onto the children somehow? In Incendies, the children were raised without a father and without an extended family on either their paternal or maternal sides. The film asks us to think about whether their lives were ever really free of violence, even though the violence may have been displaced and unnamed. Traces of violence and the reality of unknown origins haunted them. The film suggests both that there is violence implicit in the return of the exile and the inevitability of that return. In this story, the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘over there,’ past and present, families and strangers are found to be more permeable than many would like to think.

Incendies has just had a theatrical release this week. Go and see it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Here is a link to the Toronto schedule. While the trailer is good, it does not do the film justice. Oh, and it's Canada’s official entry into the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film category. Let's hope it wins.


  1. I really want to see this film now: both your description/analysis, and the images you chose, make it sound compelling. The first image reminded me of Laugier's "Martyrs" - the beginning scene where Lucie escapes and is placed in an orphanage: her shaved head and expression are almost identical.

    And you're entirely correct with your complaint about the cliche of diasporic films unwillingness to visually/critically interrogate trauma by reducing it to an unspeakable and undepictable event... Although it is clear that sometimes showing violence is voyeuristic (ie. American slasher films or the supposedly "critical" [yet ultimately offensive] rape scene in Noe's "Irreversible"), I think there is a laziness on the part of some directors to even try to grapple with how to create a cinematic language that reveals the ugliness of brutality but does not reduce it to a bombastic spectacle. The whole "the past is too troubling to speak about and unknowable for you the outsider" approach is banal post-modernism that, though maybe interesting as a strategy a decade ago, now plays into the hands of reactionaries who want us always believe that nothing happened and that violence, since it is unknowable, can't be given a meaning and is open to interpretation from "all sides."

    This is maybe another reason why I found a strange resonance with your first image and "Martyrs" - Laugier, after all, is a director who put a lot of thought into excavating the violence beneath social relations and attempting to use it to disrupt our viewing experience. I can't wait to see "Incendies"...

  2. Wow, comparison to Laugier's 'Martyrs' adds another level of heaviness. It can be done, for sure. The unspoken violence that is made visible in 'Incendies' is a little more everyday for a war context. However, it does venture into the mythological, which is similar but different from the territory that 'Martyrs' takes up. The comparison could be called, "Family will mess you up beyond recognition."

    I do think diasporic films needed to go through the phase of 'unspeakable,' but I hope that we on to a new chapter in those films now. Because they have proven there is an audience and will get bigger budgets, and because the stories are becoming more mature.

    ps: No comment about Noe's rape scene or any of the other scenes of violence in Irreversible. He took the idea of hyper realism and went way too far past it.

  3. This was an incredibly powerful film. It brought to light a segment of history for which I had no understanding in a way that is without peer. It brilliantly delivers a single message: "We are all bound to one another." There is no escaping involvement. Nor responsibility. Nor our promises. What future we have balances on the sins of the past. Few have paid penance for sin as Nawal Marwan, and her only sin was love. She paid penance for the sins of others. For both sides in a war. For the sins of the violent and the victims. Worlds balance upon her, and yet they do not fall.

  4. Thanks for sharing these beautiful thoughts. first reaction is indeed that the film is traumatizing...but when the film sits in your mind and heart and after a long night sleep, it is definitely healing.

  5. If she was born in '49, and gave birth to her son in '70, that's fine. But how did she have twins in prison, at least 18 years later? That makes her twins' birth at age 39 in 1988. Which also makes her twins under 25 at the present time. They appear to be much older. And her first born does not look anywhere near 42 at the present time. Confusing timeline for me.

  6. mark, you got a point there. some may argue that such details are not really important and one should concentrate on the storyline and film direction. However, I also believe that, as far as their appearance and age are concerned, the choice of actors was unlucky...