Lebanese and Western Cinema, Together and Apart

09/25/2009 12:59 PM |

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Lebanon-born, Minnesota-based filmmaker Hisham M. Bizri, who discusses a program of his work at Anthology tonight, started making short documentary and fiction films in 1987 but in the last six years has increasingly moved into avant-garde work. Judging from his website, which contains lengthier descriptions for films from this period than for anything from his previous creative incarnation, he seems to have found his voice, even if that voice is very conspicuously indebted to avant-garde masterworks of yesteryear. Asmahan (2005), for instance, can’t help but be compared to Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart. Both re-edit sequences from cheese vehicles starring their titular actresses/singers, finding poetic correspondences among previously narrative-subordinated gestures, facial expressions, and moments of dramatic intensity to unlock the sexual longing and suffering repressed by the source material. Bizri also adds footage not contained in the original, but I’m sorry to say that my unfamiliarity with Asmahan prevented me from feeling the irony and liberation of her imagistic make-over.

That might be the point, though, at least for Western audiences.

Bizri wants the gaps between cultures to come to the fore in Vertices: Beirut-Dublin-Seoul (2003-2005), a multi-screen video that captures short, quotidian events taking place in the three cities. The screens show the same thing at different moments and angles, an effect made all the more disorienting when the displayed attractions—a woman waiting for a taxi, a fish market, a meditating monk—ultimately collide with ratty, black and white war footage. Separate lands blend in their similar universal scenes but never permanently conjoin, just as the peaceful spaces of the “present” violently coexist with the horrors of the past to which they may have been home.

War is even more at the forefront of Song for the Deaf Ear (2008), a fast-paced montage of scenes from Lebanon’s civil war that continually returns to the disturbing sight of a young man’s mangled corpse. Even with its cryptic inserts (a crescent moon with a woman holding a flower in its center—a plea to the Islamic world?) and brief flashes of Gehr- and Brakhage-like camera movement over earthen textures, Deaf Ear admirably tries to go beyond typical “war is hell” catalogs of human cannibalism. I don’t know if it succeeds, but the appearance of the same giraffes from Asmahan draws ineffable connections to the two films that can’t help but be unnerving.