‘Why did you go away and leave me worried? You left without saying goodbye …’
He was on the beach, his sneakers wedged in the moist, amber sand beneath him. Camcorder in hand, he was capturing another halcyon day by the Mediterranean with his mother. That laugh, her smile, the look of sheer bliss radiating from her face, seemed to embody a moment in time. If only we could pause these fleeting moments that slip deceivingly through our fingers, no matter how hard we clench our fists. I still often wonder about what might have happened to Tarek and his mum. Perhaps, as I make note of these disjointed thoughts scattered about in the recesses of my memory, they’re wading on that shore yet, beneath the brazen sun. Is it possible that their fate was like that of the countless others who were killed or never seen again, their faces all but erased from the slate of time? Maybe, like Maher Saiidi, they’re lying restlessly beneath the rubble and ash of decades gone by, in a state of semi-purgatory, waiting for some soul to unearth them and their story. I’ll never know.
The final black-and-white scenes of Ziad Doueiri’s iconic 1998 film, West Beirut, which soharrowingly portrayed life during the early days of the 15 year-long Civil War in Lebanon, only left me with questions about the destiny of Tarek’s family, as well as the aftermath of the conflict as a whole. Though the Civil War officially ended in 1990, as many Lebanese will attest to, and as reflected by the contemporary literature, film, art, and even music emanating from the small but mighty nation, its shadow still looms large. Almost twenty years later, Eliane Raheb, following in the footsteps of filmmakers such as Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, has attempted to answer some crucial questions about the war, as well as highlight various issues surrounding it, which have long been avoided, neglected, and quite naturally, rather forgotten.
Revolving around the lives of two living mementos of the war, Sleepless Nights – which recently premiered at London’s Bird’s Eye View Festival - provides a perspective of the conflict through the stories and memories of Assaad Shaftari, a former high-ranking right-wing Christian military official in the Lebanese Front (under the command of the late Bachir Gemayel), and Maryam Saiidi, a single mother whose communist son, Maher, went missing after a battle in 1982. With stark and brutal honesty – often at times unsettling, to say the least – Shaftari and Saiidi recount their involvement in, and their relationship with the Civil War, and discuss its impact on their lives today. Though some doors will likely ever remain sealed (as attested by Shaftari and Saiidi’s adamant unwillingness to revisit certain episodes), in the end, Raheb surprisingly manages to create not only one of the most refreshing and revealing documentaries about a subject on the verge of becoming cliché, but also a stunning piece of documentary filmmaking by any standard.
As the film commences, both Assaad and Maryam make their way to the ominous Faculty of Sciences in Zahleh, whose history is integral to both that of the Civil War, as well as the lives of Raheb’s ‘subjects’. While Assaad appears full of scepticism, expecting the documentary to somehow vilify him and his former colleagues, Maryam seems to show traces of hope, as if still believing that she can find a trace of her son. Beyond a fence on the campus lies a crumbling, dilapidated house, which a number of captives during the battle at the Faculty were apparently later housed in. Like Catherine Deneuve in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s seminal film, Je Veux Voir, so too do Assaad and Maryam ‘want to see’. Climbing atop a makeshift ladder, they both cast a glance at the rotting mass. Perhaps this was where Maher spent his last moments – or perhaps not. Maryam doesn’t know, and whether or not Assaad does will likely remain a mystery. ‘Is this where Maher is still detained? Or was he taken away from it? … I always imagine him suffering. Is he now being beaten? Or shot?’ She throws her gaudy bouquet of flowers into a nearby pit, among piles of dirt, and walks away. The lovelorn verses of Egyptian songstress Najat El Sagheera’s Ya Msafer Wahdak (O, Lonely Traveller) emerge from the silence: Why did you go away and leave me worried? You left without saying goodbye, knowing that my heart is weak.
Though for the most part, Maryam is fairly easy to read, character-wise, Assaad proves a tougher nut to crack. Speaking comfortably about chilling incidents and bloodstained memories with an almost beatific countenance defying the gravity of his words, he becomes a prism through which Raheb projects the multiple facets of his persona. At times, Assaad appears like a cold-blooded murderer, and someone who should, at the very least, be put on trial for his actions. At others, however, he appears as helpless and innocent as a child, as his boyish eyes regard the ground before him, and his voice catches a tinge of remorse. Assaad makes no bones about it – he’s killed, his hands are red with blood, and he’s far from innocent; yet, at the same time, he urges Raheb and her viewers to consider everything in context: he was an officer taking orders during a time, when, according to one of his subordinates, one had to ‘kill or be killed’. On a table behind Assaad’s chair in his house rests a rather odd figure – a hollow, glass pistol, which Raheb’s camera often focuses on. Regardless of whether or not it has been intended to serve a particular purpose, one can’t help but make the connection: is that what Assaad has become? A vestige of violence and bloodshed, imposing on the surface, yet hollow and fragile within? Watching him speak, one is ever torn between the poles of a broken, benign man seeking forgiveness, and a war criminal who still, deep down, believes he was always in the right.
While Assaad and Maryam are largely interviewed by Raheb separately, one of the film’s most moving moments occurs when they meet at an art exhibition, coincidentally entitled Missing. Here, Assaad walks reservedly among rows of large photographs of boys and men who disappeared during the Civil War, with the same look of indifference on his face. ‘You used to hit them, and watch them being tortured?’ asks Raheb. ‘Yes, but for me, that was a justified torture’ comes the response. He walks up to a picture of Maher. ‘This one – was it me who killed him? I don’t know. Let’s suppose I know now. What can I do?’ ‘But you know the places of some mass graves’, says Raheb, suggestively. ‘I will not answer this question, Eliane’. Just when the inquiry seems to come to an end, in walks Maryam, slowly emerging from a corner in the background. Coming face to face with Assaad and a magnified portrait of her missing son, Maryam reaches the breaking point. ‘Your conscience is buried while mine is still alive for my son!’, she cries, on the verge of tears. ‘What shall I do today, Mr. Assaad Shaftari? He merely nods and shuffles his feet, occasionally fidgeting with a nearby row of photographs. ‘Can you show me where he is buried so I can dig up his remains? Just show me. I don’t want a statue, I want nothing, just a bone from my son – so tell me where he is! Why are you staring at me like that!?’
Your conscience is buried while mine is still alive for my son! … What shall I do today, Mr. Assaad Shaftari? I don’t want a statue, I want nothing, just a bone from my son …
Going back and forth between interviews with Assaad, Maryam, and others, including Assaad’s former colleagues and a British psychotherapist who struggles in vain to get Maryam to ‘forgive’ herself, Raheb further unearths details about a handful of characters, who at times come to epitomise the Civil War generation. Perhaps most disconcerting are her encounters with the son of one of Assaad’s former subordinates, and Assaad’s father. ‘What do you feel when you are hunting?’ Raheb asks the young boy, in between scenes of rabbit flesh surrounded by flies, and the decapitation of a freshly slain rabbit. ‘When I hit the rabbit, I can’t say I am happy, but I feel proud of myself … I did [feel sad] when I was a child, but I got used to it’. The context of his words, as well as the juxtaposition of Raheb’s images coincide for a rather telling effect. Equally unsettling are the lines from the French national anthem, which Assaad’s father relishes with nostalgia, and that Raheb repeats ad nauseam throughout the documentary. Coupled with Assaad’s remarks about his former belief of Christians being the true descendants of the Phoenicians, and of Muslims being their ‘lesser brothers’, the words are nothing short of disturbing: To arms, citizens! From your battalions, let’s march, let’s march – let an impure blood water our furrows.
True, their stories are strikingly different; however, at the same time, Maryam and Assaad struggle with, and are bound by a common ambition: to come to terms with their past. For Assaad, this comes in the form of speaking out – albeit to a degree – about his mistakes and wrongdoings during the war, and issuing public apologies to the people of Lebanon in which he warns them about the roots of war. ‘Don’t you ever think that war starts when bullets are fired. This is wrong. My war started when I was a little kid. I used to hear bad jokes about Muslims. It reflected a lot of arrogance’, he says, addressing Maryam and a group of foreigners in a lecture hall. As well, as a means of coping and perhaps forgiving himself, he attends self-deprecating support group meetings and partakes in peace-based initiatives, including as the planting of olive tree, among others.
For Maryam, however, it seems some wounds will never heal. ‘Our life is a lie’, she tells Assaad in desperation. Maher was, is, and will always be Maryam’s life. ‘Give me a minute. I want to bring a small thing. I thought of something’, she says wistfully, as if anticipating the disappearance of her audience. Going into Maher’s room, she emerges with a giant cardboard cut-out of her son. ‘He was taller than I am’. Crying softly, her eyes pink with tears, she strokes his forehead and rests her head on his shoulder as her thoughts carry her away. Why did you go away and leave me worried? You left without saying goodbye …
Tarek, Maher … their faces flash before my eyes, in between visions of crumbling edifices, mass graves, bullet-ridden hallways, and mourning mothers of martyrs. I too, wanted to see. Looking into their boyish eyes, disturbingly familiar, the thought becomes unavoidable: that could have been me. Lebanon is often referred to as a country that wants to forget, a country engulfed in amnesia and at war with its past. Although one may not be able to forgive without forgetting, as Raheb’s documentary painfully shows, try as one may, it is sometimes impossible. The gash rears its bloody face yet, unable to mend, just as the foreboding echo of La Marseillaise rings ever piercingly throughout the cedar forests: They’re coming right into our arms, to cut the throats of our sons and women …