Lebanese film revives lost memory of the missing of war

The film exposes authorities’ falsification of facts when they claimed bones and human remains discovered on construction sites were more than 300 years old and animal bones.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Emotionally powerful. A scene from “Erased — Ascent of the Invisible” by film-maker and animator Ghassan Halwani. (Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)
Emotionally powerful. A scene from “Erased — Ascent of the Invisible” by film-maker and animator Ghassan Halwani. (Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

BEIRUT - Decades after they disappeared and were erased from the collective memory, the thousands of people who went missing during Lebanon’s bloody civil war have been brought back into visibility through “Erased — Ascent of the Invisible,” the debut documentary by film-maker and animator Ghassan Halwani.

A photograph appears at the beginning of the film and we are told a kidnapping is taking place. Halwani modified the photo to erase the kidnappers and the victim, replacing them with a cloud or ghostly shape. Although the act and the “actors” are invisible, it does not take away from its power. Viewers scan the photo to try to penetrate the blurred cloud where people stood.

Making missing people visible and not letting them be forgotten is at the core of the documentary, which peels away layers of Lebanese history and rethinks the topography of post-war Beirut.

Images and plans of Beirut are highlighted, including a garbage dump where many bodies were ditched during the war. The dump was buried and rebuilt as a fashionable waterfront promenade after the war.

“There are places in Beirut where you have mass graves. Today, they are the sites of our present life and the landscapes of our daily routines. For me, that means there is a total absence of any collective narrative or speech regarding the collective drama caused by the conflicts that took place in the past,” Halwani said.

“In the film I am addressing the young generation, particularly, telling them that in the redeveloped and gentrified places they go to like Hamra and Mar Mikhail (nightlife hubs) there are mass graves and traces of the past that are being erased,” he said.

The Lebanese civil war (1975-90) cost the lives of an estimated 150,000 people. An unknown number are missing, with estimates varying from 8,000-17,000. A general amnesty for crimes committed in the war was introduced in 1991 and Lebanese authorities have been resisting calls by families of the disappeared to investigate their fate or recover their bodies.

Halwani argues that little remains of the collective drama when authorities, time and the flux of life come together to erase from memory what happened and the very identities of those people who are no more.

“The film does not focus on the crimes committed during the war but on the more dangerous crimes committed in peacetime. It explores authorities’ attempts to keep the past in darkness and oblivion, even though its legacy lingers on,” said Halwani, the son of a missing person.

The film exposes authorities’ falsification of facts when they claimed bones and human remains discovered on construction sites were more than 300 years old and animal bones.

Halwani’s mother, Wadad Halwani, heads the Committee of the Families of the Missing and Disappeared in Lebanon, which has been struggling for decades to keep the cause alive, forcing parliament to approve the formation of an independent commission to help determine the fate of their loved ones.

“The families (of the missing) have been isolated in their struggle. The public would sympathise and show support occasionally, on specific dates, but otherwise they have been confronting the authorities alone,” Ghassan Halwani said, arguing that “the issue of the missing should not be a family cause but the cause of a nation.”

“We have to be critical of the government’s approach. I am not the son of a missing person per se but a citizen of this country. The authorities will keep on procrastinating until all the parents have died. The second generation of families will then inherit the file, which should be a national responsibility in the first place,” he added.

Combining visual tools — photos and drawings to maps, text and his own animation — Halwani’s debut film is an emotionally powerful experimental essay aimed at giving visibility and shedding light on the disappeared, who have become invisible in the collective memory of the Lebanese.

The only human faces that appear in the film are those of the disappeared, which makes their presence felt, though they are absent. One recurring scene is when Halwani scrapes posters from a wall to expose hidden photographs of missing people.

It took Halwani six years to do the film. It was awarded prizes at several international film festivals, including Locarno (Switzerland), Toronto (Canada) and Argentina. It was also screened at the Beirut Cinema Days Festival.

From the beginning, the film stirs deep compassion and empathy. The disappeared remain vivid in the memory of loved ones, although with time each lost their individuality in the collective mind to become a faceless victim of those historical circumstances.

Yet their records in the public registers remain open and so they live on symbolically, the lost citizens who will never be marked as gone.

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