'Birds of September': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Society Lincoln Center
This meditation on urban lives of quiet desperation is both poetic and artful.

Sarah Francis' documentary features Beirut citizens commenting on their lives while sitting in the back of a vehicle with transparent walls traversing the city streets.

In Sarah Francis' documentary, a large, glass-walled vehicle travels through the crowded streets of Beirut, taking in the varied sights of the heavily populated city with an all-encompassing eye. But Birds of September is far from a conventional travelogue. It's rather a thoughtful portrait of several of the city's denizens, seen sitting at the back of the vehicle as they express their innermost thoughts. The moving and poetic film recently was given its North American premiere as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Art of the Real 2015 documentary festival.

Resembling a more cerebral variation on HBO's Taxicab Confessions, the film introduces us to such disparate figures as a group of rambunctious teenagers; an elderly man who complains that his wife won't let him smoke at home; a 50-year-old divorced woman with three kids; a nurse who recounts the difficulties of dealing with dying patients; and a beauty-shop owner who describes her professional and personal travails.

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The subjects are seen often staring mournfully and directly at the camera. Their musings, which often involve themes of loneliness and despair, are related in voiceover form, lending the proceedings a haunting, ghostly quality.

The proceedings are not without humor, however, such as when one rider complains, "Can we speed it up? I have a family dinner!" Meanwhile, as they lay bare their confessions, the city swirls in constant motion in the background, the camera capturing such scenes as a group of old men lounging at a beach and numerous pedestrians and drivers navigating the teeming boulevards.

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At once a meditation on urban living and the hidden and often desperate lives of a city's anonymous inhabitants, the film is a vivid reminder that each one has a story to tell. As the narrator of The Naked City famously intoned, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." Birds of September takes place in a city of two million people rather than eight, but its subjects' stories are equally compelling.

Production: Screen Institute Beirut
Director/screenwriter/producer: Sarah Francis
Director of photography: Nadim Saoma
Editors: Zeina Aboul-Hosn, Farah Fayed
Composers: Stephane Rives, Jawad Nawfal, Fadi Tabbal, Paed Conca

Not rated, 99 min.

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