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Offering a unique lament for those who vanished mysteriously during the Lebanese Civil War, Ghassan Halwani’s Erased, Ascent of the Invisible uses a single kidnapping as its starting point but ultimately speaks for thousands. The director’s debut feature, which incorporates documentary footage, animation and public performance, would be as at home in a contemporary art gallery as in art house cinemas. It will prove a difficult film in either venue — full of patience-testing shots and approaching its emotionally wrenching subject from an intellectual distance. But for those who sit through it, the pic holds new insights about what conflicts like these do to a nation, and how psychic damage lasts long after the physical evidence of war has been repaired.
Near the start, the film shows us an odd photo for a long time while two unidentified men speak offscreen. One is the photographer: He knows something has been done to his work, which was shot in the mid-1980s during the so-called War of the Camps, but can’t quite say what. The other speaker (Halwani, we assume) has photoshopped what was once an image of two men violently abducting a third — leaving a couple of visual clues to the action while making the street scene look as if there were no people in it. In a way, he’s replicating the moral aftermath of the crime: Because of amnesty laws passed at the conflict’s end, the two men were treated as if this kidnapping never happened; as for their victim, he never reappeared.
Then the director tells us (in one of the frequent sets of onscreen titles that substitute for voiceover after that first sequence) that 10 years ago he glimpsed the kidnapped man on the street. “Parts of his face were torn off,” he says, leaving us to wonder at the grisly torture the man must have endured — until we understand that Halwani saw the man not in the flesh, but in a ripped “Missing” poster on a wall full of pictures of the kidnapped.
Halwani launches a guerilla art project on a Beirut street. He carefully cuts away layer after layer of advertising posters to get to the “Missing” posters below, then attempts to visually restore some of the personhood these victims lost. (Along with their lives, the film argues, these men and women lost their individuality, being absorbed into the group identity of “the disappeared.”) Meanwhile, back at his studio, he makes line drawings from the posters’ blurry old photos and animates some of them, imagining the lives that ended.
We observe the project in extremely long, static shots that show very little action and are sometimes accompanied by grating ambient sound. At the film’s Cairo premiere, these longueurs prompted several walkouts, and a telltale clatter announced that one viewer had dropped his phone when he fell asleep. But the picture’s stupor-inducing aesthetic effectively communicates Halwani’s thinking on what has happened to his country, with victims of kidnapping and murder left in mass graves that aren’t even marked by memorials. His screen texts speak of “the right of the disappeared to be found,” noting that political and legal considerations have kept many victims from being officially named. He says that these people will, in a sickly funny way, live forever: While the relatives who mourn them die and have their deaths noted in civil registers, the disappeared will live on, at least on paper. Erased is solemn about its responsibility to bear witness to their lives and their deaths, hoping that those in power will some day join in that commemoration.
Production company: Mec Film
Director-screenwriter-producer: Ghassan Halwani
Directors of photography: Ghassan Halwani, Inka Dewitz, Carine Doumit, Joan Chaker
Editor: Vartan Avakian
Venue: Cairo International Film Festival (International Critics’ Week)
Sales: Mec Film
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