'All This Victory' ('Jeedar El Sot'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Venice Film Festival
A handsomely made misfire.

Lebanese director Ahmad Ghossein's first fiction feature won the top prize of the festival's Critics' Week sidebar.

A modest home with a strategic view of southern Lebanon is invaded by Israeli soldiers during the 2006 Lebanon War in the claustrophobic, inspired-by-real-events drama All This Victory (Jeedar El Sot). What the Israelis on the top floor don’t realize is that several Lebanese locals are huddled together on the first floor, hoping to never be noticed. The upstairs-downstairs dynamic in an Arab-Israeli context is, of course, already familiar from superior works such as Saverio Costanzo’s Locarno-winning debut, Private, in which Israeli soldiers occupied the second floor of a Palestinian home. The major difference here is that when the Israelis arrive here they are unaware that there is anybody left in the house in the first place, though this doesn't exactly result in the film becoming a suspenseful nail-biter.

Since the Lebanese in hiding have to keep quiet as much as possible, there’s not a lot of room for either character development or much more on the sociopolitical context of the conflict raging outside their door and above their heads. So what finally remains is a film about a group of unknowns hiding from another group of unknowns — as the Israeli soldiers here are only heard but never seen. 

That said, this fiction debut from Lebanese artist and director Ahmad Ghossein won the top prize of the Critics’ Week at the recent Venice International Film Festival, which should ensure a certain measure of visibility. And Ghossein’s attempt to update the topicality of the story by tying it to the current, for the most part completely unrelated conflict in Syria, offers another talking point, even if it feels largely misguided.

The 2006 conflict in question, which involved Hezbollah paramilitary forces (aided by Iran) on the Lebanese side and the Israel Defense Forces on the other, started on July 12 and lasted for 34 days. It is generally referred to as the “July War” in Arabic, though the opening of the film makes it clear this particular story is set in August. Indeed, a ceasefire had been brokered by that time and the drama’s milquetoast protagonist, Marwan (Karam Ghossein, the director’s sibling), wants to drive from Beirut to the south, in the direction of the Israeli border, to pick up his father in his birth village. 

Marwan’s wife, Rana (Flavia Juska Bechara), isn’t convinced this is a good idea but her husband leaves anyway. Several hours later, after driving through a mountainous landscape filled with smoke plumes, he reaches his destination. But the entire village was bombed by Israeli planes two days prior. Standing in the rubble, Marwan is unsure how to ever find his father. 

Thankfully, he runs into two village elders (Adel Chahine, Boutros Rouhana) who invite him into their still-standing home on a nearby hill overlooking the valley. The duo’s cantankerous banter plays like a Lebanese version of The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorff and they bring some much-needed levity to the proceedings, as well as a surprising degree of optimism. “This house wasn’t hit in 1982 or 1993,” one of them says, “so why would it be hit now?” This ostensibly throwaway comment suggests at once that Israel and southern Lebanon have a decades-long history of conflict and that the locals have become pragmatic and even laconic about the occasional bursts of violence and destruction. 

Indeed, it is this kind of writing — the screenplay is credited to Ghossein, Abla Khoury (also the line producer) and Greek filmmaker Syllas Tzoumerkas — that can shed some light on a complex situation in a completely organic way. Unfortunately, there isn’t much room to explore this further as a married couple (Issam Bou Khaled, Sahar Minkara) join the three men and the Israelis move in upstairs, turning the group’s voices down to whispers so they can avoid being detected by those upstairs. 

There is an attempt to give a little backstory to some of the characters, including one who understands some Hebrew because he spent time in an Israeli prison. “We wanted to change the world but couldn’t change our own village,” he says, the kind of grand statement that cries out for more nuance — though the subject is then pretty much dropped. Marwan and his family are also treated in an oddly checkered way, with the story of his father, who fought in North Africa and came back under mysterious circumstances, never properly developed. Ghossein also gives short shrift to Marwan’s spouse, Rana, who is seen in the opening and once at the Canadian embassy but who doesn’t otherwise exist as a character at all — much like Joumana, the only woman hiding away with the men.

Clearly, for those who have never seen Costanzo’s Private, there might be an element of novelty here. But that film not only went much deeper into how a major armed conflict can impinge on a regular family’s day-to-day and private life, but also handled its metaphors, visual and otherwise, more elegantly.

And Ghossein completely misses the mark in All This Victory’s closing scenes, which were shot in the ruins of the Syrian city of Al-Zabadani, close to the eastern Lebanese border, supposedly representing the southern Lebanese village where the story is set. Though Hezbollah was involved in that more recent conflict, too, it is hard to draw any direct parallels between the 2006 Lebanon War, which lasted barely a month, and the many factions still fighting the ongoing Syrian Civil War. On top of that, Al-Zabadani looks like a major city onscreen, when the village of Marwan’s father was exactly that, a village, so there’s a clear mismatch in visual iconography. Yes, the conflicts in the Middle East feel like a never-ending cycle of oppression, aggression and demolition, but surely a more nuanced point can be made than just underlining the obvious? 

The acting is hard to judge because everyone is playing stock characters and there are very few moments of grace to play for anyone (a beautiful exception is when one of the Statler and Waldorff duo runs outside to go check on the other). A couple of technical contributions are the real standouts, even if the film overall was clearly made on a tight budget. Young cinematographer Shadi Chaaban has a good eye for composition and moves from a static way of shooting to more obviously handheld footage as the story moves indoors. This provides some variation and underlines the panic the characters might be feeling.

A lovely sequence in which a water pipe bursts, causing a kind of impromptu water ballet downstairs for the thirsty and dirty stowaways, offers a brief reprieve from all the worries and fears. The atmospheric yet quite minimalistic score from Damascus-born musician Khyam Allami is also smartly calibrated, avoiding melodrama or facile audience manipulation in the film's tenser scenes.   

Production companies: Abbout Productions, MPM Film, Sunnyland 
Cast: Karam Ghossein, Adel Chahine, Boutros Rouhana, Issam Bou Khaled, Sahar Minkara, Flavia Juska Bechara
Director: Ahmad Ghossein
Screenwriters: Ahmad Ghossein, Abla Khoury, Syllas Tzoumerkas
Producers: Georges Schoucair, Myriam Sassine
Cinematographer: Shadi Chaaban
Production design: Hussein Baydoun
Costume design: Charlotte Hachem
Editing: Yannis Chalkiadakis
Music: Khyam Allami
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

Sales: WTFilms

In Levantine Arabic, Hebrew
93 minutes