From Suzanne Enzerink (Assistant Professor of American Studies and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut) comes a timely and topical playlist:
Corrupted Visions, Interrupted Dreams
When I was preparing to move to Beirut in the spring of 2019, I consumed all literature and cinema I could find about the city. I have never been one for travel guides. The abstract lists of must-sees pales in comparison to the intimate and affective experience that fiction provides. A brief passage in Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman stood out to me, perhaps especially because its subject is a cinematic siren. “Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden,” Alameddine writes. “She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.” At the time this struck me as impossibly charming. After all, the glamorous Taylor and her tumultuous love life make for a captivating tale and one with a vaguely feminist intonation at that—Taylor simply put herself first, impervious to outside opinion or perception.
However, in the case of Beirut, the modern fairytale proved to be a nightmare. The slew of infatuated suitors turned out to be an army of narcissists, appropriating funds and rewriting regulations for personal enrichment instead of public improvement. Each time a new suitor arrived, he promised to come with pure intentions and material enrichment, but each time he turned out to be a Dirty John rather than a Prince Charming. The evidence of this was everywhere I looked—from the mostly vacant pieds-a-terre lining the seaside corniche to the privatization of virtually all green space and beaches to the mismanaged essential infrastructure, the nebulous concept of ‘the public good’ was clearly not the main principle animating the government.
Corruption has also weighed heavily on my mind this summer, as it was governmental neglect—willful, enabled by years of nepotism, self-aggrandizement, and fraudulent money-grabbing on part of the political regime—that on August 4 set off 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port, the city that became my home exactly one year prior. For this playlist, I am taking inspiration from a course I am teaching this semester at the American University of Beirut called “Screening Crises,” which tackles how real-life crises have been represented on screen, and to what end. The course, though I designed it before the summer, will sadly resonate even more powerfully after August 4, and likely be painful. After all, these cinematic works do not simply represent fictional narratives of far-flung places. They touch on dreams, pure and genuine, until such dreams evaporate at the hands of others. The injustice of that is as hard to swallow as it is universal.
Ordinary people saw their dreams interrupted, leaving no other choice but to leave. This is true as much today, when people have to escape a vortex of hunger and no prospect, as it was during the Civil War. As Ghassan Hage, a renowned anthropology professor who left Beirut for Australia in 1976 put it recently, “I lived as best as I could when the war in Lebanon kidnapped my life. Indeed I had a good life. But I also felt that my life was stolen from me. This seems contradictory but isn’t.” As Zeina Tarraf writes, national belonging in Lebanon is tied intimately to place, originating in the ambivalence between “an affective yearning for home and a refutation of the place that has inflicted so much pain.” Where does one go when one’s life is stolen? These six filmmakers all grapple with this question from different contexts, in different genres, and with different crises that sparked their efforts. What unites these tales of displacement and uprooting is that they are all the result of the same force. I cannot describe it any better than director Bong Joon-ho, so I will instead quote his succinct yet cutting observation here: “we all live in a country called Capitalism.”
Atlantique (Mati Diop, Senegal/France 2019)
While Bong’s Parasite swept awards season, for me the real standout of the year was Mati Diop’s intimate and haunting film Atlantique, which also explores the consequences of greed and desperation. Ada, a seventeen-year-old girl from Dakar, is slated to marry Omar, a wealthy young man who works overseas six months of the year. However, she is in love with Souleiman, a construction worker she sneaks off to see any chance she gets. This is no ordinary love triangle. When Souleiman is denied his wages, he and his peers attempt to cross the Atlantic to Europe in search of a better life. Whereas Diop’s short film Atlantiques investigated what happened to the men who leave, Atlantique presents the women who are left behind. Do not be deterred by the somewhat tacky title, “Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story,” that was used for the Netflix release. Atlantique is an unforgettable film that blends Senegalese worldviews with a cutting critique of the global economies and inequalities that each year necessitate thousands of people to undertake treacherous journeys across unstable oceans.
Available: on Netflix
Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, Canada 2007)
When I watched this documentary about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China with my class last semester, several students messaged me after to say that while they did not initially think the film would interest them, they were surprised at how much it resonated with them. The documentary offers a unique look at the simultaneous losses and opportunities of an ever-globalizing world through a look at China’s development of rural farmlands and its turn to consumer capitalism. We meet Jerry and Cindy, a relatively wealthy city kid and a poor girl from a farming family respectively. Their lives intertwine when they begin work on a western tourist boat traversing the Yangtze River. While Cindy’s family mourns the loss of displacement as the Three Gorges Dam is built as their farm floods, people like Jerry celebrate the lifestyle that comes with western tourism. A quietly devastating portrait of lives—and ecologies—uprooted.
Available: on Amazon Prime via Fandor
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, South Korea 2016)
I shortlisted this film for my class, though I eventually dropped both for some of its r-rated content and its runtime. Powerhouse director Park Chan-wook loosely adapts Sarah Waters’ lesbian classic Fingersmith to a new setting, Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A conman enlists a female pickpocket to trick a wealthy Japanese heiress into marriage. But nothing is as it seems. The film is dark, surprising, funny, and—without spoiling anything—turns several tired tropes on its head. A cinematically breathtaking period piece that will remain with you, all while shedding light on the devastations of colonialism, patriarchy, and class culture.
Available: on Amazon Prime
Mad World (Chun Wong, Hong Kong 2016)
Hong Kong today is predominantly in the news for an increasingly tense geopolitical situation—resistance against the growing influence of Mainland China has sparked large-scale uprisings, while western powers fear the loss of their primary capital and trade conduit in Asia. Mad World, the debut film of director Chun Wong, reminds us that amidst all this, Hong Kongers are living complex individual lives, marked by joy and struggles and heartbreak outside of geopolitical turf wars. Chun, in an ambitious screenplay by Florence Chan Chor-hang, chronicles the pressures of living in a densely-populated capital hub through the story of a young man grappling with bipolar disorder. In part a meditation on the unexpected ways we hurt our loved ones, Mad World also grapples with the variegated hurt that capitalism inflicts. From toxic work pressure for bankers to the stressors of being poor and living in a subdivided apartment, Chun explores the intersections between mental health, economic status, and identity.
Available: on Netflix (US) and Google Play.
Capharnaum (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon 2018)
Labaki is a director and actress of incredible range. Capharnaum is her most internationally successful film so far, and became a surprise blockbuster in China. Zain, a young boy from a slum convicted for stabbing someone, shocks a Beirut courtroom when he brings a civil suit against his parents. “Because you had me,” he says. In flashbacks, we see Zain’s family life prior to his appearance in court, a life filled with caring for siblings by making money through various criminal exploits. In particular, he attempts to foil his parents’ plans to marry off his 11-year-old sister Sahar to their scum landlord. Along the way he meets Rahil, an Ethiopian domestic worker snared into an exploitative labor contract under Lebanon’s kafala system who lives at the mercy of her handler Aspro. Zain and Rahil’s lives become intertwined as their livelihoods are set upon by their families, a deeply classist and racist society, and by corrupt organizations. An incredible performance from 12-year-old Syrian-born Zain Al Rafeea, who himself grew up in a Beirut camp.
Sin Nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, US 2009)
Fukunaga is a household name now—this is his debut film, a brutal look at the many dangers that accompany attempts to migrate from Central America to the United States. Sayra, her father, and her uncle are stowing away on a northbound train from Honduras with the dream of reaching family in New Jersey. Casper, a Mara Salvatrucha gang member, lives in a Mexican town near the Guatemala border. He too jumps the train—a perilous journey—to escape revenge when he falls out with the gang, while his young protege Smiley remains behind. The film juxtaposes the two ways of lifting oneself out of poverty (criminality and immigration), both equally dangerous. The film also illuminates the extent to which the US has enlisted Mexico to bar immigrants ever making it to its borders. At times harrowing, the film sensitively addresses what could have easily been a spectacular subject.
Available on: Amazon Prime
Suzanne Enzerink is an assistant professor of American Studies and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut. She is currently completing her first book manuscript, Give Me Color, which recovers a body of unfinished or marginalized films from the early Cold War that used the trope of interraciality to critique U.S. domestic racism. A segment of this project, on a police-sponsored film starring Rita Moreno, is forthcoming with the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (JCMS). Suzanne has written about media and film culture for publications such as Buzzfeed Reader, Electric Literature, and SCMS+. This playlist emanates from a course she is currently teaching at AUB, “Screening Crises,” a subject she aims to explore further in her second project.