Thursday, April 2, 2009

Under the Bombs (Sous les Bombes) -- the after-effects of war

Director: Pilippe Aractingi, 2007.

The opening scene looks like a clip from a documentary. Is it any wonder. Aractingi shot portions of this film during an actual war.

On July 12 2006 the Israelis started bombing southern Lebanon. The bombings, and this war, lasted 33 days. Lebanese director, filled with anger and hatred of war, started shooting on the 21st day, while bombs were still raining down. Using only two professional actors and no script, he improvised before returning to his home in France to write a script. He returned later, after the war ended, to shoot the remainder of the fictional part of this anti-war film.

Nadu Abou Farhat plays Zeina, a Shiite Muslim returning to Lebanon during a ceasefire in the war. She arrives by boat and looks for a taxi driver to take her to the cities of the south. She is in search of her 6 year-old son, whom she sent to be with her sister. The local taxi drivers will take her to Beirut but no further. It is simply too dangerous. But Tony (Georges Khabbaz), a Christian with an eye for a pretty girl and a nose for money, strikes a deal with her. He will take her where she wants to go in his trusty old Mercedes for $300.

As they undertake this search, Zeina seems to have nothing in common with Tony. She is suffering the fear and anxiety of a parent missing a child. Yet, as the movie unfolds Aractingi makes it clear that they have more in common than they, or we, think. They are drawn together by their common humanity, the love, loss and grief that they have both experienced. Although Tony was initially attracted to Zeina's external beauty, he comes to see past this and eventually puts her needs and desires above his own. The turning point is when she moves from the back-seat of the taxi to the front-seat, to sit alongside him, to be more of a companion than a customer.

This road-trip through desolate Lebanese countryside is striking in its poignancy. With death surrounding them, and the destruction of the infrastructure of roads and bridges causing them to traverse the roads less travelled, frustration creeps in. Knowing you have to cross a river, being able to see the road on the other side, and yet having a chasm where the bridge used to be is the state of helplessness that civilians find themselves in amidst a war-torn zone.

Writer-director Aractingi made the film to testify for the victims of the indiscriminate bombings. Dedicated to those who died under the bombs, most of those who died were crushed to death under the immense weight of the destroyed buildings, Under the Bombs shows the sufferings of war felt by the voiceless civilian casualties. He said in an interview, "I wanted to remind people that war is not about who is right and wrong, but about these people who are completely innocent and in the middle of it."

What makes Under the Bombs compelling is the use of real people in a real war-zone. When we hear a bomb go off, it is an actual bomb, not a safe Hollywood explosive device. It took great risk from the two professional actors and the crew. In one scene, Tony asks if it is safe to walk across the rubble to talk to a couple, wondering if there are any cluster bombs under the bricks. Knowing this is real, we realize the actor is genuinely concerned about losing a limb or his life.

Further, juxtaposing a fictional story of Zeina and Tony against the backdrop of real people makes this account personal. We can relate to the potential tragedy of Zeina's son. Even the improvised script is genuine, coming from those who have lost their own sons and daughters. It is an honest and courageous piece of film-making.

Under the Bombs underscores the difficult choices that people have to make under high stress conditions at a moment's notice. In one scene mothers clutching small kids tell Zeina of their evacuation from a village being bombed. A van was waiting and they had moments to grab kids and jump aboard. One mother had to choose two kids and in doing so, left the rest of her children behind, children she would never see again because they would be buried under the bombs. It makes us consider how people could make such a life and death decision. How could we pick from our children knowing those left behind would die. Could we live with this? Could we live with ourselves?

Instead of a propaganda film, this is a personal picture of the horrors of war. Other films, like Saving Private Ryan or Letters from Iwo Jima, have shown the choas and bloodiness of the battlefield. But those films focused on the soldiers. Here we see widows and orphans, those who suffer and grieve the loss of homes and husbands, fathers and mothers. At the close of an interview Aractingi appropriately summarized his perspective on war, one that is applicable to any war:
War gives rise to traumatized people. People that might respond to their trauma by creating suffering for other people. War is not just an operation that starts and ends during a certain time period. The news talk about it when it happens,
but they forget about the side effects. Those that carry on with all your life.
The side effects are more destructive than the war itself. They create a vicious
circle of endless troubles. War can never be surgical!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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