(Lebanon 2016; Dir: Mouna Akl)


When topicality outstays its welcome

review by Vladan Petković


length: 21

year of production: 2016

country of production: Lebanon

director: Mouna Akl

production: Cyril Aris, Jinane Chaaya

director of photography: Joe Saade

editing: Mounia Akl, George Sikharulidze

cast: Yumna Marwan, Adel Chahine

festivals: Encounters 2017, Cannes Cinéfondation 2016, TIFF 2016, SXSW 2017, Valladolid 2016, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) 2016

© images: Submarine (Mounia Akl)

The winner of the audience vote of last week's edition of My Darling Quarantine is ‘Submarine’ by Lebanese filmmaker Mouna Akl. The film world-premiered in the 2016 Cannes Cinéfondation-selection and went on to an impressive festival run, especially in North America: Toronto, SXSW, Palm Springs, Hamptons, Denver and Montreal, in addition to most of the key short film fests in Europe. It also picked up prizes at Atlanta, Cinema Jove in Valencia and Dubai.

The hero of the film, Hama (the striking Yumma Marwan), is a young woman living in a town besieged by a garbage crisis. The streets are covered with trash, and inhabitants are trying to organize an evacuation before rain starts — a TV report at the beginning of the film mentions the danger of acid rain. Even if this worst scenario doesn't happen, wet garbage is a big health risk, and the population scrambles to pack in time to catch boats that would take them away. Where to, no one knows. "It is God's will," an interviewee on the TV says, echoing the words of refugees we have heard so many times in recent years in real-life reports from the edges of Europe.

But while everybody is getting ready to leave, Hama declines to. Instead, she wants to fix her window, broken as it finally gave in to the growing pile of trash pressed against it. Now her living room, already cluttered with mementos, house plants, paintings, photographs, movie posters (including that of Richard Ayoade's ‘Submarine’) and once-elegant but now dilapidated furniture is full of ripped garbage bags and buzzing flies. This is clearly the house of an artistic, intelligent person, or a daughter of such people who clings strongly to family memories.

Meanwhile, people waiting for the boats with their most needed and prized possessions have gathered in front of the bar called Submarine, a meeting point for the town. So in addition to mountains of trash, there are now bags and suitcases piled up in the small square in front of the bar. Hama goes inside and turns on the light and the radio, and starts dancing on her own to a tango-style ballad. In an inspired editing turn, after the camera closes in on the protagonists swaying in the semi-dark with her eyes closed, the bar is now full of mostly older, tearful people dancing dreamily to a live performance by an elderly singer. Until the rain starts and they snap out of this romantic collective goodbye, leave the bar, pick up their suitcases and head towards the boats.

Hama stays inside with a man, a former romantic interest, but their exchange reveals little beyond the fact that Hama had hurt him in the past. While their body language is very passionate, sensual sparks flying everywhere, they talk in broad terms about her reason to stay, without providing any specific motive. Finally, she leaves the bar wearing his jacket to protect her from the rain and heads home as he wistfully watches her go.

And this is a good illustration of the film's key problem. Why is Hama so insistent on holding her ground in the midst of a life-threatening crisis? Is it pride? Unwillingness to let go? These potential answers are implied through her attitude, but the side characters are presented as being as dignified as her, and most of them are much older. So why would they leave and she would want to stay? An older cousin — an aunt perhaps — tells her husband who is urging Hama to pack, "Let her be, remember what we were like in 1982?", providing a seed of an idea that the audiences can contemplate but which remains elusive.

The rebellious, individualistic spirit of the hero may well be the reason this film enjoys such popularity with audiences. Also the romantic vibe — derived from Hama's attitude, her passionate relationship with the handsome man, and the, frankly, almost sickishly sentimental scene in which all these dignified people who are losing everything they had — can be quite attractive. But in this case, the open ending, a staple of so many short fiction films, feels more random and poorly thought-through than intriguingly ambiguous.

The 2015 Lebanon garbage crisis, which developed after the closure of waste facilities, forced many people to leave but also spawned protests against the government, which in turn caused more political strife and suppression of human rights, with even more people escaping the country. After ‘Submarine’ gained international visibility, the government spotted it too (when else do second- and third-world governments care about culture, let alone short films?) and banned it from screening in Beirut.

So, when it came out, the film was very topical and this is one of the reasons for its strong festival run, especially in North America. Of course, it is a more than competently made piece of narrative cinema, with a remarkable lead actress, complex and detailed set and costume design, fluid camerawork capturing strong imagery, and patient editing that creates a dense and consistent atmosphere. Its metaphors are clear without being overly obvious, but it sorely lacks character development and motivation, and eventually can leave the viewer with a feeling of frustration.

In an interview available on YouTube, Akl says that for her this is not a short film but rather a segment or a chapter of a feature that she has been developing. Perhaps this potential movie will expand on or fill in what was missing in ‘Submarine’, but as we keep hearing in the short film circles, it is an art form in its own right, different from its longer but younger brother, and should not be just a rehearsal or test for a "real movie".