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French Version

Sketches of a naive Beirut spring

Katia Jarjoura's documentary 'Terminator: The Last Battle' looks in on the Martyrs' Square campground

It's been about a year since Syrian troops made their official departure from Lebanon, 29 years after they were invited in. As if to celebrate the anniversary, Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Katia Jarjoura recently unveiled her new documentary, "Terminator: The Last Battle."

The mock-heroic title is the nickname of the film's star, a partisan of former army general Michel Aoun who was active during the intifadat al-istiqlal - the wave of popular demonstrations arising in the weeks after the assassination of Rafik Hariri and corresponding to the Syrian troop withdrawal.

The documentary doesn't pretend to be a balanced assessment of those heady days. Rather it refracts last spring's events through a central character and his cohorts. The filmmaker sketches Terminator's profile and invites the audience to draw conclusions.

The documentary begins with a few broad sketches of Lebanon's Civil War from 1975 to 1990. Then it jumps to the free-for-all of cameras, bystanders and uniformed men stumbling through the Hariri bombsite on February 14, 2005.

Jarjoura's lens eventually comes to rest on the mukhayyam - the ad hoc campground set up around Martyrs' Square and occupied by youth of various political stripes.

Here the audience meets Terminator, "Termi" to his friends and detractors. It's nighttime and he's telling the camera he's from Shebaa Farms - a joke, as he's Muslim but not from Shebaa. He says he's been an Aoun follower since he was 16, that everyone here is sick of war and only wants peace.

Terminator cuts a conspicuous figure. "Late-model ski bum" might best capture his look: a slacker frame fitted out in brand-name sports attire, a science-fiction phone jack projecting from his ear and various pairs of designer shades forever perched atop his close-cropped, dyed-blond head.

"They call me Terminator," he says, "because I want to destroy everything."

Jarjoura looks into what Terminator and the other independence campers are fighting for, spending most of her time with Terminator's fellow Aounistas and their erstwhile rivals in the Lebanese Forces (LF).

All are anti-Syrian. During a northern excursion to Maameltin, where Terminator lives and works, a muscle-bound friend remarks, "All our problems come from Syria." Muslims and Christians have trouble living together, he observes, apparently forgetting Terminator is Muslim.

"We have other problems too," Terminator rejoins. "From the Palestinians. And Israel. And the Americans."
"Not from Lebanese?" Jarjoura asks.
"Of course Lebanese," he answers. "All those Lebanese who are with Syria."

Terminator supports Aoun, he explains, because Aoun never distinguished between Muslims and Christians. Later he airs an inchoate (or joking) anti-sectarianism. "Why is it that the Mufti and the Patriarch are involved in politics? If one day I come to power, I'll slit all their throats."

The closest the audience comes to LF ideology is during a lecture LF campers receive from a senior party member.

"I've been hearing bad things about you," he says. "We must show that we're civilized ... We're Christians after all ... If we keep up [the sit-in], if the Syrians leave and we have fair elections, then one thing is assured: Geagea will be released."

The film follows Terminator's falling-out with his nominal allies in the LF. There's as little ideology in their conflict as there is in their activism.

As tension grows among the independence campers, Fadi, an LF acquaintance of Terminator's, says no one likes him because he behaves like a child. He then speculates that mukhayyam rumors that Terminator works with military intelligence could be true.

What the independence campers lack in intellectual sophistication they make up for in a concern with appearance and displays of manhood.

"People that aren't wearing black," Terminator says during a lecture to his tent mates, "can't march with us tomorrow."

Giving Jarjoura a tour of his tiny flat, he discusses his tattoos and his sunglass collection. "They're all Oakley. If I'm wearing a red outfit I wear these glasses ... When I wear these glasses," he picks up another pair, "it means the war has begun."

Then there's exercise. In the pre-dawn light Jarjoura's camera finds Terminator doing push-ups and in subsequent scenes Terminator cajoles his comrades into push-ups.

Terminator resists revealing personal details. Seemingly in an effort to get past the posturing, Jarjoura asks him to share a love story. He tells her a woman once fell off the back of his motorcycle and died. "I didn't love her before," he says, "but I do now."

On the final day of the Syrian withdrawal, Terminator prepares for a triumphant drive to the border. Accessorizing his outfit with army boots and his "war has started" shades, he strikes a Schwarzenegger pose in front of his bathroom mirror.

As the last Syrian troop trucks cross the border, we see Terminator and his comrades applauding - from the sidelines, appropriately enough. The film's final scene shows him sitting barefoot on his bed staring at the television, remote in hand, looking lost.

Its subject matter makes "Terminator" an important film. Though others have used images from the aftermath of February 14, 2005, Jarjoura is the first to explicitly address the intifadat al-istiqlal.

Like all prototypes, this film has weaknesses.

Though "Terminator" tries to frame the story for a non-Lebanese audience, the minute cues that enliven its narrative will be lost on audiences not versed in Lebanon's politics.

The danger is that foreign audiences will read "Terminator" as the comic story of a buffoon during some incomprehensible political ferment - a pity since, deliberately or not, the film addresses more complex and universal themes.

The principle success of "Terminator" is its sketch of posturing masculinity, as modeled by the independence campers. Tempting as it is to see this as a lampoon of "Lebanese manhood," a more discriminating eye will recognize the key factor to be the men's disenfranchisement, not their nationality.

The overt concern of the intifadat al-istiqlal was political - the co-operation of its constituent parties being all the more remarkable for their historic differences over what Lebanon should be.

The profiles Jarjoura crafts here suggest how remarkably naive these men are in terms of political consciousness. When they speak, they are striking both for how fervently they believe and for how narrow the horizon of their beliefs.

Those who know Lebanon's political landscape will question Jarjoura's decision to focus, of all the mukhayyam's participants, on the Aounis and the LF - if only because audiences will assume they represent the whole.

Knowledgeable audiences know the intifadat al-istiqlal foundered on more than personality conflict. They will say that this film lacks analytical credibility for not addressing the high-handed cynicism with which Lebanon's politicians aroused the idealism of the citizenry, then betrayed it before parliamentary elections.

Jarjoura's depiction of political naivete suggests why the political class' cynicism aroused next to no internal dissent.

This won't be enough for critical audiences, but they needn't worry. "Terminator" won't be the last film about the intifadat al-istiqlal.

Beirut,05 09 2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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