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French Version

Lebanon - Taking a spin through the heart of Lebanon

With 'Bosta' Lebanese popular cinema veers toward the Egyptian model

On some anonymous Beirut autostrada, Jisr Fouad Shihab say, gridlock has brought traffic to a standstill. Lingering just overhead, a camera pans across the broad cross-section of Lebanese society represented there.

A severely waxed muscleman straddles his chopper. A Shiite sheikh holds his robes to his chest and cranes his neck curiously. A pair of funky girls stand beside their sports car, shaking their heads and smoking. Folks sit, stand, blow their horns, bicker among themselves and generally express dismay

The cause of the delay is a vintage school bus that's swooned inconveniently across both lanes of the artery. As the camera moves through the traffic the voice of Naim (veteran comedian Mahmoud Mabsout) reverently evokes the cosmopolitan makeup of the bus - British chassis, German design, etc - that happens to be as old as the Lebanese Republic itself.

Then, in classic comic deflation, Naim drops the bus' battery on the tarmac, pulls down his fly and relieves himself over it, replenishing the battery's reserves of distilled water.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the gridlock, arises that oft-heard rhetorical question: "Wayn al-dawle?" ("Where's the state?")

On cue, the state arrives. A phalanx of police motorcycles, riding four abreast, approaches from the other direction - these lanes of the highway being free of traffic. One of the policemen glances at the snarl of cars but the cops don't stop: they're the advance guard of some politician's convoy of dark-blue Mercedes. Voila, the state.

A people, one Lebanese filmmaker once remarked, must see their own lives and stories on the screens of their cinemas. So it is that the Lebanese now have Philippe Aractingi's "Bosta" ("Bus"), an ensemble musical romantic comedy.

At the center of the story is Kamal (Rodney El Haddad), returned after 15 years in France. He has reassembled the veterans of his dance class at the "Utopia School of Aley," in order to perform a new dabke at the Anjar Festival.

The "digi-dabke" Kamal submits to the festival adjudication committee sees the dancers - some sporting desert-fatigue shirwal - combine dabke, belly dancing, faux-Sufi whirling, and modern dance a la MTV. The comic-book functionary heading the committee rejects Kamal's submission, not because it looks ridiculous but because his innovations insult Lebanese tradition.

The whole scenario is replete with symbolism.

Lebanese regard dabke as their national patrimony. Kamal's been away for as long as Lebanon's Civil War has been over. Aley is a multi-confessional microcosm of Lebanon. The "Utopian" element of the Aley School, we discover, was Kamal's father, a 20th-century Butrus al-Bustani whose school ignored clan, sectarian and gender differences.

The town of Anjar itself bears multiple associations. The site of an Umayyad capital city - stylishly, if fancifully, restored by Kalayan, the Shihab-era architect/archaeologist - Armenian refugees of the genocide were re-settled near there during the French Mandate.

More recently Anjar was the base of Syrian military intelligence here and thus a popular spot for Lebanese politicians to stop to luncheon with Rustom Ghazaleh and his predecessor the late Ghazi Kenaan.

So the notion of a repatriated Lebanese from Aley wanting to bring an updated dabke to an Anjar-based folk festival is pretty loaded. When the Anjar committee rejects his digi-dabke, Kamal plots revenge by taking the troupe to tour Lebanon's villages - which is where the bus comes in.

This plot is complicated by the troupe's back-stories. Kamal is haunted by something in his past, perhaps somehow connected with his limp. The other characters, designed to embody both the country's various confessions and different aspects of the off-kilter postwar Lebanese condition, have their own troubles.

All have issues reconciling dancing with their home lives, something the bus tour gives each an opportunity to address. There are also unresolved strains of passion among them.

Toufic (Mounir Malaeb) and Vola (Nada Abou Farhat) were lovers who split up for sectarian reasons. In a scene evidently meant as a jab at the film-vetting process, Vola quips, "You just didn't want to marry a Christian girl. Oh, I forgot. We're not supposed to mention that."

Kamal and Alia (Nadine Labaki, better known as a music-video director) also had a pre-empted relationship. Kamal isn't the most engaging sort, but the two are obviously hot for each other and there's no obvious reason for the discord.

Broadly speaking, postwar Lebanese film has been of two types. There's the high-brow, generally European-financed cinema, often addressing "serious" or otherwise cerebral themes like "the civil war." Though some of these films are ceded brief runs in Beirut cinemas, they really live on the festival circuit, ARTE and TV5.

Then there's the popular cinema. There has been less of this in the last 15 years, for reasons that betray a contradiction at the heart of Lebanese cinema.

Putting aside matters of quality, the Egyptian film industry has been able to foster a strong popular cinema because of its millions-strong domestic market. Though it has a huge and varied expatriate community scattered around the world, Lebanon's domestic cinema market is tiny. This makes such cinema unappetizing for Lebanese investors - renowned to be fond of quick turnover.

That said, there have been a few interesting samples of Lebanese pop cinema in the last few years.

"SLFilm," for instance, took the characters of Chady Hanna's popular television satire "SLChi" and projected them against the big screen. Its limited budget ensured that its production values were no better than the series but, taking up the struggles of Lebanon's secular middle class, the film attracted great local enthusiasm. A few years later, "Bas Maat Watan," another Lebanese television satire, made a foray into cinemas.

Aractingi's masterful piece of Lebanese self-representation in the opening sequence, with its patina of vaudeville social realism, betrays the film's popular target audience.

The plot is rife with elements familiar to fans of Egyptian cinema. There's plenty of dancing, obviously, and the characters' uncertainty with Kamal's hybrid vision, and the fish-out-of-water locations, provide some opportunity for slapstick. Lebanon's rural folk aren't the butt of country-bumpkin satire, though, but are treated with a sentimental affection - its sentimentality making "Bosta" quite unlike "SLFilm".

The comic responsibilities - the most successful side of the film - are borne by Mabsout's Naim and Arze, played with cheerful abandon by Liliane Nemri (known for her comic turns in "West Beyrouth" and "The Kite"). Farhat's Vola comes closest to combining comic persona and emotional complexity in one character, though she's limited by a role that is at once self-consciously artificial and ancillary.

The ensemble's dancers - Malaeb, Omar Rajeh (Omar), Bshara Atallah (Khalil) - comport themselves competently - laudable since their task is harder than the actors', whose two-left-footedness can be edited out or at least masked.

The main challenge facing Rajeh and Malaeb in particular lies in depicting at once the artist's urbanity and the urban villager's complex of honor and shame. Toufic's role is particularly difficult, since he must also navigate infidelity.

It's weighty stuff for a vessel as fragile as musical romantic comedy.

Haddad's acting is most convincing when portraying Kamal's awkwardness with Alia. His performance is otherwise weighed down by a character that is more pathetic than sympathetic - a problem arising from the fact that his troubling past, the reason the other characters empathize with him, is kept hidden from the audience for most of the film.

Labaki's great beauty lends her an on-camera presence that makes her an ideal female lead in a film like this, and the camera worships her. She shows promise as an actor, too.

There is a great deal in "Bosta" to flatter Lebanese audiences aside from the jokes and the dancing.

The camera shows the Lebanese countryside to great advantage - thanks to the film's director of photography Garry Turnbull. The aesthetics of the film may creak beneath the shopping list of social ills the characters intone, but many will revel at hearing their concerns echoed.

The euphoric final set piece may seem gratuitous in filmic terms. At a time when the country is in the throes of regime-change, though, that euphoria will earn it applause.

"Bosta" is out now.

Beirut,12 05 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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