“It was a hospitable city but [one that was] heartless.” This is how Rami, a boy of twelve who is the main character of Jean Chamoun’s film In the Shadow of the City (Taif al-Madina), sees Beirut at the beginning of the story. He and his family have just arrived in the capital after fleeing an unstable southern Lebanon on the eve of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.
Chamoun’s film was released 20 years ago and follows the story of Rami as he grows up in Beirut during the civil war. What is striking is how, by following Rami’s life and without sacrificing a coherent story, the film captures so many of the prominent themes that characterized the war years. These issues remain unresolved, and are ones with which Lebanese society is still struggling.
The film shows how Beirut was home to displaced people, and today includes refugees from Palestine and more recently refugees from Syria. In a little over an hour and a half, Chamoun manages to address the war with Israel in the south, the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon, the response to the Palestinians in the form of the rise of Christian militias, the flare-up of sectarian tensions in Beirut and the capital’s division into an eastern and a western half during the war, the mass emigration of the Lebanese, and many other themes.
However, these themes have been highlighted by other films about Lebanon’s war. Where Chamoun’s film excels (and is unique) is in his inclusion of topics that remind us of the director’s political orientation and interest in humane causes. His focus on the emergence of civil initiatives for truth and justice for those who disappeared during the war, which were often led by women, is one such example. In the film, a grown-up Rami meets Siham, a young mother whose husband was kidnapped during the conflict. Despite the obstacles in her way, she is determined to find him. Siham joins a group of women who are all fighting for the truth about their kidnapped loved ones. Siham’s story is based on that of Wadad Halwani, the founder and head of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon. Interestingly, Halwani appears in the film as one of the women who are part of this civil initiative and who engage in a protest in front of the militia group that Rami eventually joins.
Chamoun also manages to link the civil war with the postwar period in Lebanon. Upon Rami’s and his family’s arrival to Beirut, the boy and his father seek Abou Samir for some work. Abou Samir is a man who hails from the same village as they. On the eve of the war he works at Beirut Port, where we see crates of automatic rifles being smuggled into Lebanon. During the war, he becomes a militia leader, one among many involved in abducting individuals like Siham’s husband. By the war’s end, Abou Samir is a man who can “find us a job in the state so that we can take it easy,” as one of his former combatants states. A military actor during the war, we see Abou Samir transformed into an economic actor by the end of it, after his brother had spent the final years of the conflict buying Beirut property on the cheap. By 1990, Abou Samir is calling the shots on construction in Beirut and on where new highways will pass.
In only a few scenes, Chamoun manages to capture how the civil war did not really end but was only transformed into a cold war of sorts. The Lebanese state was apportioned among the war’s victors—those upon whom Syria looked favorably when the war ended in 1990. Militias, except Hezbollah, were disarmed and in many cases their members were integrated into the state. Property and wealth within cities such as Beirut were transferred from citizens to former militia leaders such as Abou Samir, or real estate tycoons like his brother, who could make money easily through illicit methods or purchase property at lower prices. In August 1991, the Lebanese government adopted a general amnesty law that allowed the former warlords to recycle themselves into postwar roles. Justice for people like Siham and thousands of others was simply swept aside.
Even 20 years after its release, In The Shadow of the City is still a highly relevant film, particularly for the generations that did not live through the war. It is a shame that it is not available on Netflix in the Middle East, despite the fact that the streaming service recently added scores of Lebanese films to its library. The film suggests that the war is still an open wound because justice remains absent.
Beirut reminded us of this last August, when the explosion at the port once again showed Beirut’s “heartlessness,” causing more than 200 deaths, thousands of injuries, and destruction of half the city.
The postwar Lebanese political system made up of the likes of Abou Samir, while it may be crumbling today as the economy collapses, is still in place. The political leaders are determined to sweep justice under the rug for the victims of the port explosion, as they did for the victims of the civil war. However, initiatives to preserve the memory of these victims are emerging. To find real peace, however, there must be justice, and it is difficult to see how justice can be achieved when the Abou Samirs of Lebanon are still in power.