21  03  2009

Khalas : a banquet for cats devoured by dogs

Lebanese director Burhan Alawiya’s film Khalas finally emerged from a maze of production and financial setbacks for its premiere at the opening ceremony held in the Casino Lebanon on November 30 last year. From December 6 the public could watch it at the Ampere (Al-Sudiko) and Metropolis (Al-Medina Al-Hamra Theatre). The film’s journey to the screen began back in the late 1990s. It was a hard road: once the screenplay was written the search began for a production team and funding, followed by the hunt for a cast and suitable locations, then paying off debts, releasing the film and recalling it. It was more than a decade before the finished work was put before the public, enough time in fact, to leave the director both mentally and physically exhausted. Perhaps more seriously it threatened to rob the film and its imagery of much of its expressiveness and vitality.

Ironically, this production history mirrors the story told by the film itself. It is almost as though the author suddenly awoke to find himself trapped in his own narrative: either reality has vanished or the book itself has become reality. Could this be why Alawiya chose to change the film’s original title, Love was here, to something that sounds remarkably like a cry for help: Khalas (Enough!)?

The film tells the story of Ahmed, a former member of a Lebanese militia, trying to begin a new, peacetime life as a journalist, stumbling through a romance and blundering against the values and the moral and social change sweeping his country. Society appears through the prism of a slowly reconstructed city, ripped apart by war, while old ideologies and certainties are being scattered to the winds. The accumulation of wealth and profit provide the only moral compass. Ahmed, a former leftist, whose beautiful girlfriend Abeer—sharing his desire for dignity, security and social advancement—has left him for a rich old man, finds himself unable to acclimatize to these new values and is fired from the newspaper where he works.

Receiving word of Abeer’s ruthless decision to secure her material security by leaving him he sits on his balcony, trembling and gazing out at the cranes transforming the face of his city. Depressed and broken he contemplates suicide.

Even as Ahmed wrestles with these setbacks, his close friend, former comrade and neighbor, Robby, whose ambition is to work in cinema, is facing his own problems. The lead actor in the video he is filming, a homeless orphan who came to north to Beirut from Southern Lebanon during the war, is hit by a car and dies in hospital because he has no money to pay for treatment. Both Robbie and Ahmed begin to believe that their former party leader, now a wealthy businessman, is the man primarily responsible for their sense of betrayal. To a lesser degree both the wealthy man who seduced Ahmed’s lover and the hospital director who refused to treat Robbie’s actor are also seen as symbols of moral corruption and decline. Against a backdrop of social fragmentation and merciless, profit-driven greed, Robbie and Ahmed abandon their dreams and ambitions and plot revenge.

With this decision the film transforms into an action flick: we next see our heroes stealing a high-powered car from outside a Beirut nightclub and driving it to the hospital director’s flat. Having killed the director they take the cash he has piled under his bed and make their way, masked up like Che Guevara, to the hotel where their former party leader now lives. They force him to eat the revolutionary manifesto he penned along with a mixture of drugs and water until he dies. Having broken into the mansion where Abeer and her husband live, and standing over their sleeping bodies Ahmed finds himself unable to open fire. His feelings of love sweep away his hatred and desire for revenge. When Abeer subsequently sees signs of the break-in her feelings of tenderness for Ahmed are revived. Her short marital life has made her painfully aware of the moral and spiritual cost of the pursuit of luxury. She resolves to return to Ahmed.

Ahmed and Robbie, meanwhile, are engaged on their final act of revenge: against society and the city itself. The pair decide to hold an outdoor banquet for street cats in Downtown Beirut. No expense is to be spared: there will be laid tables, candles and roses and a full orchestra accompanying the meal. The event is to be the star of Robbie’s film, but the place is soon overrun by dogs. Beirut is shown as a city divided between cats and dogs, floating in a void filled with barks, howls and mewls.

The final choice, the end, comes with the decision by our protagonists to flee this particular circle of Hell for Sydney, Australia. We hear the plane’s pilot announcing over the tannoy: “To the West you can see the Arabian desert, to the East you can see the Arabian desert, to the South you can see the Arabian desert and to the North you can see the Arabian desert.” Thus we have, in place of “Love was here”, the cry, “Enough!” Here, ‘Enough’ or Khalas refers to flight. We understand that what afflicted the film with all the trials and tribulations that threatened to derail it for more than a decade was, first of all, is the parallel with the fate of its protagonists and secondly, the parallel with the life of the city and the dreams of its inhabitants over the course of these ten years. The project of peace, reconstruction, the rebuilding of a state and the restitution of normal life has faced the very same frustrations, obstacles and set back.

A further parallel is created by Alawiya’s effort to generate a cinematic image liberated from the forms, themes and structures he had adhered to in his previous films. Action sequences and the dramatic juxtaposition of romance, political thriller, raw social realism and comedy make Khalas a film of varied rhythm and method. In this, it is a piece with contemporary films that blend and juxtapose imagery and technique in breathless montage sequences. The majority of screenplays are concerned with the image not dialogue. It follows that the director chooses to focus on the physical qualities, the actual bodies, of their actors, not on the quality of their delivery. He highlights Fadi Abu Khalil’s (Ahmed) electrified body, the expressive powers of his face and hands and the dramatic timbre of his voice: a rare phenomenon in Lebanese cinema. He is perhaps the only actor able to execute the demands of Alawiya’s new technique: expressive movement; silent language; the language of the nervous image. Nerves, twitching muscles and the disquiet that boils off Ahmed’s face lend Khalas the power and vitality that Alawiya strives for, just as he strove to prevent his action sequences sliding back to the symbolism and emotionality he once espoused and which still dominate much of the film (i.e. the wedding scene, the dream, the suicide attempt, etc.). It is notable that Khalas by both design and execution is a genuinely populist film in the broadest sense of the term. It is marriage of the “director’s movie”, which has long dominated Lebanese cinema, and the “producer’s movie”, which seeks popular appeal and box office success at the expense of artistic integrity. This marriage may be the start of a new cinema that is “clean”, artistic and populist at one and the same time. This is a quality shared by a number of recent Lebanese films, especially since European funding has allowed Lebanese directors to make films that are both expensive to produce and of a high technical quality.

Youssef Bazzi -