Sunday, December 14, 2008

Je Veux Voir (I Want to See)

Recently I had the chance to see Khiam, a film by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas presently at Pratt Manhattan Gallery as part of the Zones of Conflict exhibition curated by TJ Demos. I must admit that when I had received a reminder email about a screening of Je Veux Voir at the MoMA I was hesitant to leave home and make the trek to mid-town, the heart of holiday shopping madness. However, its winter in NYC and what better way to stay warm than seeing a movie. Over several years now I have followed the work of the directors of the film and I was a bit curious. Plus, who could pass up a chance to see the ever elegant icon of cinema Catherine Deneuve acting along side Rabih Mroueh?

After reading some posts about the movie by other writers who had seen the film either in Beirut last month or in France where it was released last week ... I was prepared to come out wishing I had never gone in, even if there were supposedly a handful of memorable moments. Like Rabih Mroueh points out in the film, he wasn't very interested in taking a trip to visit the south because it made him feel like a tourist, I too was apprehensive about watching this trip. Yet the film had gained notoriety at the Cannes Film Festival this year where it was included in the "Un Certain Regard" selection. So maybe it wouldn't be that difficult to sit through.

Entering the MoMA movie theater, almost all the seats were taken so I sat front row center. As soon as the movie began I was positive I would in fact have a good laugh ...and not in a good way. Within the first few minutes however I was drawn in, and excited to participate in this day trip. I wanted to see where they went, experience getting there, and how the story would unfold.

Before continuing any farther, I think it is necessary to make a brief detour. Je Veux Voir brings forth issues of memory that have surfaced in past films by the directors. Autour de la Maison Rose (1999) is one of Khalil and Joana's first full length films whose story line was centered around the re-urbanization project of Beirut following the end of the civil war. The film depicts the debate within a family made refugees during the war as they confront eviction from an abandoned house they had squatted. Members of the local community become involved in their fight to save the house they had made theirs. With the re-urbanization project many old historic homes were torn down to make way for large modern apartment buildings. In reality, this came to be quite a topic of debate for many because of its socio economic impact of the city. Looking back on that film and the issues it raised about rebuilding, erasing the urban landscape and the memories attached, it is interesting to see how these same directors, almost ten years later found a way to discuss the southern suburbs of Beirut and the devastation of the south in 2006. With the climax of the film there is a troubling sensation of disorientation.

What stunned me most about this film is its simplicity. It is exactly what it is, two people meeting for the first time, about to embark on a trip that would bring them closer. During the car ride there are touching moments of intimacy where the two begin to talk about life, and acting yet are brought back to the reality of the situation. They are interrupted abruptly by the sudden noise of Israeli jets flying over head or by land mines under foot. It is as if there is no escaping the war despite its official end. Watching these two actors develop a relationship we see the apprehension and uncertainty in Catherine Deneuve's face. The more uncomfortable she feels the more she stresses the need for fastening her seat belt as Rabih continues with the certain confidence one can only gain through experience.

Having seen the film, the book Le Tour de France par Deux Enfants , written by G Bruno after the annexation of Alsace Lorrain comes to mind. It is an example of what this film achieves. The book followed two children as they enbarked on a year long trip to discover the regions of the country. They were visiting areas of the country that had not been accessible for a period of time. Mandatory reading in French grade school, Le Tour de France par Deux Enfants was a sort of rediscovery of the richness of the country. While Je Veux Voir is by no means intended as a propaganda or instructional tool as was the case of Le Tour de France Par Deux Enfants, there is a common idea of the trip as a way of confronting and renegotiating one's country. Rabih and Catherine with the help of the directors are discovering and at the same time rediscovering an area of Lebanon that had in recent history been occupied as well as being the site of an extremely destructive war. It would seem that the act of making this trip to the south is a type of memory site as described by French historian Pierre Nora. As Nora suggests "fear of a rapid and final disappearance combines iwth anxiety about the meaning of the present and uncertainty about the future to give even the most humble testimony, the most modest vestige, the potential dignity of the memorable." This film blocks the work of forgetting with its willingness not to forget the recent past.

Truly Khalil and Joana have an eye for visually poetic moments. The over all look of the film is visually exquisite. Throughout the film, the moments of silence can at times be more powerful than the dialogue. Like in life, sometimes absence of speech is stronger than words. At other points there is visual relief from the seriousness of the subject matter as the countryside rolls by with its lush greenery and rich colors of the crop fields.

It is interesting to mention Wael Noureddine's July Trip as a contrast. July Trip took the viewer into the heart of the 33 day war. Wael filmed the seemingly endless miles of destroyed shops and houses from his car window. Driving and filming the structures we got a sense of the magnitude of the situation. He chose to show the gruesome effects of violence. Yet Khalil and Joana take us to one village or rather a portion of a village after the cease fire, and in doing so they define the location, it is where Rabih spent his childhood, making the trip intimatly personal. For Catherine Bint Jbeil will no longer a word on a map, it is the familial home of someone whom she would refer to as a friend by the end of the film.

Let it Go by Scrambled Eggs signals the end of the film. It is a wonderful track and a perfect ending to a not so perfect day.

Love dear love just listen to me let it go.. let it go go..

The Trailer:

Interview with Rabih Mroueh:

A selection of scenes from the movie:

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