How Does Literature and Film Genres Depict Human Misery?

Viewing poverty is a complicated matter. Literary and film genres regularly harness human misery – coming-of-age stories, migration tales and, of course, the proverbial rags-to-riches stories.

These narrative tropes “work” by propelling protagonists out of misery.

Audiences, it seems, enjoy watching nice, destitute people pull themselves from the ditch of penury. It can renew your flagging sense of optimism about your own life – the human condition, late capitalism, the venal political class, state-sanctioned theft of your life savings, and so on.

It’s risky, though. If filmmakers veer too close to reality – depicting grinding poverty in all its unremitting brutality – or, worse still, glazing it in bourgeois sentimentality and judgment, they can be (and have been) accused of poverty porn.

So something like a sigh of relief could be felt Sunday evening, emitted silently through the surgical masks of those physically distanced in the terraces of Dawar al-SHAMS.

The source of the relief was Sarah Kaskas’ debut feature, a documentary focusing on individuals who embody variations on a theme of desperation a la contemporary Beirut. As the writer-director notes in the literature accompanying her film, “the number of people living under the poverty line in Lebanon has risen by 66 percent since the Syrian conflict.”

Titled “Underdown” (aka “Taht al-Taht” or Lowest of the Low), the 2018 work looks in on three characters – Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian – and those with whom they share their lives. The film debuted at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) in 2018, which is sure to have got it useful international exposure.

The film begins with Samya, who presides over a cramped three-generation household (a room or two, it seems, and a muddy interior lot with a water faucet). Her frail mother is gradually going blind from glaucoma and Samya is desperate to find money for her operation. She and her nephew Elie drink far too much whiskey of questionable provenance.

Abu Hussam is an unkempt cabbie who scrapes out a living from a car whose rental he must pay daily. What little is left over he spends on Arak Touma, beer and cigarettes, all of which he consumes in the car, where he also sleeps. He was born in Tal al-Zaatar, he says and, after the massacre perpetrated there early in Lebanon’s Civil War, his surviving family relocated to another camp. As his name suggests, he has a son named Hussam, but he avoids seeing him or his own mother in his current state, from which he can see no escape.

The saddest story is that of Ali, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee who also finds it impossible to live with this family, choosing instead sleep on Beirut’s seaside Corniche with Mohammad and Nada, a couple of somewhat older refugees. Though these kids don’t seem to indulge in substance abuse, there are other forms of self-abuse.

It sounds grim. It is too, so it’s a bit surprising when chuckles and snickers start to arise from masked audience members. Abu Hussam provokes the most amusement. Most of his sequences are shot while he’s driving the cab, which gives Kaskas a chance to listen in on the salty language he uses to insult and deride other motorists and potential clients alike.

He picks up a couple of young men who want to go to a district south of Beirut. He apologizes for the mess in the back seat, then stops at a shop to order some arak, water and ice. The two passengers decide the transaction’s taking too long, so they make to leave.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Abu Hussam demands. “Get back in there.”

“Yes sir,” the passengers oblige, amused.

“You can get out,” he adds, “after you pay me.”

They do pay and the cabbie drops them where they want to go, more or less, sending them off with a curse or two.

Not all three of the doc’s stories are equally amusing and none is hilarious. That’s just as well. You might question the ethics of laughing too heartily, given the plight of these people.

“Underdown” is not poverty porn. Kaskas’ respect for her characters never flags. The laughter isn’t provoked by the characters’ misery, but by the comedy that infuses all our foibles, a humanity that expresses itself despite the characters’ circumstances.

Sometimes it’s after they’ve had too much to drink, as when a tipsy Samya starts to belt out a tune and her mom, talking to Elie, compares her voice to a coyote howling.

Ali’s predicament prompts no levity. His, Mohammad and Hada’s release isn’t booze or smokes but daily swimming in the sea – which might be salutary, if that patch of the Mediterranean weren’t as polluted as it is.

Ali’s youth radiates such vulnerability that, even when Samya and Abu Hussam do sometimes arouse amusement, it never lingers.

Presented by Metropolis Cinema in collaboration with Beirut DC, the film’s belated Beirut premiere was the opening screening of Sawa, a week of COVID-19-conditioned projections in Beirut and Sidon. It’s Metropolis’ first screening cycle since Cinema Sofil was shuttered in late 2019, early in Lebanon’s current troubles.

Comprised of fictions and docs from Lebanon and beyond, the balance of the program is as distinguished as “Underdown.” Dawar al-SHAMS is hosting two more films, both from Latin America.

Monday’s film, Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ 2020 doc “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela,” profiles the rural community of Lake Maracaibo. Villagers there routinely confront the environmental degradation accompanying political neglect and corruption to maintain their way of life.

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and had its Lebanon debut during this year’s REEF festival, where the issues under discussion may have seemed eerily familiar.

Tuesday’s title is “Bacurau,” the multiple-award-winning 2019 fiction of writer-directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles. It tells the story of a rural community in Brazil that, having become inconvenient to the local political class, is under threat of erasure.

In this ambivalent cocktail of political engagement and surrealism, the impunity of the powerful, and their well-armed foreign proxies, compels normally inoffensive villagers to embrace criminal local heroes.

The second half of Sawa shifts to Sidon’s Ishbilia Theatre and Arthub, which on Friday will project Oualid Mouaness’ prize-winning feature film debut “1982.” A semiautobiographical picture, it recounts the early days of that other Israeli invasion, as told from the perspective of Wissam, an 11-year-old schoolboy, his older brother, teachers, and the girl of his dreams.

Balancing the program is “As I Open My Eyes,” Leyla Bouzid’s 2015 coming-of-age drama set in the final years of prerevolutionary Tunisia – a dangerous time for an 18-year-old woman performing in a critically minded pop band.

Sawa ends with a projection and discussion, centering on Mohammad Sabbah’s “The Land,” a short film documenting the struggle of the people of Bisri against the Bisri Dam project. Activists argue the project nested in political corruption and that the environmental and economic disruptions it caused would far outweigh its uncertain benefits.

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