Under the Bombs

Artificial Eye Film Company
Philippe Aractingi/France-Lebanon-United Kingdom-Belgium 2008

Ten days after Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, French-Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi began shooting Under the Bombs. It’s supposed to be an attempt to document how people relate to their country when it is under attack, and an exploration of how ordinary life continues, even when your society has been blown apart.

Zeina (Nada Abou Farhat, in a lovely turquoise dress) arrives in Lebanon on a cargo ship and immediately hires Tony (Georges Khabbaz), the only taxi driver who will take her south towards the fighting. We learn over time on the road that Zeina sent her six-year-old son to stay with her sister while she and her husband, an architect in Dubai, hashed out their divorce. Now her sister isn’t answering her phone, Zeina is frantic. Tony tries to distract her, alternately singing Boney M, complaining about his ex-wife or cursing other cars – Khabbaz is a perfect combination of Michael Imperioli and Marty Feldman. His little white car picks its way under gorgeous sunshine to Zeina’s home village, around bombed-out bridges, apartment buildings teetering on the edge of collapse, sometimes on roads only safe from rocket attack during the day.

Their quest takes them to makeshift refugee centers, schools, alleyways, even a mass burial witnessed by a pack of international journalists – all of which things were real. Aractingi plonked his actors into the middle of these real locations and crowds of real people, and filmed with a handheld camera as they asked for help from genuine refugees, or the doctors, medical staff and relief workers who were trying to assuage real suffering.

It’s testament to Abou Farhat’s carefully modulated hysteria and Khabbaz’s genuine decency that I never questioned the appropriateness of the film’s overall concept until planning this review. Their characters have been carefully designed with opposing political beliefs and personal backgrounds, but their conversations do little more than tick socio-political boxes. Only the schmaltz of their search holds the film together. But its context – actors pretending to need help mixing with people who actually do – leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

So what is the point of Under the Bombs? It doesn’t show us anything more than the director happened to have access to both a real-life war zone and film funding. Has the film drummed home the ravages of war? Not really – most of it takes place in Tony’s car or a cheap hotel, and the (real) Israeli soldiers we see wave at the camera. And – cynically or not – showing people chatting in the middle of a blown-out apartment has been done before. So does it refresh the road movie genre? Since the road-trip concept is generally strong regardless of the setting, on that level the film works. But not many other films have had the hubris to ask for sympathy for an actress over and beyond the suffering of real people.

Under the Bombs does nothing to contradict the suspicion that the filmmakers are opportunists who parachuted in to take advantage of the suffering in Lebanon for their own purposes. I prefer to save my sympathy for the people who lived through this war through no fault of their own.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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