JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Immersive soundscapes:
Rana Eid’s Panoptic

by Norman Saadi Nikro

"I was scared of my dreams, while you believed in yours."
—Rana Eid, Panoptic
.

I.

The first three minutes of Panoptic consist of a blacked-out screen, accompanied by acoustic vibrations and sonic frequencies. A murmuring, dumbing drone gradually increases in volume, as an intermittent, high-pitched, insect-like squeal renders the drone all the more dulling. Gradually, distant, somewhat hollow voices emerge from the soundscape, only to remain indistinct. Towards the end of this opening scene, the filmmaker, Rana Eid, voices the following:

 “I was six years of age when I realized that you were an army officer. It was 1982, during the Israeli invasion. That’s when I came to understand that there was a war, and that we had to go down into the shelter, to escape death. To hide underground to escape what was above.”

After a short pause, she continues:

 “That was the year I decided to close my eyes, and take refuge in sound.”

The black screen subsequently dissolves into a broad, panoramic night shot of the traffic-congested highway straddling the Lebanese coast, leading into and out of Beirut. The flickering headlights of the cars are matched overhead by equally congested rows of fluorescent advertisements, promoting automobiles, fashion, fast-food, and various commercial enterprises. The colourful advertisements are surrounded by an impermeable darkness, rising up towards an infinite expanse of a formless mass of space.

No doubt designed to remind viewers that film is not only a visual experience, but indeed involves variations of sound, the blacked-out screen encourages a more intense experience of hearing and listening. Throughout the film, viewers are constrained to negotiate the difference between sound and noise—the latter, according to one prominent phenomenologist of sound,[1] [open endnotes in new window] less readily identifiable than the former. It is interesting to observe that beyond their acoustic references, sound signifies rigor or thoroughness, while noise connotes clatter or racket. However, despite the seeming meaninglessness of background clatter, or more usually, hum or whirr, noise enfolds an embodied orientation to environment. The droning din of traffic below my apartment window, for example, is part and parcel of my embodied sense of place, part and parcel of my capacity to inhabit my environment. This immersive dimension informs Eid’s Panoptic.

In his thoughts on song, inspired by attending a performance by the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, John Berger writes:

“The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time—a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.”[2]

To some extent, in Eid’s film the pulse beats of sound and noise serve to disrupt a clear distinction between past and present, which she creatively employs to render her memory of war and violence a cinematic modality of redress. Subjects of their environments, people embody varying capacities to distinguish between the sense of sound and the reverberating strains of noise. The indistinct entwinement of sound and noise, as well as past and present, informs the very style of Panoptic.

The opening scene serves to introduce the various interconnected themes running through the film. One of these is concentrated in the second-person “you,” as Eid addresses her late father, who had been a high-ranking officer in the Lebanese army. The film is thus very personal, an autobioaural (to coin a term) exploration of Eid’s childhood during the many bouts of armed violence and battles that have been historically lumped together and referred to in the singular as the Lebanese civil war, from 1975 to 1990.

Against a background of winding, arterial roads, the filmmaker Rana Eid addresses her deceased father, telling him that she was diagnosed with otosclerosis, for which she had an operation to save her from becoming deaf.

According to Lina Khatib, film production in Lebanon since 1990 has played a significant role in maintaining memories of the civil war, challenging the initial amnesia informing political and public cultures.[3] At the same time, she points out, the cinematic preoccupation with memories of violence disclose traumatic afflictions, encompassing what she calls a “national therapy,” or else a “will to myth” to both symbolize and narrate memories of the civil war:

 “Perhaps Lebanese films were used as an expression of this 'will to myth,' with the myth transforming from [sic] a nation in denial of the Civil War, to alleviate guilt, into a nation with a high degree of self reflection, a nation recognizing the necessity of healing, a nation full stop.”[4]

While, in her film, Eid no doubt situates both her story and that of the country—or more specifically, of the city of Beirut[5]—as subjects of trauma, I’m not sure that Panoptic is designed to heal the nation. Eid’s references to the nation, stylized through references to the Lebanese army, seem more ironic than symbolically redemptive.

By the time Panoptic was released in 2017, documentary film in Lebanon had accrued an inventory of what the curator and film critic Rasha Salti has called “first person documentary.” Identifying a post-civil war experimental impulse in part with a loss of faith in political causes and ideological affiliations, she remarks:

“Through the bias of a single character’s story, the viewer is intimated to a world of unresolved paradox, ambivalence, and ambiguity.”[6]

To play on Salti’s terms of reference, we could say that for Eid there is no ambivalence about the ambiguities informing both the subject matter and the style of her film. Concerning style, the indistinct prism of sound and noise is paralleled by a camera lens that often doesn’t quite resolve into focus, along with a visual concentration on shadows, some of the human figures appearing as ghosts or phantoms. While topographical shots of winding roads and highways follow the opening blacked out screen, much of Panoptic is shot in underground rooms or prisons, dwelling in the internal penumbra of abandoned buildings, as well as long takes of immersion in water.

Eid compares the calcifying effects of otosclerosis to the city, trapping the inhabitants between above and below ground.

Eid’s reference to taking “refuge in sound” relates to her experience of underground bomb shelters during the civil war. This experience brought about a heightened aural awareness of an acoustic gulf between above and below ground, as well as an embodied tension between sound and noise. In her film, she attempts to recreate not so much an experience of moving between above and below ground—between, say, life in their apartment and the long hours of waiting in a bomb shelter—but rather the immersive soundscapes she (in her childhood self), along with many others, learned to inhabit as a condition of circumstance. Hence, Eid says in her voiceover: “At the end of the civil war we emerged from the shelters but not from the underground.” This could be read as emerging into sound but not quite from noise.

In Panoptic this non-emergence from the underground involves an intense embodiment of sound as something like an immersive chamber, amounting to a haptic experience of environment. Concerning film, Laura Marks has provided a compelling notion of the haptic as a provocation of sensory perception. According to her, “optical perception” and “haptic perception” complement each other to bring about a heightened sensory experience of film and other media.[7] Where the former, the optic, relies on symbolic relief and distinct outlines, the haptic concentrates on texture and detail, attentive to objects that have no direct role in the story, but that constitute an embodied sense of place and circumstance. Marks writes:

“a haptic image asks memory to draw on other associations by refusing the visual plenitude of the optical image. In addition, because haptic images locate vision in the body, they make vision behave more like a contact sense, such as touch or smell.”[8]

In my discussion of Eid’s film I give more emphasis to the aural, rather than the optical. Both stylistically and thematically, Panoptic traces haptic experience as an embodiment of soundscapes. To my mind, if I am to stay in tune to Eid’s haptic approach to the circumstances, past and present, by which her memories transpire as a cinematic mode of address, it is important to keep in perspective how a body—the body of a film, the body of a filmmaker—respires as a hermeneutic vehicle of sensory perception.[9] The Arabic term nafsiyya captures perfectly this sense of respiration—nafs, breath—as an embodiment of hermeneutic capacities and orientations of self. It relates to personal taste and comportment, to self and psyche, to an embodied relationship to circumstance. Perhaps the term can also relate to Eid’s personal sense of “refuge,” although as I discuss in the next section, she extends her preoccupation with the underground to considerations of political culture in Lebanon.

Beirut, in the dim, steely light of morning. Sounds of whirring motors and car horns, “buzzing like a swarm of bees."

II.

Eid’s intense interest in sound is certainly not a passing whim, but informs her considerable work in cinema in Lebanon. While Panoptic constitutes her directorial debut, since the turn of the century she has worked prodigiously as a sound engineer on films of established and emergent filmmakers. These include, to name only a few, Ghassan Salhab’s feature The Mountain (2010), Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero (2011—exquisitely photographed by Talal Khoury, who did the camera work for Panoptic), Mai Masri’s feature 3000 Nights (2015), and Mohamed Soueid’s How Bitter My Sweet (2008). Eid has degrees in cinema and film sound studies, and established db Studios in Beirut in 2006, specifically devoted to sound design in film.       

Panoptic was released in August 2017, selected for the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Since then, Eid has screened her film at a number of festivals, including the Arab Film Festival in Berlin, in April 2019. A year earlier, in March 2018, Panoptic was due to be screened in Beirut, at the Ayyam Al Cinema’iya festival, when it was banned by the Directorate of General Security. Apparently, she was asked to cut some scenes and accompanying voiceovers, and while these were not that long, she nevertheless refused to accept the censorship. The Directorate, it seemed,[10] was sensitive about scenes of the underground Adlieh Detention Centre in which hundreds of foreigners, mostly domestic workers, are imprisoned.

Directorate of General Security, Beirut.

Lebanon doesn’t have a particularly good record of legislating for and protecting the rights of domestic workers—mostly women migrating from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, arriving in Lebanon through the infamous kafala (visa sponsorship) system.[11] Government authorities and politicians are particularly sensitive to criticism. In respect to domestic workers in film, one of the more notorious acts of censorship concerned Randa Chahal Sabbag’s feature of 1999, Civilisées, A Civilised People. At the time, Mohamed Soueid worked vigorously to have the film cleared for a public cinema release. But in the face of the General Security’s demand for what amounted to a 40% cut of the film, he gave up. Ironically, the film was shown (and, as I recall, enthusiastically received) at the Beirut Film Festival in 1999 but ultimately banned from public release the year after.

Underground detention center for migrants, mostly women domestic workers who have lost their legal standing: “These people came here with dreams of a better life. Some regard them only as servants."

With the title of her film laced with heavy irony, the censors were no doubt uncomfortable with the confrontational style of Sabbag’s approach, not only calling to account the somewhat heavy-handed, state-sponsored political culture of amnesia and “dismemory”[12] of the 1990s, but also the racism directed towards domestic workers. With its fragmented narrative style, A Civilised People employs surrealist-like juxtapositions to foreground the hypocrisy of the Lebanese, contrasting, for example, the brutality of random armed violence on the street to an elite woman moving between Beirut and Paris. According to one astute critic, Sabbag’s film serves to confront the Lebanese with their failures to take responsibility for the civil war.[13]

As an early review of her films suggests, Sabbag often drew attention to conventional taboos, such as homosexuality.[14] Since she passed away in 2008, her films have gained further acclaim, with A Civilised People accruing something like a cult status. While this status is to some extent due to the heavy-handed censoring of the film, and otherwise to the musical score by the immensely creative and leftist provocateur Ziad Rahbani, it concerns more Sabbag’s inimitable style, her creative use of the absurd to direct attention to the constitutive effects of moving image mediums. To my mind, Westmoreland’s notion of “mediated subjectivity,” as well as, more generally, the critical interest in “mediality,”[15] is useful to note how Sabbag directs a viewer’s focus towards the constitutive role of the medium, rather than the content of representation. As Westmoreland has it,

“the historical record become[s] the site of experimental historiography. This does not imply a corrective or a mission of telling the actual ‘truth’ of political violence. Instead, it endeavors to disenchant viewers’ expectations about how to understand history and reenchant them with a way of mourning the present.”[16}  

While to some extent Panoptic does exercise a “mourning of the present” (although, I am not sure that, in the contemporary rebellious climate in Lebanon, since at least the protests of 2016, “mourning” is the right term[17]), Eid’s film is designed to disrupt conventional modes of understanding the recent history of Lebanon.

However, she is well aware that censorship is aimed at restricting—if not, on occasions, preventing—the capacity of film production to engage public awareness and discussion, especially concerning political violence. In the days following the ban, she took the somewhat unprecedented step of showing her film on Vimeo, making it available for viewers for three days. While the Vimeo screening helped to gain some exposure, it may not have drawn the type of public reception that Eid would have preferred. Like other reflective filmmakers in Lebanon, Eid’s work is driven towards international festivals and their predominantly international patrons.[18]

III.

For many people in Lebanon, particularly those that had lived through the civil war in Beirut, Eid’s studied, almost obsessive depiction of the infamous Burj el Murr—the tall, forty-storey block of concrete and metal named after the builder Michel el Murr—may well be almost harrowing. She has remarked that with its many windows like eyes, the building remains a site angst:

“I’ve always been very afraid of this building because a lot of people died there.”[19]

Burj el Murr is a giant, never closing his eyes. Standing, like a vertical bridge, surveilling us."

The tower borders the hotel district of Beirut, straddling the Spears, Zokak al-Blaat, and Zarif neighbourhoods. Uniform in its streamline design, construction of the building began in 1974, on the eve of the outbreak of the civil war. As the violence halted its construction, the building became itself a site of violence, a hotspot for snipers, prison cells, and torture chambers. Consequently, the name Murr has been adapted as al-Mrara, or bitterness—the tower of bitterness.[20]

In Eid’s film, the building first appears at around sixteen and a half minutes, in a distant camera shot foregrounding a curving, above ground road. From about five hundred metres away, the tower appears with straight sides, though ghostly in the dim twilight. In her voiceover, Eid says: “Burj el Murr is a giant. He doesn’t close his eyes.” Interestingly, this comes almost directly after another of her second-person voiceovers addressed to her father, spoken over one of the many shots of traffic along winding highways:

“When I was small, you’d wake me and my sister for school with military music. I’d open my eyes and you’d be in your uniform, ready. I thought you never slept, or else slept with your eyes open.”

In her film, Eid situates and works on memories of her childhood sense of her father, her childhood sense of Beirut in the throes of inexplicable violence, as well as an aftermath in which the physical wounding of the city’s buildings bears witness to an inadequately digested past. In the process, memory comes to trigger a number of associations, having implications for Eid’s personal disposition, as well as that of Beirut.

“A one-hundred-eyed watchman.” During the wars and violence that have come to be regarded, in the singular, as the civil war (1975-1990), the tower was a hotbed of snipers and torture chambers. It still stands, stubbornly occupying a central patch of turf.

The camera remains preoccupied with the Murr tower, “Standing, like a vertical bridge, he’s surveilling us,” Eid says. The camera cuts to a close up of the building, panning up from the ground, and then cutting to the interior, gliding through a number of half destroyed, dimly lit rooms. There are shots of debris, rubble, rubbish, all depicted by a patient camera that is all too happy to dwell on refuse and waste, against a haunting musical drone[21] accompanied by an equally haunting choir-like sonority. In one room a soldier dimly appears, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. In another room, a soldier appears as a ghostly shadow on a wall.

These interior scenes go on for almost seven minutes, in the second half of which Eid’s voiceover returns, commenting on her childhood unease with her father’s uniform. Addressing him again, she says that she has no recollection of him going down into the shelter, even during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982.[22] She recounts a recurring dream she had in childhood, since 6 years of age, about a dragon in the shelter, “burning everything around it.” In her fear she tries to hide, but the dragon catches sight of her and approaches, lying down next to her and “closing his eyes,” sleeping. At the end of these somewhat claustrophobic scenes, the camera is back out on a street, focussed on a small boy, proudly holding a Lebanese flag, in front of a Lebanese army vehicle, being photographed by his excited mother.

Stylistically, in her film Eid employs both sound and sight to somehow mimic the layered textures of memories, which, like dreams, often seem as though they consist of random juxtapositions, whose significance remain inchoate, taking shape through their narration. In an interview with a local film critic, Eid discusses both her layered approach to sound and image, and her juxtapositional style:

“The sounds of the city itself occupies a large part of the film. I worked on the image as I worked on the sound: layers upon layers. Things that do not specifically match. My biggest challenge lies in the lack of any sound effects. All sounds are real, captured as they are, and I have not manipulated them.”[23]

The lateral duality of above and below ground is rendered all the more eerie through the parallel of image and sound. One often feels that Talal Khoury’s photography is attuned more to the aural layers, rather than the story. Especially inside the Murr tower, the camera casually roams over the vacant chambers, depicting not so much the different rooms, but rather the hollow and eerie atmosphere.