Can you ever go home again? “Beirut: the Last Home Movie”
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 6, 2008
This has clearly been my week for immersing myself in old Beirut. I finished up a big project earlier than expected on Wednesday night, and decided to reward myself with a movie.
(Actually, I tried to get A to watch it with me on Tuesday, to ring in the New Year, but he was enticed away by the promise of steak at the Achrafieh L’Entrecôte with L & crew. Oh well – I was happy to lose out to L, who hadn’t been back since the war and deserved a big boeuf’ing🙂 .)
Anyway. The DVD I watched was a reissue of an old documentary, filmed in 1981 and released in 1987 to acclaim and various awards: Beirut: the Last Home Movie. It was Jennifer Fox’s first movie, and it came about by chance: she and Gaby Bustros were both in film school at NYU, and after Gaby left school to return to Lebanon for a few months, Fox asked whether she could follow her and record her experiences at home in Beirut.
Its not a war movie, although its set during the war and has a few gratuitous war scenes. But the narrative is a tightly focused, deeply intimate portrait of an upper-class Orthodox Christian family bound together by (and in some ways bound to) the massive family mansion they share.
With their practical clothing, absence of makeup and quiet sense of privilege (as well as with the deep reserve and lack of emotion with which they were raised), they seem like nothing so much as an old WASP family with a Big House in Maine or on the Vineyard. I kept waiting for the moment when a family member would acknowledge that yes, a Cabot (of “and the Cabots talk only to God” fame) did indeed marry into the Bustros family back in the day, but it never came. Imagine the Bustros’es as the Cabots of Beirut, though, and you’ll have a good sense of what the family was like in 1981.
Here’s what the New York Times had to say about the Bustros’es when the film was first shown (at the Film Forum, of course!):
Though we meet Gaby’s widowed mother and 26-year-old brother, Fady, this is a story of three sisters. Mouna is the strong-willed oldest, who at 39 seems dour and lonely. Nyla, three years younger, appears so compliant she is without will at all. And Gaby, at 35, looks perpetually tired, with bags under her eyes. As the film progresses Gaby seems less sure of her purpose in returning – to convince her family they are foolish, if not suicidal, to remain in the house.
As the sisters address the camera – speaking, quite directly, to us -Miss Fox’s narrative strategies are shrewd and subtle. She resists crass contrasts between the Bustroses’ faded opulence and the war around them. Instead, she reproduces their points of view and duplicates their sense of enclosure; only occasionally does she leave the insular world of the house to show the streets outside. Eventually we see the sisters’ children, and find their neighbors huddled in the house during a bombing, watching cartoons on television. It is mildly surprising that other people share the sisters’ lives.
Indeed. And when you watch the film, you’ll be surprised at just how much of their lives the sisters share with one another.
As an erstwhile New Yorker, what surprised me most was the first scene: Gabby, riding the subway. If I were given the choice between taking a New York subway in 1981 (especially the A to JFK) and enduring a bombing in Beirut, it would definitely have been a choice between the lesser of two evils.
After I finished watching, I googled around to see if I could learn anything about the after-life of the film, and especially of the Bustros family.
I found a mention of Gabby Bustros in a 1996 New York Times piece by John Ash, about his first trip back to Beirut after the war ended:
Back at the Mayflower, I barely have time to shower and change before a car arrives to take me to the home of Gabrielle Bustros. She lives in Christian East Beirut in the district known as Ashrafiyeh. The narrow streets and 19th-century mansions remind me a little of Athens’s Kolonaki district. One of the finest of the mansions turns out to be Ms. Bustros’s home. Its style is best described as Orientalized Venetian Gothic.
The rooms on the upper floor have ceilings 20 feet high, pillars, arches and chandeliers, but, as we are admiring one of the rooms, my elegant and cultivated hostess suddenly points to a chair and says: “My sister was sitting right here, watching TV, when the shell came through the ceiling. It made a very small hole, then it exploded. She didn’t have a chance.” A total of 13 shells fell on the house, but Gabrielle has honored the memory of her sister by restoring everything meticulously.
What a shock. I’m glad I didn’t read Ash’s piece until after I finished the film. I had a suspicion as to which sister it was, although the coincidence seemed almost too perfect.
But yes – it was Mouna who died in the house, sometime later during the war. A nearly Greek end for a woman who said that while she could not leave the house while it still stood, if it were destroyed, she would be free.
Sometime after Ash returned to Beirut, the Bustros family did sell its house. Today it is the Foreign Affairs Ministry. I need to drive by it one of these days, to see how it looks today.
One scene of the movie is filmed on a boat, when the Bustros family goes out on the sea for the day with some friends. Two of the men begin arguing about the situation in Lebanon – about whether what they are living through is truly a war. Yes, the first man says, of course it is a war.
Its a way of living – its not a war, says the second.
His words have been echoing around my head since Wednesday night. I hear in them acceptance, and it makes me sad. I don’t think the Lebanese attitude has changed at all in twenty-six years. The state decays, the people accept it; encouraged, the state decays further.
And while I certainly don’t think that there is anything like a war going on today, I can’t call life without basic services, let alone life without a government, simply a way of living.