The Arab films at this year’s Cairo International Film Festival have been billed as exceptional, and “Stray Bullet,” a Lebanese entry at the Arab Competition, does not disappoint.
The film was directed by Beirut native Georges Hachem and stars director/actress Nadine Labaki of “Caramel” fame. “Stray Bullet” is Hachem’s first feature length production, and was screened at the Washington D.C., London and Abu Dhabi International Film Festivals earlier this year.
The film is an intimate depiction of family life against the backdrop of the first days of the Lebanese civil war. While this choice of theme is unremarkable, Hachem’s approach to the film’s structure is unique.
“Stray Bullet” was conceived as a “triptych,” a term originally used to refer to an ancient style of panel painting where the canvas is divided into three sections and folded. In film, a triptych has come to mean a longer film that is placed between two shorter segments.
Using this structure, the film looks at the lives of three women. While the women are not connected through the film’s narrative, their stories share similarities and the films are jointed in structure and form.
The departure from the usual focus on men’s interaction with war to women’s is remarkable. Hachem chose to feature female characters because he believes that women make more complex and interesting subjects. His interest in memory also prompted the casting of strong female characters, as Hachem believes women are often natural storytellers and have longer lasting memories.
The main section of the film is a psychological drama that looks at family ties and the impact of the war on life in Lebanon. Labaki plays Noha, a listless young woman preparing for her marriage under strong pressure from her mother, brother, and older, unmarried sister, who don’t want to see her end up as a spinster even though she does not love her fiancé.
When Joseph Maroun, Noha’s former fiancé, returns from a mysterious absence, their reunion in a secluded forest leads to Noha’s witnessing of a killing and Joseph’s disappearance at the hands of an armed group. The shock of this experience, and the fact that the female assassin is engaged to her fiancé’s brother, becomes too much for Noha to handle.
At a dinner organized by her brother to celebrate her upcoming marriage, Noha’s resolve to marry breaks, and a physical fight with her brother ensues, all of which set off a chain of events that leads to her mother’s death after being hit by a stray bullet. Noha ends in a convent psych ward as the war escalates and her family disperses.
Hachem’s story is a powerful portrayal of the particular manifestations of civil war, in which loyal neighbors turn against one another with ease while normal people become capable of astonishing evil.
Labaki’s performance as Noha is a subtle and powerful rendering of the age-old female character who doesn’t want to marry; she effectively portrays the ways in which the stress of civil war make Noha’s situation even more intense and wrenching.
Civil war always makes good subject matter, especially when the human side of the experience is being explored. It is difficult, however, not to engage in clichés and stereotypes when exploring this period. It seems that contemporary films like Labaki’s “Caramel,” one of the most celebrated Arab films in recent memory, are highly successful for a reason: They explore the lasting effects of the conflict on the generation of young people who came of age during the war, and demonstrate how it created a new collective psychology that permeates Lebanon to this day — something new that resonates with audiences.
While it would be exciting to see more films like “Caramel” coming out of Lebanon, exploring the simultaneously mundane, joyful and heart wrenching aspects of modern life, “Stray Bullet” is an artistic and uniquely psychological portrayal of a period in Lebanese history that changed everything and is therefore a film well worth seeing and understanding.