Anti - Gone
I’m definitely not religious. There hasn’t been a holiday advent that I can get down with since the pagans celebrated the changing of the seasons. I’m not a big proponent of ritual - I find the lace garter on your wedding day, the party favors on NYE, and the roses on Valentine’s day really, really stressful. The formula, the expectation, the hype, all make me claustrophobic.
All that being said, I appreciate ceremony. I like days and times devoted to meaning. Commemorating love and struggle. International Women’s Day. Letting my heart hurt on the Nakba. Getting closure. Going to funerals and holding space for grief. I realized how important closure is last month when I encountered the first dead body I’d ever seen.
I attended a film workshop at the Beirut Art Center (BAC) last month that turned into a ceremony for accidental death. Led by Brad Butler and Karen Mirza (who run No.w.here space in London), what began as a crash course in Theatre of the Oppressed and collective filmmaking, which suddenly and unexpectedly became an elegy to a man that was run over under the highway, and killed, just outside the BAC, on Day 1 of our workshop.
For me, it was impossible to jump back to the workshop plan, where we intellectualize and abstract such immediate, human things, while there was a soul of a dead man floating about and disintegrating all around us. It might sound over sentimental or dramatic. But it was really empowering to process something so charged into our collective art practice(s).
I had approached the BAC after taking my lunch break at Ashkal Alwan. I knew I was late, but I walked slowly and took my time because it was warm and I had no desire to arrive at the afternoon class sweaty.
Walking back I saw a crowd forming, mostly of guys in camouflage, boots and hats. I first assumed the army was gathering to set up a checkpoint. As I got closer I saw there were other people in plainclothes and everyone was looking in the same direction. There was a man lying in the street. Had he been shot? Immediately my brain took on crime scene investigation faculties I didn’t realize it possessed.
He was laying heavy on the ground, and the way the blood was pooling around his head, surrounding it, didn’t look like a bullet had pierced him in one single direction. His arm was twisted underneath him unnaturally and scratched deeply by the gravel of the road. His hips were not level, they looked broken. He’d been hit by brute force. Was he alive still? He wasn’t moving and nobody was crouched over him checking on him. He wasn’t crying out in pain.
There was a car up on the sidewalk with a broken windshield, and men surrounding a single woman. He’d been hit by her car.
Seeing him was disturbing, yes. But so was the surrounding scene. Everyone was so casual. The army didn’t seem at all concerned. It was almost all men, construction workers and vegetable vendors from the area standing around.
The guys stood around chatting to each other, and taking pictures and videos every once in a while, as though it would help them keep focused on the tragedy in realtime, so that they could forget about it later, so that they could shock their wife or their friend at the cafe with the gory picture.
I couldn’t look away. I wanted to see the ambulance arrive and take his body away from this violent indifference. The interactions I had with friends and colleagues who thought I should just look away and go inside were frustrating. Why is it the norm to choose to feel less emotions?
A man came up on a scooter, wearing the uniform for “VIP” Valet. He barely stopped his scooter to take a close-up of the man’s face with his phone, and just kept going. Just like that. Without asking what happened or taking a moment to look without his camera. What happened to honoring the dead?
I thought of Antigone, and her rage that her brother was not given a proper burial and left out, by law, to be eaten by vultures and dogs. Here were the vultures and dogs, with their phone cameras and their rumors.
"It must have been a suicide" "She must have been not looking." "He must be Syrian." "This is the third dead body I see. You’ll get used to it."
The careless way the highway had been built felt like Creon’s heartless law, a thoughtless and yet systematic oversight. I thought of Syria. I thought of how many dead bodies were strewn about only a few hundred kilometers away. i thought of how many dead bodies the children there had seen. Would they grow up to be calloused onlookers too?
The body was taken away, eventually. In a completely unprofessional manner, of course. The paramedics didn’t wear gloves. There were two sets of paramedics, mirroring the secretarian divisions of Beirut and all the redundant effort it takes to upkeep the country.
Going back into the workshop I found it hard to focus on the videos Brad and Karen showed us, criticizing Canary Wharf and the economic depression in England and prejudice against immigrants and links to the revolution in Egypt. Eventually I was able to channel the shock of seeing the man’s dead body beneath the highway right outside into our work. When we broke off into little groups I talked to my colleagues about the responsibilities that come with being a witness. We talked about all the degrees of testimony. First hand witness. Second hand witness. Camera as witness. Film as ceremony. Seeing vs. hearing. As the workshop went on I had the idea to get everyone to repeat their testimony of the event. Some people talked about witnessing the dead body. Others talked about witness the witnesses, coming back to class shocked. Others about hearing the collision from the rooftop of the BAC but not seeing it. Some people talked about the fleeting nature of life. Others still about their family members in hospital, and feeling guilt for not being there at that moment.
I thought about his family. I thought about the driver that hit him, and what she must have seen as her windshield got cracked by the flying body. I thought about the men he worked with. I thought about the civil war in Beirut, and how casually people came to regard death and violence here.
When we looked back at the videos of the testimony, we saw each person’s high emotional point. We saw our classmates put their entire bodies into their gestures, surrounding each point of their narrative with their eyes and fingers and enunciation. We took each other’s gestures towards the accidental death of this man, and used them as our vocabulary for navigating through Beirut as we directed and filmed each other with a camera.
Our process was really eye-opening, as this was a collective film-making class, so we each took turns being directors, sound/camera people, and actors. Soon, I’ll post a short clip of Karen getting me to repeat a gesture from my testimony in front of BAC.
Thanks to Karen, Brad, Stefan and the BAC for organizing the workshop! And thanks to all the considerate citizens out there who let themselves be touched by death, no matter whose it is, and remaining human.