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Under the Bombs
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by Mel Valentin

"Moving, affecting documentary-fiction hybrid."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed and co-written by Philippe Aractingi, "Under the Bombs" (“Sous les bombes”) was partially shot by Aractingi with a handheld camera during Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Beginning on the tenth day of an offensive that lasted 34 days, Aractingi shot footage of Israel bombs as they fell from the sky and destroyed buildings and, presumably, injured or killed civilians, all at great personal risk. Aractingi also toured the devastation wrought by more than thirty days of heavy bombardment. Rather than make a documentary about the Israel offensive or the toll on civilians, Aractingi decided to combine that footage with a fictionalized story that explores the personal costs of the conflict on a woman and her family. The end result is often uneven, but almost always poignant.

Aractingi and his co-writer Michel Léviant center Under the Bombs on Zeina (Nada Abou Farhat), a wealthy, upper-class woman who returns from Dubai after the ceasefire to search for her missing sister and her young son. With the country still in chaos, roads and bridges destroyed or otherwise impassable, and a fragile ceasefire in place, taxi drivers refuse to help Zeina, with one exception, Tony (Georges Khabbaz), a seedy, slightly shady opportunist who sees a large payday ahead (assuming both survive). Tony isn’t above ogling the attractive, Westernized Zeina, but Zeina has little interest in returning Tony’s clumsy advances and eagerness to engage in small talk while they drive through the cities, towns, and the coast of Lebanon.

Over time, however, Zeina and Tony begin to share personal information to each other. Zeina, estranged from her husband, sent her son back to Lebanon to shield him from the verbal confrontations that increasingly marked their faltering marriage. For Tony, driving a taxi is just a means to an end: he’s trying to save enough money to emigrate, but his brother’s involvement with an out-of-favor political group limits his chances of making his dream a reality. As Zeina and Tony journey inland, they encounter survivors, attempt to wrest information from overwhelmed government officials, and try to obtain help from Western journalists who may know where Zeina’s son was last seen or taken.

Not surprisingly, Under the Bombs’ origin in documentary footage and after-the-fact fictionalization makes for ragged, often disjointed pacing and a loosely structured, occasionally meandering storyline. Zeina’s motivation, finding her sister and son, couldn’t get any clearer. They provide Under the Bombs with the throughline that connects the scenes into a recognizable storyline. On the other hand, Tony’s motivation, initially driven by opportunism and greed and eventually resting on admiration and respect for Zeina (this despite openly lusting after her), isn’t handled with the same nuance or believability. Tony is less a fully developed or formed character and more a plot device, a companion and sounding board for Zeina. Luckily, Aractingi had the benefit of a world-class actress in Nada Abou Farhat, even if, on occasion, she has to carry the emotional weight for two characters (hers and Khabbaz’s). Farhat gives a grounded, persuasive, ultimately powerful performance as Zeina.

Story and performances aside, Aractingi and Léviant commendably sidestep the politics involved in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict and focus exclusively on the men, women, and children whose lives have been violently wrenched (or ended) by political foes who openly disregard the so-called “collateral damage” caused by their actions. The lack of sermonizing or grandstanding comes at an important time in the West’s relationship with Middle Eastern Arab countries, with the American occupation of Iraq seemingly open-ended and relations between Israel and its neighbors, and the Palestinian Question still unsettled (and unlikely to be settled in the near future).

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originally posted: 05/09/08 03:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 05-May-2009



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