كیف لا نغرق في السراب /To Remain in the No Longer
10 February 2023 to 28 May 2023
10 February 2023 to 28 May 2023
[En anglais] كیف لا نغرق في السراب /To Remain in the No Longer begins, as many films do, with an aerial establishing shot of an urban setting. It is a common cinematic paradigm, this entrance from above; the aerial perspective makes quick work of context while rendering otherwise mundane features into enchanting abstraction.
A soundtrack of helicopter rotors cutting the atmosphere accompanies a moving overhead view of a scarred black-and-white industrial landscape, patterned with buildings and cross-hatched with dirt roads to form a scene that looks like it is either under attack or in the throes of construction. However, as the seconds advance, the intensity of the noise becomes a little too convincing; this, coupled with the abrupt panning of the landscape and the way the camera moves out of focus, causes me to doubt that this view is what it claims to be. The stillness of the setting is too absolute, the resolution is too granular, and the surface is occasionally flecked with material disintegration, so that the aerial perspective suddenly changes scale from that of an overview of landscape to that of an archival image.
As a scholar of perspective, I appreciate this aerial appropriation for the way it calls into question place and its representation, and for how it uses scale as a provocation for this questioning. “Representation,” according to the architect Amale Andraos, “is a multiple term for architects, evoking the act of architectural drawing or the affordances of participation in a society”; it can likewise be understood as “the capacity for building to hold meaning or to be iconic.” Joyce Joumaa, the director of To Remain in the No Longer, describes the film as a study of how architecture operates in the failed state of Lebanon; it is a sliver of Tripoli’s history that uses the unfinished construction of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s 1962 utopian design for the Rashid Karimi International Fairground in the city (featured under construction in the opening scene) as a model for understanding the failure of urban planning in the country. The capacity for meaning is indeed a formal concern in Joumaa’s investigation; she uses memory as a metric and hope as a guide, to consider where meaning lies in both architectural and existential contexts.
As the film begins, I anticipate a discussion on collapse, described in part through a direct reference to Niemeyer’s thwarted vision for the fairground, whose construction was abruptly halted in 1975 by the onset of the Lebanese Civil War. In reality, Niemeyer is but a ghost in the story. His most distinct presence is in the structures that serve as dramatic visual backdrops to anecdotes shared by multiple narrators—in one instance, a close-up of a domed ceiling cuts across a cloudless sky to form an artificial horizon line, curved as it was in the landscapes of antiquity; in another, a raised “space-age” elliptical form, pressed against this same perfect blue, jettisons time into the future. These two images represent the “problem” of the Arab city under the influence of Western urban planning: “tradition” and “modernity” are pitted against one another, and architecture is made to be the bridge between the two. As quiet scenes of the city play out, Abeer Saksouk, a local urban planner and researcher, describes how the Rashid Karami Fair is but one example of the conflict between Western urban planning systems and the local (Lebanese) context. These systems were, in her opinion, tools of erasure made to expunge the references that people had to their cities and their construction. Memory, a dominant theme of the film, can be seen in turn as a tool of resistance used against this systematic forced forgetting by reinforcing these references. Although the film does not offer specifics on Niemeyer’s role in the extended narrative of Lebanese state failure, which is admittedly a little disappointing, it absolutely makes me want to know more. And it is the hesitancy about didacticism and the delicacy of the filming, which platforms stillness above all else, that causes me to reconsider the definition of documentary film, in light of the fact that To Remain in the No Longer does not fit neatly into any one categorical genre.
Using 16 mm and digital film to splice archival material together with contemporary footage, Joumaa creates a moving film that emulates photography, capturing Tripoli past and present in light and shadow, through disparate scenes of architectural details, garden close-ups, and street portraiture, and then arranging them with the tender logic of a photo album. In one scene, a cluttered food stand is adorned on opposing ends of its structure by bright pink cotton candy contained in transparent plastic bags whose swollen oblong forms are reminiscent of Niemeyer’s curved sculptural vocabulary; the vibrancy of this colour is repeated in a subsequent shot of a man in a pink shirt sitting quietly on a crate outside a corner store. These are two examples of Joumaa’s grace in elevating the habitual to the status of ceremony: hopeful for progress, while holding stillness absolute.