A look at six different families with members who abducted during and in the aftermath of the Lebanese war.
BYRON BAY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Since 2005 hundreds of women have maintained a vigil in a tent outside the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, mourning loved ones who were abducted during the civil war and never seen again. Khalil Dreifus Zaarour’s docudrama Malaki: Scent of an Angel is based on the chilling testimonies of six of those women.
It’s an almost unbearably sad account of shattered lives, grief, undying love, loneliness and hope over reason as some cling forlornly to the notion that one day they may be reunited with a missing husband, father, son or daughter.
Another recurring emotion is anger at the Lebanese politicians, clerics and Sheiks for allegedly doing little or nothing to find out what happened to these victims.
Rather less effective is the Lebanese filmmaker’s device of clumsily inserting fantasy sequences in which several of these despairing women act out their dreams or nightmares.
There is no narration: Zaarour is content to let his interviewees tell their harrowing stories. The prologue notes an estimated 18,000 people went missing during the civil war which started in 1975 and ended in 1991.
First up is Sonia Eid, whose son Jihad was kidnapped in 1990. She learned he’d been taken to a hospital with leg and shoulder injuries but wasn’t allowed to see him and he vanished. In an awkwardly staged fantasy sequence, she walks through the ruins of a deserted hospital, four men wearing blindfolds appear and she covers her eyes. 'As long as my dear precious son is away from home I shall remain here in this tent," she declares defiantly.
Anjad El Moallem says she was five when her father, a civil servant, was abducted. She speaks movingly of being denied her father’s love and prays he will be released.
Fatima El Zayyat tells of the abduction 25 years ago of her two sons, one of whom was engaged. Zaarour films her sitting on a beach surrounded by barbed wire, her son’s wedding suit flapping in the wind.
The most heart-rending case centres on Maguy Andriotti who lost all three sons to the war. Sixteen-year-old Stavro was kidnapped 31 years ago, her nine-year-old was struck and killed by a missile and her 18-months-old child died in her arms in a shelter after suffering breathing problems. She’s racked with misery as she recounts her experiences.
Stavro reappears by her bedside in a dream; she cooks dinner but before he can eat he’s seized and taken away. It seems cruel for Zaarour to put Maguy through what surely must have been another ordeal.
Rabiha Riachi had just got married when her husband Tony was abducted on his way to work in 1985. She’s filmed walking through the ruins around an abandoned railway station and having an imaginary phone conversation with Tony, which is painful to watch.
Zaarour has sought to justify the use of reconstructed scenes by saying that enabled his film to play in cinemas – he claims it was the first documentary to be screened in commercial theatres in Lebanon – and in international festivals. Maybe, but I think those sequences are a distraction which dilute the impact of what is otherwise a profoundly moving film.
It’s his second directorial effort following The Strangers in 2007, a 40-minute doco profiling the families who live in cemeteries, old citadels and streets in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
Mariam Saidi’s son Maher was 15 when he disappeared in 1982. She had bought a passport for him so he could flee the country but he refused to leave.
The women’s pain is palpable, as is their hostility towards a government which they believe has ignored their plight.
'There are no human rights here. We are living proof of that," says one. 'Isn’t there one Lebanese official who can help me?"
The original music by Nadim Mishlawi, often just a piano and violin, is hauntingly evocative.