Under The Bombs follows the story of a woman named Zeina (Nada Abou Farhat) who returns to the south of Lebanon after the 33-day Israeli bombing campaign in search of her son, who has gone missing along with her sister during the bombardment. Upon her arrival in Lebanon, she meets a cab driver named Tony (Georges Khabbaz) who is the only person willing to drive her south through the ruins to reach her son. Together, they must travel across the ruins of Lebanon in order to find what remains of her family.
A Drama Set in The Real Ruins of Lebanon
The film begins with footage of the actual Israeli bombings in Lebanon. From the get-go, we are made to see the utter hell that the IDF visited upon the Lebanese people, and how civilians were made a direct target of these attacks. The story itself takes place largely after the month-long siege, and is shot on location in Lebanon (in fact, part of the filming was done while the massacre was still taking place). While the main protagonists and some of the supporting cast were actors following a loosely defined script, most of the characters we see in this film were real-life people.
Having the film take place only days after the butchery of Lebanese civilians took place makes this the most engrossing and realistic war film I have ever seen. Scenes were improvised in which the protagonists interacted with actual Lebanese victims of the Israeli bombardment. Seeing the scarred terrain, the mounds of rubble and the faces of the actual victims of Israeli imperialism lends to the atmosphere of devastation that such a film requires. We are made to identify with the plight of these people as they sift through the rubble to recover the bodies of loved ones. As the protagonists embark on their own quest, to find Zeina’s son, the reality of the disregard of Israeli cluster-bombings and artillery strikes for the civilian population and infrastructure. Zeina and Tony are frequently impeded by ruined bridges and roads, homes that have been gutted by explosions and services that are hard to come by thanks to the destruction. Characters Are Interesting, But Not Distracting
In addition to the compelling atmosphere of the film, our protagonists do an excellent job of creating an engrossing character-driven plot without their performances distracting from the backdrop of the story. Both characters are dynamic, and overtime come together with a chemistry that seems almost entirely authentic. Farhat’s character runs through a range of emotions, from grief to anger, hopelessness to a resilient strength and resolve as she searches for her sister and child, yet all without it ever seeming out of place or forced. The drama of this character’s personal experiences blends seamlessly with the emotions and attitudes that this real-life backdrop evokes in the viewer.
At the same time, Khabbaz plays a character who serves exceptionally well as a balancing force in this character dynamic. Although at first he seems to be an opportunist, who is willing to help Zeina only if he is sufficiently compensated, he evolves into being a sympathetic and downright likable character. Throughout their time together, we see him become more and more personally involved in Zeina’s search, to the point of giving back the money she had paid him to demonstrate his sincerity. Additionally, he employs humor during particularly somber moments in order to cheer her up, and makes many sacrifices (including his car and his personal safety) to facilitate her reunion with her son. We are given insight into his own personal trauma, as one whose hopes of immigrating out of the country to start a new life with his brother and uncle have been shattered by the blockade imposed by the Israeli government, yet this back story is presented in such a way to allow the character to become more developed while not distracting from the central plot and the atmosphere of destruction and despair created by the bombings. Anti-Imperialism As An Important Theme
The film’s message is generally anti-war, with dialogue that seeks to condemn war in general rather than choose a side it seeks to condemn. Yet, the film is unable to remain entirely morally ambiguous in regards to the one-sided massacre of Lebanese civilians at the hands of the IDF. Just as the Lebanese civilians who were the victims of Israeli imperialism are conscious of who had visited this atrocity upon them, and say as much in their encounters with the protagonists, the audience is made to understand who was in the wrong.
In depicting the forces resisting Israeli imperialism, the attempt is made to perceive these actors in a neutral light as well. There is one scene involving a funeral procession in which Hezbollah flags were waved and slogans challenging the United States and Israel are chanted by the mourners. We also have occasion to see posters and signs that advertise Hezbollah as a force for unifying the Lebanese people and rebuilding Lebanon. While no overt statements supporting Hezbollah’s particular views, tactics or politics are made, the presence of such groups in the context of the destruction of Lebanon helps the viewer to understand how imperialist violence naturally breeds resentment and builds within colonized peoples the desire for an effective means at resistance.
Additionally, the film touches on the issue of collaboration in the face of imperialism through the example of Tony’s brother who, although is never depicted in the film, is an important element to understanding his back-story and his convictions in regards to the conflict. We eventually find out that Tony’s brother Joseph was a part of the South Lebanon Army that collaborated with the IDF against the PLO and Hezbollah during the Lebanese Civil War. As a result, his brother lives in exile from Lebanon.
When Tony and Zeina stay at the home of Tony’s family friends, who are Lebanese Christians (like himself) talk of utilizing their Israeli citizenship to flee Lebanon, Tony makes an impassioned statement: “These bastards bomb you, destroy your houses and bridges. Take your children, send you to prison, and you, you work for them?… You think my brother Joseph is happy? In his emails he dreams of coming back. All this, for what? For a stupid thing he did when he was 18.” Tony, while not necessarily condemning his brother for collaborating with the Israelis, makes the point that it isn’t a solution for those who are made victim to imperialism to work with them.
Should It Have Been a Documentary?
At times, this film is so realistic that one is made to believe that they are watching an actual documentary, and not a feature film with a script and actors. This gritty realism serves to enhance the dramatic power of the piece, but at the same time begs the question “Which should this film have been: a documentary or a fictional drama?” In the opinion of this viewer, the director made the correct decision in blending his story into the fabric of current events. In his desire to present war in a new way, director Philippe Aractingi set his film in the heart of demolished Lebanon and communicated the essential drama of real world events both through his chosen setting and through his characters. Aractingi’s characters and plot do not obscure the essential truth in this conflict; rather, they serve to compliment it by giving us dynamic and interesting characters that serve as a bridge between the viewer and the Lebanese people. It is one thing to show footage of bodies buried in rubble and another thing entirely to have a character we identify with think that her children and loved ones could be buried in that rubble itself.
Conclusion: An Essential Film
Philippe Aractingi directed this film in hopes of giving a voice to the victims of Israeli bombardment during the 33 day siege of Lebanon by the IDF. We at the APL would like to commend the director for his efforts and believe that everyone who concerns themselves with current events (particularly those involving Israel and neighboring countries) should watch this film. Its lessons about imperialism, about overcoming hardships and working together to right the wrongs in this world are essential.