"Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?"
by Simon Popek
Someone might have thought that Mercedes Benz was Germany’s fetish car over the decades. Perhaps it was — along with the other Bavarian giant —, but as Marcedes, Hady Zaccak’s spectacular, very funny and eloquent documentary shows us, the iconic car brand has had — and still has — an even bigger cultural, political, social and economical resonance across the Mediterranean, as “emigrant car” in Lebanon.
The car is of course the most photographed, cherished and fetishised object of the 20th century, worldwide, but things went even wilder in Lebanon from the late fifties; one might say that the nation’s obsession with Mercedes borders on mania, but we could go a step further and claim that Benz’s popularity among local people rivaled the western world’s combined obsession for Monroe (by some accounts the second most photographed object of 20th century) and The Car.
One of the persuasive elements of Zaccak’s film is in its personal and intimate approach; he refers to the never—ending fleet of Mercedes’ in Lebanon as Family, namely as a family who emigrated from Germany to Mid—East soon after the end of World War II and found its permanent domicile and cultural status in Lebanon. There, local cab drivers first embraced the now super—iconic and still operational Ponton and all future spawns (Phantom, for example).
Part found—footage documentary, part observational historiography, Marcedes never fails to lose its roots with the socio-political history of Lebanon. And it’s so beautifully minimalistic; the Warhol-like persistence of showing cars in all imaginable colors, models (from civilian to military ones) and home-made ‘corrections’ is only occasionally interrupted by simple explanatory title cards, while it boasts an ever-impressive lineup of local pop songs. Although you marvel at this majestic archival footage and strive to spot a non-Mercedes in the ongoing sea of bypassing, well, Mercedeses, references to the reality of country’s never ending political and economical turmoil are all-present. The bleak post-WWII economics, the fifteen-year civil war, countless military aggressions from Israel, it’s all there; moreover, Zaccak handles these no doubt tragic events with ironic distance and manages to escape the perils of sentimentality or pathos that too often mar documentaries on political hotspots such as Lebanon.
In short, Marcedes offers an alternative way of looking at the history of Lebanon in the past sixty years, and Zaccak’s film leaves no room for speculation: the title itself implies Benz’s sainthood in Lebanon, as Mercedes is retitled Marcedes. For the simple reason, ‘mar’ means saint in the Arabic language. Rightfully so, as it indeed was (and still is) a ‘people’s car’, a class—free vehicle for every imaginable social, religious or political group. The craze started with the Ponton in late fifties; it was popularized by taxi drivers and soon became the nation’s icon, driven by everyone from proletariat to political elite.
When an object is so prominently displayed and fetishized in a documentary, doubt inevitably creeps in the spectator’s mind at some point. “It’s an excellent film, but the director must have exaggerated and manipulated the material,” was my initial impression after the screening, but my friendly co-juror Nadeem Jarjoura from Beyrouth quickly repressed my disbelief, claiming that the film is not only accurate but it persuasively complements official history and national mood; it portrays Lebanon in a simple but not naive way, and it truly deepens our understanding of the country. What more do you want from a piece of art?
© FIPRESCI 2011