Ring of Fire

in 9th International Film Festival of Kerala

by Joan Dupont

Ring of Fire (Zennar El Nar) by Lebanese director Bahij Hojeij, was named best film by the FIPRESCI jury, as well as receiving the award for best first feature by the international jury at the 9th International Film Festival of Kerala (10-17 December, 2004). Set in Beirut in 1985, Hojeij’s debut feature, shot in digital video over four weeks, makes for an intriguing and mysterious film. The screenplay was adapted from The Obstinate, a novel by Rachin El Daif.

The Lebanese Civil War has been raging for 10 years, and there seems to be no end to violence. In a city in ruins, there are checkpoints at every turn, and nobody knows who is in charge. Chafic (Nida Wakim) is an elegant professor who comes back to his apartment during a lull in he troubles. On the surface, nothing has changed – he has just to clear some dust, fix the blinds, and return to teaching his course in French literature. A new concierge (Hassan Farhat), comes to repair the blind and give news of changes in the building. He wears a smile and a cigarette stuck between his lips, but he is not a reassuring presence.

Chafic starts his class by reading the opening of Albert Camus’ The Plague. He has just read the ominous words about rats infesting Oran when shelling interrupts him. The students flee, scurrying to the cellar, much like the rats in the novel. Chafic goes below ground with them. Suddenly a woman emerges from the darkness and appears at his side. We catch a glimpse of her hair, her hands, and throat. She seems to surge from nowhere, and, in the light of the shelling, they make love.

When he gets back home, the teacher is stunned, stuck in a strange torpor. He cannot identify the girl or woman who came to him in the dark, nor shake this promise of love and human connection. But his life darkens. Gradually, his bachelor apartment is invaded by the smiling concierge. A pregnant young woman camps out on his sofa; crates carried in by the concierge fills his living room. Wakim who starts by looking like a dandy, seems to gain weight and age. Farhat does a stunning turn as the ambiguous concierge.

Out on the streets and at the university, the professor seeks to rediscover the fugitive image of love, but he comes up against more frustration. He has violent dreams, visions, or actual experiences at checkpoints, and bloody encounters.

The director moves in and out of Chafic’s conscious and unconscious so that we are never certain of what is dream, fantasy or reality. Nightmares appear real in this portrait of a city besieged, closing in on a man who has lost his bearings.

Ring of Fire keeps a sense of menace to the end, the atmosphere is tense. There is no safe haven, and Beirut of yesterday becomes a chilling image of our world at war today.

Joan Dupont