Bringing in the people of Sabra and Shatila in from beyond the pale

SABRA AND CHATILA: The scene of a bloody massacre in 1982, the area in the south of Beirut is one kilometre square and home to 30,000 people
SABRA AND CHATILA: The scene of a bloody massacre in 1982, the area in the south of Beirut is one kilometre square and home to 30,000 people

More oftenthan not, the true nature of a place can be gauged not by its geopolitics that drone across our news channels but in the lives of the ordinary families who live in places we think of as beyond the Pale.

Just as the phrase had marked racist undertones in its origin, we too see others as being beyond the pale, as people beyond comprehension, too far removed from our own daily lives for us to see them as we see ourselves.

This is certainly true of the peoples of the Middle East but Irish film-makers have recently been showing us the reality of daily life there, first in Garry Keane’s Gaza in 2019 and now Keane is back with Stephen Gerard Kelly with In the Shadow of Beirut, which follows the lives of four families in the Sabra and Shatila areas of the city.

Sabra overlaps into Shatila in the southwest of Beirut and they are areas of excruciating poverty, sectarian mistrust between the original inhabitants, and displaced Palestinian people, the Lebanese nomadic community and families who escaped war in Syria.

There is also overwhelming drug usage but against all the odds, there are so many good parents who try to protect and nurture their children so that they can grow up to lead meaningful lives.

However, Lebanon is now in the grip of its worst ever economic crisis due to successive corrupt governments and a broken political system.

Irish photographer and videographer Stephen Kelly had been working in the Lebanese capital and filming life in Sabra and Shatila over a six year period.

What drew him there in the first place? The answer was unexpected.

“Well, my partner got offered a job in Beirut in 2015 and decided to move there and basically gave me an ultimatum saying ‘you can move or we are no longer what we are’. So I decided to move there with her,’ Stephen explains.

“I hadn’t made a film before - I'm a photographer by training and videographer – so when I first went to Sabra and Shatila, I did not ever once think that I would make a film there.”

The first thing he did, however, was to buy a bicycle.

“Initially, when I moved to Beirut, I bought a bicycle, my camera slung over my shoulder and started to ride around and explore the city. 

“As I entered into Sabra and into the market area and then as I got further and further in, I noticed how there was such a contrast between these neighbourhoods and the rest of the city.”

The Irishman was soon the centre of attraction.

“I became friends quite quickly with a family who, for some reason, took a shining to me, and over the course of the next three years I spent every free moment with that family and getting to know the matriarch - rest in peace, now,” he explains.

She had come to Lebanon during the Nakba of 1947 and through her, Stephen got to know all of her children and her children's children and got to know their neighbours.

More importantly, and we strongly agreed on the need to do this, Stephen learned the language and after three years was able to communicate with people in an area where no English is spoken.

“Being able to communicate and understand what people were asking me, at times of celebration and joy, but also at times of sadness and injustice and a sense of wrongdoing.

"You're the one with the camera. Come and film," be it a wedding or the birth of a child or a nice family portrait but there were other things too, like the police coming in to break up the street – which we see in the film – to the many other acts of oppression from the corrupt Lebanese state structure.

“People were rightfully angry and would ask me, almost tell me to film them,” says Stephen.

The Irishman’s intimate relationship with the people of Sabra and Shatila and the mutual trust between them made it inevitable that he would make a film and help these people tell their stories to the world. It became his raison d’être, he says.

The film features four families but Stephen focuses on the children so we see 10-year old Abu Ahmad working all day long for a pittance to help his single mother. 

Or Aboodi who had got out of jail after five years for various offences and is consumed by the desire to get on the straight and narrow and to see his baby son grow up.

Or Sanaa, who wants to escape her protective father and have fun like the rest of her friends. A marriage is arranged for her but when the family discover that the proposed husband takes drugs, the engagement is swiftly called off.

For the adults, it is an unending struggle to make ends meet, to just survive in an area one square kilometre and home to some 30,000 people where sickness is all around.

We meet the beautiful little Saarea. Her mother, Maher, describes her:

“Our little daughter has a skin disease. From birth, her skin would fill with water and the blisters would pop. Poor child. If anyone touches her, her skin peels off so you have to rub her with gauze and apply medicines. 

“I work as a cleaner in people's homes. I borrow money to buy her medicine. The government doesn't help me. No, no, no. The government won't even look at me,” she says.

All through In the Shadow of Beirut, Stephen bears witness to the good people of Sabra and Shatila, ordinary people like us, struggling with dignity and honesty and decency to find a way out of their poverty in a society that doesn’t care.

For Stephen himself, it was an incredible experience.

“It has affected me in a very positive way overall in that I've developed lifelong friendships with the communities of Sabra and Shatila and wider Beirut as well. 

“And my son was born there, my first child. 

I will always be grateful for how much people taught me and educated me in life with the richness of Arabic culture, Lebanese culture, food, art dance.

“So it has affected me in a really positive, enriching way. The film itself is just a snapshot of my experiences there. Obviously, there's a lot of emotional baggage comes with that but it sort of pales in comparison to the battles that people continue to fight there,” he says.

Stephen and Garry have really brought them in from beyond the pale.

In the Shadow of Beirut can be seen at QFT tonight (Thursday 21 June) as part of Docs. Ireland and it is followed by a Q&A with Garry Keane and Stephen Kelly.