"I Have the Technology": Life, Narrative, and Super-8 Technology in 'West Beirut '

By Blake Atwood
Submitted to Session P3354 (Documenting the Ordinary and the Unspeakable in Middle Eastern Cinema, 2013 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Ziad Doueiri’s debut feature film, “West Beirut” (1998), is powerfully bookended by black-and-white footage supposedly shot by the main characters’ Super-8 camera. Elsewhere, similar scenes, blown-up 8mm footage shot by the handheld camera, punctuate the film. These scenes, which increasingly distract the viewer as they become less and less integrated into the film’s editing, raise an important question about life narratives and changing visual technologies. What is achieved by forcing the viewer to watch the footage that the two main characters, Tarek and Omar, desperately try, but never successfully, to develop? Scholars have suggested that Doueiri’s use of Super-8 technology is a self-reflexive strategy which captures the lack of agency that Lebanese citizens had in representing their own war.

But this reading of Doueiri’s use of Super-8 technology overlooks the role that the 8mm scenes play within the film’s text, and it does not recognize the genealogy of the film medium that is called forth by the integration of older technologies. I argue that the four scenes in “West Beirut” shot with a Super 8 camera do more than call into question the film’s realist mode. They explode out of the film’s fictional narrative with gray-tones and silence. Drawing on theories of amateur film articulated by Heather Norris Nicholson and Patricia R. Zimmerman, I position these grainy black-and-white moving images, which have no soundtrack other than sound of the Super-8 camera itself, as constitutive of an entirely separate film, a home movie shot by the two main characters, representing their own perspectives, and charting the developments in their own lives. And yet this is a movie that its directors never see. Tarek and Omar cannot access their footage, because its outdated technology means that there is only one store in Beirut that can develop the film, and the growing Civil War makes it impossible navigate the divided city. So when Tarek, determined in his mission to develop the film, cries “I have the technology,” we as viewers understand that his technology has already become obsolete. In this way, Doueiri’s “West Beirut” captures anxieties about the course of Lebanese cinema, which was disrupted by two decades of war, and its ability to adapt at this crucial moment in the mid-1990s when digital technology was changing the shape of cinema.