Thursday, 15 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Southern Beirut

Everything goes wrong today. We are planning the documentary’s opening scene: Federico walking into the tourist office in Hamra, asking how business is these days and looking for advice on travel around the country. We are planning an intricate walk down the street, following Federico as he opens the door to the office, then over his shoulder to the receptionist at the tourist office for the best view of their conversation. We get to the door of the office and it’s closed, though we’ve been told on our last visit (when it was also unexpectedly closed) that it was open between 9am and 12. Apparently, there are new opening hours, from “around” 9am to “around” 11am (it’s still now 10:30) and again from “around” 2pm until “around” 4pm.

Our next option is to visit the infamous southern suburbs of Beirut – Hizbullah’s territory in the capital – to film the reconstruction efforts since parts of the neighbourhood were flattened during the war of 2006. We film Federico’s initial reactions to the heavily bombed neighbourhoods, wading through thick mud following a spectacular apocalyptic storm this morning. Things look largely as they did when I first visited the area over six months ago. Work is incredibly slow, only a few bulldozers and JCBs can be seen and only half of them are running at the moment. There is no sign of an organised reconstruction, only individuals working, mainly by hand, in one or two buildings. The scale of the reconstruction is immense, rows and rows of twenty story apartment buildings having been flattened to the ground, or torn in two waiting to collapse at any moment.

With everything covered in a thick layer of slime and mud, the area looks almost worse than I remember it, certainly more grim. We were told it might be difficult to film in the neighbourhood these days, that Hizbullah was no longer welcoming journalists as they had just follwing the war. Peering over the edge of a massive crater into the foundations of a destroyed apartment block, it was suddenly clear why. We could easily see, far below street level, three basement floors, fully furnished, with electricty and plumbing. These were not underground storage or parking garages, they were the underground offices Hizbullah had cynically built under residential towers and which they long denied existed. They were also the offices Israel's military wanted so desperately to destroy, they were willing to flatten hundreds of cheap flats to the ground.

We manage to shoot around five minutes of footage, Federico virtually speechless under the dripping floors of tower blocks with personal belonging littering the ground. The only comfort is in knowing that few people were killed here; the area was cleared out soon after the war began.

As we peer over the edge of a massive crater, several floors of the building visible underground, we’re approached by a local Hizbullah guard, one of the organisation’s patrol men each responsible for their own little patch of the neighbourhood. He’s very polite, but asks us what we’re doing here, why we’re filming and if we have permission. It’s soon clear that our Hizbullah-issued press cards from downtown Beirut aren’t valid in the southern suburbs, and after a few minutes of attempted negotiations, the guard (now joined by another) insists on erasing some of the footage.

“I’m going to leave you most of it,” he explains carefully, “because we want you to show people how we live here. But anything with my voice or my face, we have to erase.” They’re not aggressive, but they make it clear what is and isn’t acceptable. I’m not willing to find out what the punishment is for ignoring them, so we rewind the tape together and the guard identifies the spot from where we should start erasing our footage. While recording over the old footage, we discuss our work. The guards here aren’t so concerned with bad press, but more with potential spies posing as journalists. “If you’re filming buildings,” one guard says to us with a wide smile across his round face, “You’re journalists. But if you start filming faces you’re…” he pauses and grins, then says - now in English - “…from the enemy.”

The guards want to review the erased footage, but they’re still not happy. The microphones were still plugged in, so while the screen is blank the soundtrack features all three of our voices discussing the fact that I need to erase the tape. They make me erase it again, this time unplugging the microphones first, and we stand around talking for another five minutes waiting for the footage to be erased.

Satisfied, they direct us to a tent 200 metres away which now functions as the area’s press office. But the Press Office isn’t here any more. We’re redirected to an office 500 metres away, which also, conveniently, isn’t the press office either. Someone in that office walks us around the corner to another press office which is, thankfully, the actual press office. Unfortunately, it does us no good anyway. Hizbullah’s press officer informs us that, after another groups of journalists did “a lot of damage” (we’re not treated to the details) all filming is frozen in Hizbullah controlled areas until further notice.

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