Rana Eid’s Panoptic: Acoustic Echoes and Resonant Soundscapes
By Saadi Nikro, research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. He is the author of The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon (2012), and Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice (2019). See below for longer bio.
Along with other women filmmakers in Lebanon, such as Nadine Naous and Eliane Raheb (1), Rana Eid stands out as a major figure of documentary and feature film. While her 2017 documentary essay Panoptic constitutes her directorial debut, since the turn of the century she has worked prodigiously as a sound engineer on films of established and emergent filmmakers. These include Ghassan Salhab’s feature The Mountain (2010), Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero (2011—exquisitely photographed by Talal Khoury, who did the camera work for Panoptic), Mai Masri’s feature 3000 Nights (2015), and Mohamed Soueid’s How Bitter My Sweet (2008). Eid has degrees in cinema and film sound studies, and established db Studios in Beirut in 2006, specifically devoted to sound design in film.
Panoptic was released in August 2017, selected for the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Since then, Eid has screened her film at a number of festivals, including the Arab Film Festival in Berlin, in April 2019. A year earlier, in March 2018, Panoptic was due to be screened in Beirut, at the Ayyam Al Cinema’iya Festival, when it was banned by the Directorate of General Security. Apparently, she was asked to omit some scenes and accompanying voiceovers, and while these were not that long, she nevertheless refused to accept the cuts. The Directorate, it seemed (2), was sensitive about scenes of the underground Adlieh Detention Centre in which hundreds of foreigners, mostly domestic workers, are imprisoned.
Lebanon doesn’t have a particularly good record of legislating for and protecting the rights of domestic workers—mostly women migrating from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, arriving in Lebanon through the kafala (visa sponsorship) system (3). Government authorities and politicians are sensitive to criticism. In respect to domestic workers in film, one of the more notorious acts of censorship concerned Randa Sabbag’s feature of 1999, A Civilised People. Ironically, the film was shown (and, as I recall, enthusiastically received) at the Beirut Film Festival in 1999, but banned from public release the year after.
Following the banning of her film, Eid took the somewhat unprecedented step of showing her film on Vimeo, making it available for viewers for three days. While the Vimeo screening helped to gain some exposure, it hardly drew the type of public reception that Eid would have preferred. Like other reflective filmmakers in Lebanon, Eid’s work is driven towards international festivals and their predominantly international patrons, at the expense of engaging public audiences and other filmmakers in Lebanon.
Panoptic is very personal, framed as a cinematic epistle addressed to Eid’s deceased father. At the near beginning of the film we hear Eid’s voiceover, speaking to her father in second person mode of address: ‘I was 6 years of age when I realised you were an army officer’. This discovery, she goes on to tell her father, occurred in 1982, when Israel had extended its occupation of Lebanon and enforced a siege of Beirut. ‘At the time’, Eid continues, ‘I understood that there was a war, and we had to go down to the shelter, to escape death, hide underground to escape what was above. That was the year I decided to close my eyes, and take refuge in sound’.
The trajectory of Eid’s personal and professional relationship to sound informs the pulse beats of her film, construed through a manifold entwinement of thematic reference, stylistic comportment, and personal disposition. The latter, we learn, concerns her being inflicted with Otosclerosis, a condition that gradually leads to a loss of hearing, and potentially, dementia. In her voiceover, Eid says that she had surgery to avoid becoming deaf.
This personal disposition is connected to thematic references to the city, Beirut, whose occupants, she observes, have lost their capacities to hear the acoustic pulse beats of a pathological condition. As Eid articulates further in her voiceover, still addressing her father, all the while interpellating a public hearing: ‘If I hadn’t done the operation, I might have gone deaf, and my head would have become calcified, paralysing me. But I wouldn’t die. With time, the city itself became calcified, trapping its inhabitants above and below the ground’.
Both thematically and stylistically, Eid’s personal plight, composed as an epistolary address to her deceased father, is entangled with more general symptoms of public paralysis. This paralysis encompasses a psychosomatic disposition by which memories of violence—concerning, in the main, the years of war and civil violence between 1975 and 1990—remain difficult to discuss as a public issue.
Since the civil war, documentary and feature film production in Lebanon has made a considerable contribution to memories of war and civil violence. More pressingly, such production has fashioned an experimental cinematic style marked by stuttering narratives of discomposure, characterisation betraying a fragmented sense of self. Having no trust in narrative continuity and temporal closure, filmmakers of Rana Eid’s generation are nevertheless driven to gather shards of experience and fashion them into styles of cinematic production.
The resulting fragmentary, episodic style constitutes a compelling interweaving of performative and referential modes of association, betraying a distrust of ideological explanations. Interestingly, rather than expressing a postmodern style of stuttering temporalities, free-floating characterization, and slippages between first and third person forms of address, the fragmentary style of documentary film in Lebanon is more home grown.
After the Israeli occupation 1982, violence between the various militias became increasingly opportunistic, shorn of any moral compass. Particularly in leftist circles, as historical trust and hope lost their ideological moorings, cultural production became more attuned to a shattered political landscape, in the midst of which characterisation transpired as a remnant or left-over of history. Like postwar literature, narrative style in film, especially documentary, became fragmentary and episodic, mesmerised by a fall into time.
Similar to the other filmmakers I mentioned above, Naous and Raheb, Eid is part of what can be called a civil war generation, whose childhood is entangled with an acoustic resonance of war and armed violence—a resonance that was not so much abnormal, but indeed part and parcel of their aural surroundings. Their parents’ generation had experienced the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of trust in political ideals, and the progressive temporal pulse beats undergirding this trust. This sense of political and cultural trust was embodied as a hermeneutic modality of orienting oneself to the political and social fractures brought about by the civil war years. By contrast, Naous, Raheb, and Eid had no embodied sense of political, cultural, or social trust and hope, but only the droning resonance of senseless violence—actual, precipitate, symbolic, sudden and seemingly directionless.
Like other critics of political culture in Lebanon, Eid refers to the General Amnesty Law of 1991 as a watershed event bringing about historical amnesia. When asked, in an interview, about the tendency to repeat history because of a failure to critically discuss memories of violence, Eid responds:
Of course. For me what the general amnesty did in 1991 to the country
and how the Lebanese people accepted it is a general amnesia. We forgot
everything. So that’s why I feel Lebanon is not going to be stable ever
because we didn’t solve anything. That’s the Lebanese mentality, we
put layers on top of other layers and we hide the reality. We hide every-
thing and we put it underground and its been calcified (4).
Eid’s reference to ‘layers’ is organised around a lateral duality of above and below ground. Accompanying this duality is a notion of the real that does not so much constitute what would be revealed once the layers are trimmed away, but rather the symptomatic processes (calcification) by which layers of paralysis maintain their immersive force. These processes are largely social, taking place at varying junctures of personal disposition and public decorum.
Concerning cinematic style in Lebanon, Eid has been influenced by the creative documentaries of Mohamed Soueid. In his films, such as the so-called civil war trilogy—Tango of Yearning (1998), Nightfall (2000), Civil War (2002)—Soueid tends to depict personal idiosyncrasies in tandem to social quirks, demonstrating the pathologies incorporated by modalities of public decorum. In Civil War, for example, he focuses on the rising fashion of camouflage army fatigue, as well as the increasing rates of tooth decay among people in Lebanon. His subjects—Bassem in Nightfall, the late Mohamed Doaybess in Civil War, and himself in Tango of Yearning—are eccentric to the extent that they fail to live up to predominant expectations of conduct, fail to conform to conventional mannerisms and demeanours.
As the film critic Laura Marks perceptively observes: ‘“Subjects” in Soueid’s films are knots of tics, bad habits, and accommodations that allow them to deal (not without flair) with impossible situations’. For Marks, this phenomena has more to do with political culture than psychological disposition: ‘They are not so much psychological subjects as knots in a political field, their individual neuroses the manifestations of political traumas’ (5). In Soueid’s films and Panoptic, neuroses are divided and shared through relational knots of personal comportment and political culture. For both Soueid and Eid, political and social wounds are incorporated as afflictions, though directed towards a critical view of the pathologies of self and circumstance. In Panoptic, the subject of neuroses is Eid’s own relationship to the history of violence and political culture in Lebanon, though sieved through her relationship to her late father, a former army general.
In the interview with Andreea Patru (see note 4) Eid mentions the work of Michel Foucault as a ‘main reference for her film’, an obvious influence when we consider her title, Panoptic. Foucault’s central point concerns a distribution of power that serves to produce docile subjects ever on their guard against their own potential transgressions. He adapts the idea of a lookout tower, gleaned from Jeremy Bentham’s notion of a panoptic building that could serve as a mechanism for a subjective introjection of surveillance.
Foucault’s notion of the subject caught up in this mechanism is rather gloomy. Power doesn’t take place between adversaries, but rather becomes a fateful modality of self-constitution. Indeed, for Foucault (at least in his Discipline and Punish period) there seems to be no escape:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes
responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontane-
ously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which
he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own
In Eid’s film, the lookout tower is represented by the infamous Burj el Murr—the tall, forty-storey block of concrete and metal named after the builder Michel el Murr. The tower borders the hotel district of Beirut, straddling the Clémenceau, Zokak al-Blaat, and Zarif neighbourhoods. Uniformly phallic in its streamline design, construction of the building began in 1974, on the eve of what would come to be called the civil war. As the violence halted its construction, the building became itself a site of violence, a hotspot for snipers, prison cells, and torture chambers. Consequently, the name Murr has been adapted as al-Mrara, or bitterness—the tower of bitterness. (7)
And yet, where Foucault concentrated on the visual field, for Eid it is more a question of being subjected to spheres of acoustic and aural resonances. While telling the story of her relationship to sound, Eid draws attention to soundscapes as a dense materiality affecting the capacities of people to inhabit their environments.
The first two and a half minutes of Panoptic presents a blacked-out screen, no doubt designed to remind viewers that film is not only a visual experience, but indeed constitutes modalities of sound. The black-out is accompanied by intermittent waves of acoustic vibrations and sonic frequencies. Physically onstraining viewers to more intensely attune their capacities for hearing and listening, Eid says in her voiceover, ‘To close my eyes and take refuge in sound’.
The notion of “refuge in sound” relates to her experience of underground bomb shelters during the civil war. This experience brought about a heightened aural haptic awareness of a split between above and below ground. ‘At the end of the civil war’, Eid goes on to say, ‘we emerged from the shelters but not from the underground’. The haptic dimension of Panoptic involves an intense embodiment of sound as something like an immersive chamber—in Eid’s case taken to an extreme of physical affliction.
Sound, for Eid, is manifold and multilayered. While capacities to see and modalities of sight often involve outlines fashioning distinct substances, sound is much harder to contain, always overflowing attempts to box it in. A wall can serve to block off sight, though sound has a capacity to go through a wall (8). In Panoptic, no sound is singular or distinct, but interwoven with any number of sounds, echoing through underground chambers, or else reverberating as urban soundscapes. In studies of the phenomenology of sound it is customary to distinguish sound from ‘noise’. While the former involves a certain recognition of aural ‘directionality’ and ‘surroundability’ (9), coherence, and signifiable characteristics, noise refers to background acoustics, such as the street traffic below my window that makeups the haptic resonance of my environment.
In Panoptic, sound is interwoven with noise, directionality never quiet setting itself free from the immersive haptic resonances of environments, both above and below ground. Astonishingly, none of the sounds in Panoptic were manufactured by techniques of post-production, but directly recorded from the various sites of the city Eid visited to make her film.
While sound and image were obviously fashioned through the process of editing, the acoustics remain hollow, eerie and somewhat chronic, remnants of memories that seem destined never to emerge from their dungeon-like pulse beats.
In an interview with the Beiruti film critic Nadim Jarjoura, Eid discusses her layered approach to both sound and image: ‘The sounds of the city itself occupies a large part of the film. I worked on the image as I worked on the sound: layers upon layers. Things that do not specifically match. My biggest challenge lies in the lack of any sound affects. All sounds are real, captured as they are, and I have not manipulated them’ (10). The lateral duality of above and below ground is rendered all the more eerie through the parallel of image and sound. One feels, at times, that Talal Khoury’s photography is attuned more to the aural layers, rather than the story. Especially inside the Murr tower, the camera casually roams over the vacant chambers, depicting not so much the different rooms, but rather the hollow and eerie atmosphere.
At the end of the opening scene, the black screen dissolves into a broad, panoramic night shot of the traffic-congested highway leading into and out of Beirut. The flickering headlights of the cars are matched overhead by equally congested rows of fluorescent advertisements, promoting automobiles, fashion, fast-food, and various commercial enterprises. The colourful advertisements are surrounded by an impenetrable darkness, rising up towards an infinite expanse of a formless mass of space.
In her voiceover—leaping out from the droning background of indistinct hums, murmurs, and occasional beeps—Eid says that at the age of six she became aware of the war, and that going underground into the bomb shelter was a way of escaping death and destruction above. At the same time, she learned to keep her eyes closed as a way of escape. Indeed, it seems that going above ground was in itself also a form of escape, an escape from those eerie chambers that have become embodied as conduits for survival. And yet, besides bearing witness to a remnant of embodied survival, with her film Eid has managed to provide a compelling approach to soundscapes of cinematic style.
(1) Among their respective films, I mention Naous’s Home Sweet Home (2014), and Raheb’s Sleepless Nights (2012). On the former, see my essay “Ya ‘Ayb al-Shoum: Scenes of Auto/Biog/Graphy and Shame in Nadine Naous’s Home Sweet Home”. Life Writing, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2015, 211-226. On the latter, see chapter 4 of my Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019.
(2) Joseph Fahim, “A General’s Daughter: Meet the Filmmaker Who Defied Lebanese Censors”. Middle East Eye, April 24, 2018. https://www.middleeasteye.net/features/generals-daughter-meet-filmmaker-who-defied-lebanese-censors
(3) For a discussion of the problem see, for example, Kirsten O’Regan’s article, “A Day Out and a Union: Lebanon’s Domestic Workers Organize”. Dissent, Fall 2017, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/lebanon-domestic-workers-organize-union-kafala
(4) Andreea Patru, “Breaking the Synchronicity: An Interview with Rana Eid”. Senses of Cinema, Issue 88, October 2018
(5) Laura U. Marks. “Mohamed Soueid’s Cinema of Immanence”. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. No. 49, Spring 2007. For more on Soueid’s trilogy, see my chapter “Between Mourning and Melancholia: Memory and Nurture in Mohamed Soueid’s Tango of Yearning”. In my The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge scholars, 2012.
(6) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995, 202-203.
(7) See Lina Ghaibeh’s twelve minute animation film of 2012—Burj el Murr: Tower of Bitterness. https://vimeo.com/93245013
(8) On the theme of sound overflowing outlines and forms of containment, see my essay, “Listening: The Aural Resonance of a Formless Line”. Hummus for Thought, December 17, 2018. https://hummusforthought.com/2018/12/17/listening-the-aural-resonance-of-a-formless-line/
(9) Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. See especially chapter six, “The Auditory Field”.
(10) Nadim Jarjoura, “About Panoptic: Interview with Rana Eid”. Mec Film. July, 2017. https://mecfilm.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/filmhefte/en/Panoptic_engl.pdf
Norman Saadi Nikro resides in Berlin, where since 2011 he is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. He studied critical theory and cultural studies in Sydney, and completed his doctoral studies in 1998. From 2001 to 2007 he was Assistant Professor in the Humanities Faculty at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. He teaches in the Department of English Literature and Cultural Studies at Potsdam University, where he gained his Habilitation degree in 2013. He is the author of The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon (2012), and Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice (2019).