In the Shadow of Beirut: Brilliant, heart-breaking and even more pertinent than planned

Events since this nuanced and at times beautiful film was made mean it nods even more vigorously to the wealthy world thousands of kilometres from Sabra and Shatila

In the Shadow of Beirut
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Director: Stephen Gerard Kelly, Garry Keane
Cert: None
Starring: N/A
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins

Garry Keane, director of Gaza, a 2019 documentary that could now scarcely be more relevant, partners with Stephen Gerard Kelly for a brilliantly made, often heart-breaking film on the roughest, most neglected corner of the Lebanese capital. We are in the twin neighbourhoods of Sabra and Shatila. Palestinian refugees rub up against Syrians and struggling Lebanese. There is little healthcare. Electricity is erratic. Proper education is beyond the reach of most. Children venture out in conditions that would have chilled Charles Dickens.

Editing down hours of footage to an impressively neat 92 minutes, the directors structure their study around four households. Ayman, a father of five, is encouraged by the possibility of his daughter becoming engaged to an older local man. Aboodi, an ex-con with a charismatic manner, can find work only in a tattoo parlour as he strives to make connection with his young son. Abu Ahmad, a Syrian boy, whose family fled Isis, charms all he encounters as he hustles his way about the juice stands and improvised convenience stores. Almost unwatchably moving is the plight of Saarea Daher, an infant with an acute skin complaint whose parents cannot afford to arrange proper healthcare.

There are endless nuances and ironies throughout. Though stories are told, In the Shadow of Beirut is more a mosaic than a narrative tapestry. One could hardly invent the timely irony – the film was shot some years ago, remember – of having Abu buzz about the area on a battered, barely functional Barbie bicycle. The film-makers cannot have known how vigorously this would end up nodding to the wealthy world thousands of kilometres from Sabra and Shatila.

Though we spend almost all our time in the tight locale, occasional adventures outside remind us of the wider Beirut’s great variety. Aboodi takes his son to the sea and, momentarily free from the concentrated clutter, allows smidgens of hope to whisp across the screen. “When I am with my son I see how beautiful life is,” he says to the surf.


For the most part, however, the film is an essay on the debilitating pestilence of want. A mother worries that poverty may end up hardening those around her. Some problems here are unique, but others are startlingly universal. Parents fear letting their children out on the street lest they get caught up in the circling drug culture. The engagement party for Ayman’s daughter is colourful and exotic, but there is a sense that desperation is already setting in. It feels as if a dangerous deal is being made with a potentially unforgiving future.

For all that worry and all that anger, In the Shadow of Beirut is often quite beautiful. No clattering vérité jumble, the film takes in many neatly composed shots in rich nocturnal shades. The electrical wires that tumble over every roof and down every wall take on the quality of science-fiction foliage. David Holmes’s score works in gentle drones that stay just the right side of menace. Every now and then the combination of that electronic seasoning and overused slow-motion leans a little too far into aestheticisation. In The Shadow of Beirut is an honest film, but it is, perhaps, not one for the most austere of purists.

Arriving quietly before Christmas, the film now edges into awards season as the Irish submission for the best-international-feature Oscar (where An Cailín Ciúin famously scored earlier this year). With Hillary and Chelsea Clinton as producers, In the Shadow of Beirut surely has a chance. It certainly has the emotional heft and political weight to register with receptive audiences. The dedication before the final credits could draw tears from a boulder.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist