Day two of Flare welcomes Mazen Khaled, Beirut native, who showcases his feature film made during his tenure at Venice Biennale College. The film opens with a body suspended in rich, teal liquid, arms pulled back in an energetic movement that resembles the Winged Victory of Samothrace. This is Hassane (Hamza Mekdad), a twenty-something year old disenchanted with his life; he has no job, a rocky relationship with his parents as a result and only finds refuge at the rocky corniche in Beirut with his three friends: sensitive Ali, the considerably masculine Ayman and Mhammad, his confidant who is suggested to be something more through casual touches that the camera takes great pleasure in focusing on. But one’s friends can only distract one so much until reality sets in; Hassane makes a risky jump into the ocean - whether purposefully or not is ambiguous - and drowns, leaving his friends and family with the aftermath of his death.
Described as ‘shot with a distinctly queer gaze’ by Michael Blyth, the film plays with the idea of the infamous ‘male gaze’, although the term is much less inflammatory when applied to this narrative: the focus on goosebump flesh, shampoo bubbles trailing down a back, even a casual shot of Hassane fondling his penis in the shower suggests eroticism by nature. During the Q&A with the director, Khaled does state that the intention is there, so one cannot insist that the gaze is entirely platonic, but there is a lack of subjugation that is commonly associated with the male gaze; we’re not looking at idealised bodies, lit to be shown off and admired from afar, but simply seeing the male form in an intimate, sensitive manner, a manner not usually present in film.
The story works as a perfect vessel for this view of men; we follow a straightforward tale that takes place over the course of a day, time melting away when Hassane passes, exploring the reactions to the death of a well-loved man. The fusing of the narrative and Khaled’s signature admiration for the body is exemplified when Hassane’s friends - who are then joined by a larger group of men eager to help - use their bodies as bridges to roll his body across jagged rocks and upwards towards the safety of the smooth pavements. There’s nothing perverse about it, simply a means to an end that the camera does not shy away from, instead moving uncomfortably close every step of the journey.
My favourite sequence is the somber car ride back to Hassane’s family: Hassane is laid across the wide-eyed Ayman and Mhammad, who cannot communicate his pain in any other way than slamming the poor driver’s seat. Ali, in the front, tries to guide the driver but keeps turning around to touch Hassane’s arm out of shock and perhaps habit. In such a simple set-up, every character shows their unwavering love for Hassane, a brotherhood that retains its strength even through death.
The film has elements of the experimental, featuring ‘dances’ between Hassane and Mhammad - a moment that allows Mhammad to be more explicit in his care for his friend - and Hassane’s mother (played amazingly by Carol Abboud) who performs a piece influenced by rural Lebanese chants and movements, beating her chest, stomach and genitals to signify where the pain is. They might seem quite jarring as they take you out the traditional narrative, and towards the end of the film there are certainly moments where I craved to see more of Hassane’s friends and where they go from here. However, speaking to the writer-director, it became clear that the script was always written with the dances in mind and this is how he wished to tell the story; naturally my expectations of the film can only be relegated.
I agree with Michael Blyth: this is a ‘study of homosocial behaviours’. It is not about gay men - even if there is an undeniable element of a relationship deeper than just friendship - but looking at how men interact, exploring the male form from an angle that harks back to a gaze in which Michelangelo carved David: deeply focused study and unabashed reverence.
- Xiao Tang