No one who lives in Lebanon will be surprised to learn that this country endures a dysfunctional electricity regime. Before the 2006 war, the capital enjoyed more or less 24-hour electricity, while other parts of the country got just a few hours of power a day from Electricite du Liban.
After 2006 the dysfunction was democratized a little, so that now Beirutis too enjoy a regular schedule of daily three-hour blackouts. To fill in the gaps, the country’s better-off minority own generators or else pay for access to someone else’s device.
Some entrepreneurs make a living liberating kilowatt hours from the national grid and doling them out, for a price, to those in need. If you can’t afford these fruits of the informal economy, you go without.
Enter Cynthia Choucair, the Lebanese filmmaker whose feature-length documentary debut, “Powerless,” had its world premiere last month at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it screened out of competition.
This enlightening, acerbic and often quite amusing television-friendly doc finds four compelling characters in the haywire of the country’s chaotic electrical system.
The star of the show is the late Jamal Chkifi, a fifty-something Hayy al-Sellom resident. He was left bereft when his Romanian wife, no longer able to tolerate the power cuts, abandoned him and took their two children with her.
Though he’s a vision of impoverishment, Chkifi isn’t simply a victim. He made history a few years back, being the first Lebanese citizen to file a lawsuit against Electricite du Liban, charging that the state-owned utility is responsible for his losing his family. He died last February, before the court could make a ruling.
Complementing Chkifi’s court action are Rami al-Amine, a television journalist who covered Chkifi’s story, and Chadi Nachabe, an anti-corruption activist who is himself destined for politics.
Rounding out this cast of characters is a celebrity electrician who’s made a name for himself – the Robin Hood of Dahyeh, to be precise – tapping into the state power grid for the needy.
The film was shot in 2011, when the ministry was apparently working toward a plan to solve the country’s energy woes. The state does its part to facilitate the film’s comic element. Early in the proceedings, Choucair and her crew attend a public presentation by the minister on what he has in mind.
“We inherited a flame, a flame they thought would burn us,” the minister says gravely. “Yet in this flame, we found an energy source ... This flame has spread –”
The room suddenly plunges into darkness. There is an uncertain smattering of applause and the official sputters something about the ministry not being responsible for this building’s generator. The power cut’s unseen hand spares no man.
When she presented her film at its Dubai premiere, Choucair remarked that there was an element of revenge in her decision to make “Powerless.”
“I don’t work in politics,” she screamed above the roar of Beirut’s noontime traffic. “But I’m a Lebanese citizen and I have the right to say what I want to say. For me it was an opportunity, yes, to take revenge for what I have been living, and for being taken for granted.
“I didn’t choose to emigrate. I chose to live in Lebanon. When you live in Lebanon you see it’s not a country ... For me, for example, I work in Lebanon but all my work is not for the Lebanese audience but the Arab audience.
“Yet you must live all the details. Going through the traffic. Not having electricity. Not having good water. Not having good schooling. You live it. You pay for it. Unlike many Lebanese I don’t live and work overseas and then come back for vacations.
Choucair describes her film as “a play.” It is easy to apply that description in two senses. “Powerless” is at once cautiously performative and playful in a winking sort of way.
This playful nature is hemmed in by the filmmaker’s compassionate nature, which is touched by the sufferings of her more unfortunate fellow citizens.
“It’s really like a play,” Choucair says. “I don’t believe in realism. On the contrary I wanted to work on it as a spectacle. I really do feel that Lebanon is a play. We all live in it. We all play in it.
“Both [Robin Hood and Jamal] enjoyed playing this because they are both very extreme in their lives and choices. It comes from them first, I worked with it.”
Wael Alkak’s moody soundtrack navigates between scenes like a car edging though Beirut traffic, and the camera periodically returns to the terrace of a Beirut apartment block where contrabassist Khaled Omran and vocalist Cynthia Choucair are performing what you’ve been hearing.
This gesture makes “Powerless” a more artful and personal creation than your average television documentary – it was produced by Al-Jazeera’s documentary network – yet it also retains the city’s chaotic skyline within the frame.
“You know the Rahbanis created this Lebanon and people live in this play while it’s not at all what it should be, not at all what it is in reality ... The Rahbani songs created something in the national imagination, a fictional world. I’m not against it but I am against the [hegemony they have].
“I have a feeling that all [my characters] feel they are heroes, even the minister. Even the politicians, they act as if they were heroes.
“Robin Hood feels he’s a minister because he’s able to provide people with electricity, with power. Jamal feels he must take the cause of Lebanon’s electricity sector on his own shoulders.
“The good and the bad. Heroes and villains. The good sun. Lebanon as if it is part of the sky,” she laughs again. “This is Wadih Safi, actually. This whole mythology.
“What really frustrates me when Lebanese emigrants cry when they hear, for example, [“Go and plant me in the soil of Lebanon”]. And they cry! Please, yaani. Okay, Lebanon has something beautiful. You have this but you have these shitty things as well.”
She gestures briefly to the wailing traffic a couple of meters away and laughs, “Mathalan.”
By Jim Quilty