Akram Zaatari, an artist whose work is shown around the world, is a poet of the video documentary. I visit him at the Arab Image Foundation, where he and his colleagues collect huge archives of photography documenting the Arab world entering modernity over the past century. His own stunning 90 minute documentary, 'This Day' (2004), took him three years to finish. It presents, in a delicate montage of still and moving images from Beirut, Amman, Damascus and the Syrian desert, a history of old photographs capturing the stereotypes of desert life (with the inimitable image of his own attempt to hold a microphone under the nose of a camel, in order to record its language) through the sounds and pictures and diaries he kept during the war, up til the Palestinian propaganda songs and scenes of empty city streets in Beirut today.
His work captures all the fascinations I have encountered during my stay here among the young artists of Beirut: an obsession with the city, a reworking of the war experience, a subtle play with reality and fiction, and a tendency to remain absent, out of the frame. 'It speaks for itself,' Zaatari says, 'that I am the camera. It makes me more reliable. I tend to keep a distance from the current documentary world, in which tv-attitude is taking over. More and more festivals are going for the personal story. Me, I prefer to stay out of the image, while my personal preoccupations speak from what I show.' His choice of material never claims to be objective. 'I don't believe in neutral archives. I work only with material I collected myself, including the propaganda, which takes on a different meaning shown out of its original context. These patriot songs and images should be conserved for the future - one day they will be taken out of circulation, once a peace agreement has been reached, but I want them to be available, without necessarily sharing their accusations.'
Since the assassination of Hariri, he records whatever he happens to see on tv about the ways in which he is commemorated. 'This really dominates our screens. I remember once, two months after his death, that the regular program was interrupted at midnight for a live broadcast of his widow visiting his grave in utter silence. It's interesting, this modern iconography of the muslim saint.'
Interesting, indeed. Ancient traditions transformed into modern rituals, captured by urban artists, innovating the language of their arts, reclaiming the streets of their estranged city - Beirut's young art scene is grasping for a new reality, beyond the traumatized, destroyed and reconstructing cityscape of their country where the fear of death returning hovers over ruins and highrises alike.