Palestinian refugees have been arriving in the slum district of Sabra and Shalila on the outskirts of Beirut since what Israel calls the War of Independence in 1948. Forty-four years later, their presence (and that of suspected PLO fighters) got targeted in a mid-September massacre by the Christian militia known as Lebanese Forces, executed while Israeli Defense Forces who’d already invaded the nation three months prior stood by. Another four decades have passed since, during which span the area has remained not just a last-resort magnet for multinational refugees, but “the most lawless, poorest, dirtiest place” in the city.
That statement from a resident is one of many such heard in Irish cinematographer Stephen Gerard Kelly’s directorial debut, “In the Shadow of Beirut,” which he co-helmed with fellow countryman Garry Keane (“Gaza”). Yet bleak as this portrait of four families living in desperate straits may be in many respects, the warmth of its human observation and the exceptional imagery make for an engaging experience nonetheless. Ireland’s official Oscar submission counts Chelsea and Hillary Rodham Clinton among its executive producers.
Dragged to Beirut by a domestic partner’s job posting there in 2015, Kelly learned Arabic and grew close to some of the film’s subjects, who eventually asked him to document their lives. But he stays offscreen here, letting them do all the talking. Much of that is in voiceover that accompanies vivid glimpses of life both at home and in the teeming distract, where an estimated 30,000 people are crammed into a single square kilometer.
This has long been where the societal marginalia are contained, not just refugees but other minority groups. One thing nearly all have in common is that they’re denied the beleaguered government’s services — foreign nationals and even those born here without a Lebanese-native father cannot apply for citizenship, let alone any state benefits. Healthcare and education are also beyond the reach of most, children included. There isn’t even garbage pickup, leading to the usual problems with sanitation, vermin and illness, compounded by flooding whenever heavy rain occurs.
As with most cities, this impoverished area is where theft, violence, drug dealing and addiction are concentrated. But the families spotlit do not partake in such ails, even as they lament having to raise children in an environment rife with them. The Abeeds are Syrian war refugees who lost their father and saw four of seven children “dispersed” in that flight. Living with just her three youngest now, the mother must put them all to work in order to just scrape by. But she’s got a treasure in young Abu Ahmad, who though not yet 10 has a tireless, cheerful, eerily mature attitude toward his premature labor.
The Kujeyjes run a small shop, where 13-year-old Sanaa chafes at being stuck — her parents fear the dangers of the street too much to let her roam outside. Nonetheless, they accept a much older customer’s marriage proposal, hoping that ticket out of the slum will improve her life. Given her tender age, it’s a relief when this engagement ultimately falls apart.
The Daher family are Lebanese Dom, itinerate people distantly related to Roma, who eke out a living via traditional crafts. The focus of their household is little Saarea, who suffers from a painful, crippling skin condition they lack the funds to get treated.
Granted a more individual focus is Aboodi Ziani, who is attempting to stick to the straight and narrow for the sake of his wife and infant son after having spent some years in prison. But that criminal record prevents his getting any “proper job,” a driver’s license or other means forward. Indeed, the government’s stance on residents here seems openly hostile — when police are seen at all, they arrive to tear down stalls supposedly in violation of permits the proprietors are barred from applying for anyway. Things only get worse as a catastrophic 2020 port explosion, subsequent COVID epidemic, escalating governmental corruption and economic crises push more and more of Lebanon’s population into poverty.
Despite so much cause for grief, what’s striking about the protagonists is their cordiality and resilient hopefulness. Editor Iseult Howlett skillfully sustains several character narratives amid an impressionistic whole drawn from a mountain of footage Kelly shot from 2018 to 2022. Apart from some explanatory onscreen text at the start, there is no external commentary, or attempt at elucidating the region’s tortuous political travails of the last half-century or more (though Abu Ahmad’s fruit-stand employer, Abu Arab Asali, does share recollections of the 1982 massacre he witnessed).
Throughout, Kelly’s refined camera eye provides “Shadow” with not just intimate access, but an ability to find beauty in squalor — even if he arguably overplays the slo-mo lyricism a tad. David Holmes and Tim Harries’ original score provides discreet underlining to an overall depiction that generates strong sympathy without ever seeming manipulative.