Kash Kash – Without Feathers We Can't Live: Lebanon's crisis told through the bird's-eye view of Kash Hamam players

Kash Kash – Without Feathers We Can’t Live
5 min read
03 February, 2023

World-premiered at Copenhagen’s CPH: DOX and screened in a number of international film festivals such as DOC NYC, Camerimage and Cork over the course of last year, Lea Najjar’s debut feature Kash Kash – Without Feathers We Can’t Live is a rather original account of Lebanon’s turbulent socio-political context told through the perspectives of three men living in Beirut.

They play Kash Hamam, a brutal game during which players first let their flock of pigeons circle above their roofs. Then, the flock must lure the opponents’ pigeons into their own loft. If players succeed, there’s ‘Kash,’ and then they cut the feathers off the enemy pigeons or feed them to the cats.

"The brutality of the game seems to mirror the ‘survival of the fittest’ experienced by the poorest parts of Lebanese society everyday"

Najjar’s film opens with a shot depicting a few pigeons thrown in a burlap sack, an image which manages to set, at least in part, its overall tone.

Despite each owner establishing a strong bond with their pigeons and showing some kind of affection, we easily realise that the animals are all trapped in a strange form of captivity.

The birds spend most of their time in cages and they are forced to obey their masters’ orders. That being said, they also refuse to take advantage – at least, most of them don’t – of the many opportunities to fly away.

After the opening sequence, the voice-over commentary explains how the titular game was born thanks to two kings, who decided to make their flocks of pigeons fight to spare the blood of their soldiers.

Here, the helmer chooses to focus on three players in particular – Hassan, Radwan and Muhammad. The three men have distinct personalities and they belong to two different age groups (Muhammad is visibly older than Hassan and Radwan, who are presumably in their late 20s) but they all share unconventional forms of love – at times, even obsession – towards their flocks.

They are all charismatic enough, and they don’t hesitate to express their views on their country’s politicians, the soaring poverty rates, the widespread sectarianism and the effects of the Lebanese lira plunging.

In particular, the inflation out of control makes bird seed more and more expensive, forcing even pet show owners themselves to sell their pigeons as they struggle to feed them.

Kash Hamam is a brutal escape from an increasingly brutal reality [photo credit: Lea Najjar]
Kash Hamam is a brutal escape from an increasingly brutal reality [photo credit: Lea Najjar]

Gradually, we realise that taking care of these birds and playing Kash Hamam are more than simple past-times. First and foremost, they represent an opportunity to socialise in cafes as well as a tradition handed down from father to son. But they are also unusual forms of both escapism and political activism.

What unites these two ‘opposite ends’ is the basic metaphor of freedom and peace that birds – and white pigeons in particular – embody. And it’s not the only ‘obvious’ metaphor they embody: the brutality of the game seems to mirror the ‘survival of the fittest’ experienced by the poorest parts of Lebanese society every day.

In an interview published on Brussels-based film portal Cineuropa on 29 September, the helmer admitted she has been searching for “a common denominator through which to portray Beirut” and that she found “the pigeon game” as well as “the whole political network around it that connects the regions and people across Lebanon.”

She began her research in 2018 and filmed her picture between 2019 and 2020, amidst the 17 October revolution, the 4 August 2020 explosion and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Najjar’s research work is certainly plain to see on the screen. We realise there is enough intimacy with the subjects involved, but the first two-thirds in particular suffer from some pacing issues, during which the viewers may keep on wondering why pigeons are so important and what compelled the director to choose a such peculiar focus to explore the troubled state of things in Lebanon.

The general hopelessness – which deserves huge empathy owing to the country’s undeniable collapse – is reiterated and stated repeatedly, even by subjects other than the three men, adding little to the narrative and giving a deja-vu feeling for those who are already familiar with documentaries revolving around today’s Lebanon.

Thus, at least for a while, the connection between Kash Hamam and the outer world seems too loose and risks disengaging the viewers.

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On a more positive note, the presence of Aisha, a young girl who seems fascinated by this masculine game, is well-dosed as she delivers a few, much-needed vibes of candour and tenderness.

The socio-political breadth of the picture later expands, and it becomes predominant during the last third. The main turning point is probably represented by the Port of Beirut explosion, which will have dramatic consequences on the whole community and in particular on one of the three subjects portrayed in this documentary.

Despite its pacing issues, Kash Kash – Without Feathers We Can’t Live remains worth watching. Ultimately, Beirut’s cri-de-couer manages to emerge powerfully, even though a more finely tuned work with the footage could have improved the final result, making the picture perhaps a bit shorter and certainly less chaotic.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni