Thiiird: A hopeless history of Lebanon's collective despair
With his third feature, Karim Kassem is willing to affirm himself as one of the most interesting voices among the youngest generation of Lebanese directors.
Born and raised in Beirut, Kassem has been living and working as a musician, photographer and filmmaker in New York since 2012.
His latest outing, titled Thiiird and penned with Nadia Hassan, was world-premiered in the Tiger Competition of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, which ran from 25 January-5 to February.
"Kassem's third feature is a lyrical tale, enriched by the presence of a timid – yet very charismatic - “subject/actor,” a solid writing of the microcosm of characters surrounding him and an overall successful attempt to portray the hopelessness of today's Lebanon"
His debut feature, the documentary Only the Winds (2020), suffered from the lack of a strong narrative focus but boasted compelling footage as well as a tactful approach to filming and interacting with the young subjects involved.
Kassem's sophomore feature, Octopus, was crowned Best Film at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2021. In this highly accomplished, elegant work, the helmer travels back to Lebanon to develop his next film but is faced with the aftermath of the Port of Beirut's tragic explosion.
Thiiird seems to round off Kassem's first “existential trilogy,” characterised by the director's keen interest to explore the hybrid territories between fiction and non-fiction, and to dig deep into the contradictions and the miseries of his own country while still delivering precious moments of hope, poetry and beauty.
In the opening sequence, we slowly get familiar with our protagonist, Fouad Mahouly (already seen in Only the Winds). The man works as a mechanic and lives in a countryside village outside of the Lebanese capital, amidst scrap metal, chickens and goats.
In the film's first seven minutes, Fouad appears as a quiet, soothing presence who embraces solitude and peace as his best companions.
Later, we gradually get to know the microcosm surrounding Fouad, comprised of old and young people, who are invited to sit and drink coffee while waiting for their vehicles to be repaired.
Fouad's long silences and solitude begin to be filled by the company of his customers, who tend to take advantage of his kind nature and use him almost like a “relief valve.”
An overwhelming portrait of collective despair emerges powerfully, wherein people are victims of poverty, emotional turmoil, sleepless nights, and very concrete problems such as paying for the school's tuition fees or finding decent employment. A sense of insecurity and instability permeates the whole picture delivering, at least in part, the burden of all these existences.
The choice of shooting Thiiird in black-and-white, as in many similar cases, creates a certain distance between the characters portrayed on screen and the viewers.
Nevertheless, the cinematography courtesy of Talal Khoury (Taste of Cement) also helps the audience to perceive them as more 'abstract' figures, almost like a group of archetypal characters taking part in a melancholic ode to a country on the verge of collapse.
Commendably, Fouad's presence is magnetic throughout. In particular, his character's development sees him evolving from the initial role of a simple witness to that of a real protagonist, who ultimately manages to take charge of his life.
All in all, Kassem's third feature is a lyrical tale, enriched by the presence of a timid – yet very charismatic - “subject/actor,” a solid writing of the microcosm of characters surrounding him and an overall successful attempt to portray the hopelessness of today's Lebanon through a rather original aesthetic approach which is free from rhetorical trappings.
That being said, it is also important to highlight that Thiiird is not an easy view, as the peculiar narrative pacing may be disengaging at times for those who are not used to – or simply not into – the complex grammar of contemplative cinema.
With Thiiird, Kassem's scrupulous exploration of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction continues, even though here his artistic research clearly veers more towards the former.
Kassem is developing a new feature, Moondove, which revolves around an artist who travels to a village outside Beirut after having a precognitive dream that brings her back from living abroad.
It will be interesting to see whether the young helmer's future work will keep lingering between fiction and reality in a novel fashion, or perhaps will embark on a new artistic path, looking for new aesthetic solutions and ways of framing his “subjects/actors.”
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni