Performing our lives side by side: Roy Dib’s The Beach House

Roy Dib’s first narrative feature film, Beit El Baher (The Beach House, 2016), feels awkwardly familiar from the start. Set in a stunning modernist beach house in Lebanon, the film slowly reveals the intimate details of the lives and thoughts of two women and two men, all probably in their mid-30s, through conversations over one long, flirtatious, messy night.

The younger of two sisters, Rayya (Sandy Chamoun) invites two of her old university friends, Rawad (Julian Farhat) and Youssef (Rodrigue Sleiman), to spend the evening with her at the sisters’ family house. The three haven’t seen each other in a decade, and the film begins with their slightly uncomfortable presence as she performs a 1950s song by Egyptian star Shadia on the terrace to a larger group of friends. “Take care of the boys and don’t let them leave, I’ll be back,” she says to her sister Layla (Nesrine Khodr) as she finishes singing.

The interaction between the two men and Layla is stiff at first, but is helped along by Layla’s disclosure of personal information about her sister and several glasses of whiskey and lines of cocaine. After Rayya joins, the conversation flits between the observations they each make about the house they are in and stories of their experiences living in Europe, their relationships, and their ideological convictions. Each reveals snippets about themselves and is careful to conceal or embellish others — sometimes recounting experiences that we come to realize later on are not entirely true.

Though the film is largely conversation based, it is also heavily stylized and the dialogue is interspersed with musical performances, games and shots of the sea. Key moments without dialogue build suspense and add to a sense that the characters are performing their lives side by side, not just for one another. Shot by Karim Ghorayeb, it has a dark, petrol-blue color palette that gives a feeling of mystery and intrigue, as well as angst and impending crisis. The scenes are not always shot with the characters’ full faces in view, despite the heavy focus on conversation, and in moments of intimacy or sexual tension, the camera often centers on bodies — chests, legs — or drinks.

Most of the way through, it is easy to assume that the two women, particularly the older sister — perhaps the most complex and intriguing of the characters — is steering the conversation and the direction in which the evening will go. As the tension builds, we realize the dynamics are not so simple — almost as the two men themselves become aware they are part of a social performance that they each consent to and resist at different moments.

The characters often make references to inherited memories. This sometimes appears performed, even forced, yet there is also sincerity in the way they delimit place and identity. Amid a conversation about betrayal, love, genitalia and family, Rawad says: “Palestinians have been like this since 1948 and you’re bored in 10 minutes,” drawing a tenuous parallel to dividing lines and forbidden questions, and speaking about an Israeli woman he met in Berlin. “We’re talking about something that’s been dragging on for 60 years and I’m trying to find a solution,” he adds defensively.

Performative attempts at meaning imbue everything, from the characters’ notions of their own bodies and space, to their layered perceptions of nation, history and sexuality. Such playful explorations of space and boundaries, personal and collective, can be traced through Dib’s previous work. His short film Mondial 2010 (2014) tackled borders and the city of Ramallah via fictional conversations between two young men traveling together, while earlier films used video clips from 20th-century Arab pop culture to evoke collective memory, explore the city, and come to terms with Lebanon’s Civil War.

The Beach House was co-written with Dib by Lebanon-based architect, author and artist Raafat Majzoub, whose fiction tries to script itself into reality (“writing as architecture”) and is concerned with a “borderless Arab World.” Mazjoub’s preoccupations chime well with Dib’s and can be seen throughout the characters’ anecdotes about the past — about Beirut, Palestine, and family — that emphasize the connections and discord between their actual and imagined experiences.

Dib has described the film as evocative of “an Arab generation roaming over the ruins of values and ideologies,” but watching it I felt more as though the characters he and Mazjoub developed were performing their experiences not in solidarity or conversation with one another, but independently, in parallel. At one point the four characters walk behind one another silently for a while, mapping out a route on the cliffs that the women’s father and his friends imagined being able to see Jaffa and Damascus from. “They were like pilgrims walking drunk towards Jaffa,” Layla says.

Rawad, who has a tattoo on his arm that is supposed to be a spider looking for its home, says he doesn’t understand how anyone could live in this house and not be happy. Layla tells us it was built for her father by (real-life) Iraqi architect and writer Rifat Chadirji, whose own life story, from his British education and pioneering of Iraqi modernism to his turbulent relationship with Saddam Hussein, his meticulous work documenting regional architecture and street life, and his work as an influential educator, seems relevant to the four characters’ grappling with identity and ideology. (Ala Younis’ A Plan for Greater Baghdad (2015), which is the current show at the Contemporary Image Collective, affords a glimpse into Chadirji’s story.)

The social dynamics of this evening in the beach house could be set in the homes of many privileged 30-somethings in Lebanon or Egypt, a generation at home with expressions of multiple identities that are actual, lived and experienced, yet also imagined and performed. The way in which the characters seductively narrate fragments of their stories to one another while engaged with their individual pursuits of pleasure and freedom is at once mesmerizing, enticing and irritating, in the manner of being at a party where someone is trying to impress you, or you them: The moments of beauty or intrigue mean you can’t leave, no matter how aware you are of the egotistical web that is being spun and that you are a part of.

The Beach House shows at Cairo Cinema Days on Friday May 12, 9 pm, Zawya, downtown Cairo, followed by a Q&A, and Saturday May 13, 9 pm, Zamalek Cinema, Cairo, followed by a Q&A.

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