Completed in 2018, artist and filmmaker Ghassan Halwani’s film Erased,___ Ascent of the Invisible is heartfelt journey into existential questions, manifest in images, sensations, signs, metaphors, and allegories, on what it means to continue to live with the absence of a person who was kidnapped, to cohabit with the archive of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, to mark the present-absence and accept it.
The question of the thousands of persons that disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War is, without a doubt, one of its most poignant and enduring unresolved legacies. Since the Taif Agreement ended the armed conflict, the belligerent militias that transformed into the political protagonists of today’s republic have tried to bury all compromising traces of their crimes, effacing dozens of mass graves and blotting out the missing and disappeared. The tenor of living, of making one’s life, with the presence of a person whose disappearance is unresolved and remains suspended in some form of waiting, is shrouded in qalaq: an inexhaustible and inexorable anxiety.
Since I first discovered Ghassan Halwani’s film, I have been intrigued by his process. An impressively kaleidoscopic construction and the fruit of long years of meticulous threading of visual and narrative elements, Halwani drafted notes like scenes from events that he had witnessed, situations he observed, and interviews with experts. He also recomposed a multitude of newspaper reports. Here, he discloses elements of his puzzle, putting in dialogue excerpts from three documents drafted by three protagonists.
Qalaq—Notes from the Making of a Film
The Journalist [J]
We stayed on that hill for three long, hot days.
There was a leak that something was about to happen in the area.
So we rushed to the Beqaa valley as soon as we heard, before anyone had showed up.
We placed our equipment and waited.
There were no clouds that day; it was going to be a hot day in the valley.
We stared at the wildflowers and vegetation. A mild breeze was blowing gently across the wheat field. All was quiet. We could only hear the sound of the breeze and the singing of birds.
Suddenly the roar of engines broke the quietness.
A bulldozer was approaching from behind the hill, followed by a convoy of security vehicles.
They drove through and stationed around the noticeable irregularity down the hill.
They urged us to leave and cordoned off the site.
We were allowed to watch, but only from afar.
They began to talk, pointing to several spots. Then the bulldozer began to move, lifting its metal arm and clawing into the ground, right at the center of where the alteration was.
The soil hauled by the bulldozer was black.
A villager standing behind us muttered with surprise that the soil of this land was supposed to be red. Indeed, the hill to our right was rocky but its soil was visibly red.
The black soil was alien to this land. It must have been brought from elsewhere.
The bulldozer kept digging and removing the black coating.
Some time later, another bulldozer joined.
We were barely able to discern anything beyond their burly movements; the security forces pushed us further away from the exhumation zone.
We rushed to the top of the hill in the hopes of getting a better view.
But, from there, the scene looked diminished.
Men in suits were all over the site.
The bulldozers were digging deeper now, and the pit was becoming wider.
From our position, we surmised that the men were carrying the fragments extracted from the ground and placing them inside white bags.
A general stepped out of the cordoned area, we rushed to him, but he immediately said he was not authorized to disclose any information.
The Forensic Expert [FE]
This is to confirm the receipt of your message below and the attachment with newspaper synopses. Indeed, I had not received anything before except for your announcement that you were going to put something together. Don’t worry about my time, once I know what you want me to think about, it keeps my brain occupied during the day. I was informed yesterday that the whole Chad project has been postponed for a few days. So I have all the time in the world.
I read the articles that you sent me. It is indeed a very strange and confusing investigation that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. First of all, it is not unusual that what is thought to be a mass grave turns out to simply be a graveyard in the end. That happens, but one expects a background investigation to have been conducted before bringing in the bulldozers. The decision whether the bodies are ancient or not depends on the method that was used to determine the age of the bodies, and a copper bullet by itself is certainly not enough proof.
The Public Prosecutor [PP]
After examination of the case file number 7094/3 issued by the Minister of Justice on the 06/ 12/ 2005 that instructs the conduct of an investigation and address to the public prosecution regarding the several mass graves uncovered in different regions of Lebanon.
In regards to the reports pertaining to the entire findings of the remains unearthed in the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill, located at the periphery of the town of Anjar, after the conclusion of excavations conducted under the supervision of the Public Prosecution Appeals Court in the Beqaa, and the transfer of the remains to the headquarters of Internal Security Forces by the expert medical team and assembling to the extent possible the crushed and scattered skeletons following the proceeding of tests and analysis…
The gender identification lists 18 males, 10 females with one female pregnant.; gender identification was not possible for sixteen of the recovered remains. Dating the burial ranged to fifty years for the most recent, three hundred and fifty to the oldest. No injuries from firearms were observed on any of the remains.
[…] The empty copper bullet casing found among the remains is associated with a French-made pistol, fabricated around 1892, and was used by the French colonial police, the manufacture of the bullets began in 1892 and ended around the beginning of the 1950s.
[…] The fragments of pottery found among the remains were dispatched to the Archeology department at the Lebanese University to determine their archeological value.
[…] The articles of clothing found among the remains include a pair of military pants and a sweater, that don’t seem to have an association with the remains, as no trace of biological substances, fluids or decomposition links them to the remains.
The other thing that confused me was that they performed DNA tests on the bones, even X-ray imagery of each individual fragment. Usually you would do that only when you have a hypothesis of (personal) identity of the persons buried there. You would take the DNA from the bones in order to compare it with the DNA of surviving family members. But as long as you have no idea who the victims are, as long as you have no DNA sample from relatives to compare with, it does not make any sense. The other thing that I noted as strange is the description of the location. If this is a very rocky area, then it would be very bizarre for the perpetrators of the killings to have chosen it to bury/hide bodies. Digging/creating a grave is hard work, and people are lazy; so it would be interesting to investigate why this location was chosen as a hiding place for their crimes. Maybe it was the only place in the area where the burial process could take place in the absence of any witnesses? The same applies to a common graveyard: very rocky soil wouldn’t be the place of choice, I think (unless there are no alternatives in a wide area).
Sinister rumors were already wafting up the hill. Villagers recounted to us stories of what they knew had taken place there. Our job was to parse truth from legend or local lore.
None of us left. For three days, we remained on that hill, watching from afar this seemingly endless operation.
We became filled with doubt. Staring from so far and for so long, under the blazing sun, sweat dripping into our eyes, obsessed with the quest for Truth, our imagination fired up, the scene became a haze.
We were hypnotized by the repeated motion of the machines’ mechanical arms and the heavy roar of their engines. Our hallucinations bore the bitter foreboding that something dreadful was about to happen. After waiting for so long, we were weary, our curiosity amplified with avidity and ire. Imaginations running wild, our minds wandered back to the sinister tales we had been told.
We were journalists obsessed with our mission which, up until then, we had failed to accomplish.
Frustration, anger, and drive were mounting, we needed resolution! It was clear at that point that whatever had been unearthed could not match the unfettered speculations our imaginations were spinning.
And we wanted to show this event to the world!
The last thing I can comment on right now is actually something that I feel uncomfortable writing because it is so easy to do sitting in my chair behind a computer, but I’ll write it anyhow. It’s not only the lack of previous background research that complicated this exhumation, it is also the way in which it was done. You don’t use bulldozers if you want to preserve evidence or if you want to retrieve complete bodies. These tools are too rough; they are not refined enough and they damage more than they discover.
My colleagues and I used trowels and brushes and maybe only a small backhoe to remove the top layer of soil (which is not possible in a rocky area). Such an exhumation effort also takes a lot more time than the period described in the articles; it allows for bones not to get mixed up and for bodies not to be disinterred in pieces (unless they were put into the grave as incomplete bodies, which would be very unusual).
Ghassan, this is my first flow of thoughts, but, to be honest, I am not sure if this is what you are looking for. Don’t hesitate to contact me again. I am very much aware that what I send you now is again the technical side of things and has nothing at all to do with the language used to communicate them.
The diversity in age and gender of the remains attests that the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill was used as a graveyard starting from three-hundred and fifty years ago until fifty years ago.
In addition, it is noteworthy that none of the families of the disappeared since the beginning of the painful events in 1975, have reported a pregnant woman, or any woman or child.
The empty copper bullet casing associated with a French-made pistol that dates to 1892, corroborates the conclusions of the lab tests that the bodies were buried as recently as fifty-ears and beginning three-hundred and fifty years ago. Moreover, the items of clothing found with the remains bear no association with the bodies that were buried without clothing, shrouded in the Muslim tradition of burial.
The testimony of the first witness, Qassem Abdel-Ghani al-Khatib, born in 1928 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that his father had been the custodian the Nabi Aziz [sic] shrine, a responsibility he inherited from him, and that several members of his family were buried in the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill, and that the Ottoman governor Rushdi Bey owned a house in the area and was buried there until his remains were transferred to Turkey.
The testimony of the second witness, Mohamad Ali Hammoud, born in 1925 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that the hill of Nabi Aziz [sic] was used as a cemetery for Turkish soldiers, the graves’ markings were visible until the arrival of Armenians to the town of Majdal Anjar, however the residents continued to use the site as a cemetery, and that his own father-in-law, who was Turkish, was buried there.
The testimony of the third witness, Youssef Mohamad Hamzah, born in 1943 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that Palestinians occupied the houses built by the French colonial mandate administrators in 1948 and that they buried their dead in the Nabi Aziz hill until they left in 1956.
In conclusion, the remains unearthed from the hill near the Nabi Aziz [sic] shrine, in the town of Majdal Anjar in the Beqaa, belong to people of the Muslim faith who lived in the area and who buried there their dead, embryos, babies, pregnant women, young boys, young girls, adult men, adult women, elderly men and elderly women since the beginning of the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century. None of the remains were buried after 1950, and no proof of a mass grave was found. For all these reasons, the case must be filed for the absence of a criminal offense.
Accordingly, we decree to archive the file because of the absence of a criminal offense.
General Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation
Suddenly the site was deserted! The two pits were abandoned for our unguarded discovery!
At first we were nervous; none of us moved. Finally, like dogs left to fast for three whole days, we rushed and invaded the site. We became the scene.
Those of us who arrived first jumped inside the pit, trampling over every inch of it. There were leftovers. Bones! We started collecting each fragment. We dug with our bare hands, pulling more bones out of the ground. Frenzy and chaos. Some broke the bones with their hands to make sure they were bones…and there was a jaw, with a single tooth left hanging. This piece specifically, for some reason, made us suddenly realize that we were messing with the remains of people inside a mass grave.
We collected the bones we found into a white bag and begged a villager to hand them over to the authorities, if they were to show up again.
Some of our colleagues who arrived later were upset with our action as they had not captured a single shot of the scene. They jumped inside the pit, exhumed some more bones, deployed them on the black soil, shot however many photos they needed, and walked away. The bones were left there the way the journalists had set them up.