Sector Zero / On the Brink of Beirut

Film (70 min), 2011.
Directed by Nadim Mishlawi.
Premiered at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival (Dubai 08/12/2011)

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Review by Mike Hoolboom

When I slip Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero DVD from its sleeve, my heart is already in my throat. I am expecting to be hurt by these pictures from Lebanon, and the cruel accident of this country’s geography, but from the very opening images I am assured that beauty will be a regular accompaniment. The camera seeks out the light, it caresses the broken walls of the hospital in which much of the film is shot, the touch is tender and sensitive. The word “camera” has its roots in the Latin for “room,” which cinematographer Talal Khoury seems aware of in his lyric exploration of spaces in a factory, a slaughterhouse and a tannery. People are secondary here, the figures have become the ground, while the walls and floors are carefully and slowly observed. Slow, the looking is so slow, as if there were time enough to gather all the lives that lived between these walls, that touched this table and looked out these windows. The worn surfaces shimmer with a flickering, hopeful light, as the camera draws its focal planes in and out of focus, breathing with the architecture. Not unusually, this formal, nearly studied beauty is both cover story and uncovering. It offers the qualities of touch.

Where are we? Mishlawi’s architectural explorations are perched at the edge of Beirut in what one commentator names “a city of outsiders… a reflection of Lebanon.” [1] As architect and urbanist Sandra Frem notes, “Beirut’s earliest experience with globalization dates back to 1888, when it was proclaimed the capital of the Ottoman province.” [2] A growing population in the new port required that its quarantine facility (karantina in Ottoman Turkish) be moved from the city centre to its outskirts, and a hospital was built around it. Though the facility didn’t last, the name stuck, as the region’s outcasts came to find a home in this outlying area. In the 1920s there were Armenians fleeing the Turkish genocide, and in 1948 Palestinians came rushing from their former homes at gunpoint as the new nation of Israel expelled its native sons and daughters. Kurds flowed in from what had been Kurdistan as boundaries shifted, traders came from Jordan and Iraq. Eventually, the sprawl extended to encircle Beirut in what came to be known as the “misery belt,” and city officials decided to build a wall to hide its unwanted residents.

How do you make a portrait of a neighbourhood? Three men, ghosts of light and shadow, appear in succession, often in voice-over. First, political historian Hazem Saghieh details the waves of immigrant outcasts that gathered to form “Beirut’s only ghetto.” He recounts that during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), many in the densely populated Palestinian refugee camps were massacred by Christian militias. In one stand-alone sequence, historical footage is introduced. It is shot from the streets, and shows mostly teenagers, some of them dressed like soldiers, crouched in the rubble of what used to be home, staring through rifle sights, or else rushing out to save a wounded friend, only to be gunned down.

The second ghost voice belongs to Beirut architect Bernard Khoury — designer of the renowned nightclub B018, built eight years after “the end” of the civil war and whose office is nestled squarely in the Karantina — weighs in with personal recollections: I came back to Beirut in 1993 and obviously did not find any work… I thought I was going to be a great architectural warrior that was going to take part in the reconstruction of his country… Not only rebuilding buildings, but the reconstruction of a nation, only to realize a few years later that the reconstruction never really happened. In order for such a project to be politically feasible, you have to have some kind of political consensus, you have to go through a scarring process. This never really happened in Beirut. After 1990, we went through a long denial period which we’re still in. [3]

According to the director, the film was once going to be named In the Freudian Slip. [4] Little wonder then, that the third voice of Sector Zero belongs to psychoanalyst Chawki Azouri, who at one point states, “Historically, primitive tribes arrived at the idea of monotheism and of government simultaneously. Once government had been formed on the ground, God was formed in the sky.” [5] Does a nation have an unconscious? How many can fit on that couch? Azouri argues that the creation of group identity requires an enemy that must be found within and then cast out. He goes on to conjure a national Oedipal narrative, arguing that the beginnings of democracy arrive in a collective killing of the father. “In Freud’s view, we become what we cannot have, and desire (and punish) what we are compelled to disown.” — Adam Phillips [6]

Azouri argues that the Karantina is at the heart of Lebanon’s national life, precisely because it is home to so much that is unwanted. The outskirts of Beirut are thus figured as a national, even international, dumping ground, a refuse container for all that cannot be contained within the city’s globalized crossroads. It is home to a slaughterhouse, a garbage dump, a metal factory. Can we perhaps look to the Karantina’s bloodied streets for the necessary glue, the binding agent, that will re-imagine Lebanon’s national project?

“It is the individual who remembers, while groups forget because it is in their interest to forget.” [7]


[1] Dr. Chawki Azouri in Sector Zero.

[2] Sandra Frem, “Reclaiming the Infrastructural Landscape: the Case of Nahr Beirut,” Transnational Tides and the Future of the Arab City (lecture, American University of Beirut, Beirut, 2 October 2009).

[3] Bernard Khoury, “New Wars in Progress,” (lecture, University of Michigan Art and Design, Ann Arbour, 8 October 2009).

[4] Leah Caldwell, “Nadim Mishlawi: Behind the Walls of Sector Zero,” Al-Akhbar English (7 April 2012; online)

[5] Quoted in Sector Zero.

[6] Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 76.

[7] Azouri, quoted in Sector Zero.


Mike Hoolboom is a Canadian media artist whose work can be found at and His most recent movie is Lacan Palestine (2012), a feature length, found-footage essay.

Image Credit: Nadim Mishlawi, Sector Zero (2011). Film still. Courtesy of MC Distribution.


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