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Uncovering Lebanon's hidden histories of violence in The Soil and the Sea

February 20, 2024 at 3:19 pm

An image of an abandoned building following Lebanon’s Civil War in a still from the Soil and Sea [Daniele Rugo]

“What is happening in Gaza is genocide, perpetrated as the world watches,” lamented filmmaker Daniele Rugo during our recent discussion about his impactful new documentary The Soil and the Sea. As Israel’s bombs have rained down death and destruction across the besieged coastal enclave, Rugo reflected on the suffering unfolding today.

In too many ways, Lebanon’s anguished past foreshadows the journey ahead for a scarred population traumatised by Israel’s mass killing. If Lebanon’s civil war teaches anything, it is that sincere reconciliation relies on courageously exhuming the truths, no matter how inconvenient they may be.

With the aim of creating space for grief and reconciliation, Rugo’s moving documentary brings to light what has been buried for decades. The past hangs like a shadow, the haunting personal testimonies reveal, and the scars of a nation will not heal if the dead are not properly mourned.

Award-winning Rugo sheds light on the largely unaddressed history of mass graves and forced disappearances stemming from Lebanon’s civil war.

As the country still reels from the 15-year conflict that killed over 150,000 people between 1975 and 1990, the chilling film gives voice to those still searching for truth and justice decades later.

A screenshot from the Soil and the Sea film [Daniele Rugo]

Centred on the more than 100 untouched mass graves lying beneath schools, hotels, agricultural plots and busy roads across Lebanon, Rugo takes viewers on a haunting audio-visual journey to uncover the personal tragedies behind the numbers. As many as 17,000 people disappeared over the course of the civil war. Yet the sites holding countless human remains have never been exhumed, with many locations since returned to mundane everyday use as vegetable gardens, mosques and construction sites, for example.

As Rugo explained it, The Soil and the Sea can be seen as a follow-up to his previous documentary About a War (2019), which profiled a former Lebanese militiaman. After exploring the civil war through the lens of a perpetrator, Rugo felt the victims’ voices needed amplifying to address the conflict’s enduring legacy. The idea for this new film emerged organically during conversations with Lebanese audiences after screening About a War in 2019.

READ: UK’s Prince William says ‘too many’ have been killed in Gaza

Woven between stark landscape cinematography both beautiful and chilling, the documentary layers first-hand testimonies of those who bore witness to the violence. Their stories, which include the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, reveal hidden, largely forgotten atrocities which speak to universal themes of suffering and resilience.

“You cannot by just looking at the places, imagine or assume what has happened there, Rugo told me. “The voices that we hear unravel these submerged hidden histories of violence that nonetheless these places hold.” The visual contrast created by juxtaposing serene present-day scenes with echoes of past cruelty makes this erasure of history painfully tangible.

In one account, a woman recognises the likely burial ground of massacre victims underneath a plot of vegetables she has bought. Yet with soil long since churned and repurposed, all visible traces are gone. “You really do not know what’s underneath,” she observes. By showcasing the contrast between calm exteriors and the bodies hidden beneath them, Rugo prompts viewers to face unsettling truths that are too distressing to ignore, yet too politically sensitive to unearth.

A key theme is the deep trauma endured by relatives of the forcibly disappeared. Their remains are inaccessibly locked away in hidden mass graves. With no body to mourn and no grave to visit, their loved ones suffer an “ambiguous loss” that denies closure. As Palestinian interviewees whose family members disappeared after the Sabra and Shatila massacre attest, this unending grief spanning generations is a psychological burden that no form of justice can easily redress.

READ: Lebanon and the wounds of war: MEMO in Conversation with filmmaker Daniele Rugo

Rugo’s approach confronts a common challenge faced by those seeking truth and reconciliation: How do we balance the exposure of past crimes with the present need for peace and reconciliation? As perilous as that may be, Rugo deftly avoids complex partisan politics to appeal at a universal level. He focuses on what he calls “communities of suffering” tied together by loss, not divided by sectarianism. In eschewing contextual details on the civil war’s geopolitical roots, the film is able to convey personal stories and allow victims to take centre stage.

An image of Tahwita Garden seen in a still from the Soil and the Sea [Daniele Rugo]

Yet the atrocities documented make clear that Lebanon’s open wounds cannot heal without truth and accountability. The insistence of the relatives of victims for answers underscores the fact that reconciling with the past remains crucial for national healing. This can be a daunting task, as Rugo has highlighted in his work. The continued political dominance of many of the main actors from the civil war raises fears that speaking openly about the crimes against civilians during that period comes with serious risks.

However, the growing advocacy movement for truth and reconciliation supported by the government of Lebanon offers hope. Rugo made The Soil and the Sea in partnership with ACT for the Disappeared, one of the NGOs leading the fight for justice. In 2018, Lebanon finally established an Independent National Commission tasked with investigating the fate of the thousands who went missing. While its limited remit does not allow the commission to prosecute anyone, the film itself is produced with the aim of aiding the fact-finding mission.

Beyond supporting this initiative, Rugo envisions his documentary as continuing the artistic tradition of fostering societal dialogue around the trauma from Lebanon’s civil war. Other novels, films and artworks have played a similar role over the years, although often while flying under the radar. By offering a creative platform to shed light on loss and resilience, The Soil and the Sea carries forward this cultural conversation towards long-overdue healing.

This tightly woven tapestry of sights, sounds and human-centred storytelling packs an emotional punch. The themes explored around loss, the erasure of history and coping with wartime atrocities ring universally true. This accessibility makes the film well poised to raise international awareness on the issue as it tours festivals worldwide after its UK premiere on 19 February.

By training the camera on the missing and their loved ones, Rugo’s restrained yet hard-hitting documentary lays bare challenging truths too long buried in Lebanon’s scarred soil and sea. As viewers watch Palestinians being buried in mass graves during the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, the stories in Rugo’s film should urge audiences to realise that denying and forgetting atrocities decays the moral fabric of society from within. Only by bravely addressing existing wounds can we construct a just and peaceful future, reconciled with the atrocities of the past.

You can find out about screenings of The Soil and the Sea here.

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