News Column

Ghadi, an unlikely angel in Batroun

November 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 18--BEIRUT -- Leba is a young boy living in the Mshakkal neighborhood of Batroun. Going to school isn't easy for him, since he is the scapegoat of many of his comrades, especially Gerard who keeps slapping him on the neck. Leba stutters and is an easy target for all sorts of mockery. However, one person in the whole school likes him: young Lara, who alone pays kindly attention to the little boy. Leba excels in writing, and whenever he goes home, he writes about his neighbors. Takla is described as the "queen of mouneh and preserves," who lost the love of her life due to pressure from her brother and who smokes like a chimney. Abu Issam has his 5:30 p.m. daily routine of sex with his wife; Karkar -- who has a mental disorder -- thinks his mother lives in the traffic light; the butcher has his own way of selling lean meat; and the barber -- like many Lebanese craftsmen -- works in other fields, such as real estate.

All of them are protected by Mar Elias on the top of the church. Many other charismatic characters are also captured in Leba's writing, which paints a lively portrait of the people living in Mshakkal.

This is how Georges Khabbaz's comic movie "Ghadi" starts. The feature -- produced by Gabriel Chamoun and directed by Amin Dora, who also directed the web series "Shankaboot" -- has been a huge success since its release at the beginning of the month

"When we were working," Dora told The Daily Star, "we never thought of how [the reception would] be. When it got released, people were [very excited]. It was very rewarding."

Khabbaz wrote this script following several years of work at the association ACSAUVEL, a NGO working with mentally disabled children and adults. His experience offering theatrical therapy to children with special needs altered Khabbaz's perspectives.

Played by Khabbaz himself, Leba -- now grown up -- is a music teacher. This passion for music started when Mr. Fawzi (Antoine Moultaka) was appointed to teach music in Mshakkal. He gave piano lessons to the young boy, a practice that enabled him to get rid of his stuttering. But then, Fawzi was transferred to Beirut.

Grown-up Leba is now married to his childhood love, Lara. They have two daughters and are expecting a son, but doctors have noticed abnormalities with the fetus. Driven by fear, Leba leaves Mshakkal on a quest to seek the advice of his paragon, Fawzi

Moultaka, at first, refused to act in the movie, Khabbaz revealed. "He hadn't played in 30 years," he said. "I came to see him and asked him, he said no, he didn't want to work. But I gave him the [script]. After reading it, he immediately said he wanted to be a part of it."

Arriving in Beirut, Leba asks his former teacher what needs to be done if his child has special needs: Should he keep him or not? What follows is the heart of the movie.

"Name him, Leba, name him now," Fawzi advises, "so he will have an identity. He will exist. Once he gets a name, he becomes someone. And when he becomes someone, it becomes harder to let him go."

The difficult yet touching tale now begins in earnest. Leba's son Ghadi (Emmanuel Khairallah) is a young boy despised by the villagers due to his mental disorder. He is referred to as a "sheitan," (devil) due to the weird, squeaky sounds he makes every day and night.

Khabbaz's plot reflects the realities of Lebanese plurality.

"This is our society," he said, "homosexuals, colored people, persons with mental disorders. All this exists in our society."

This feature is not only the story of parents having to face people's disregard for the feelings of their child, but also a reflection of how life works in a Lebanese town, where men and women have specific roles and where the "baladiye" (city hall) has to listen to the residents' complaints. It also highlights parents' involvement in making everything possible for their child, even the craziest things.

After having been warned by Lello (the hairdresser) that a group of men intends to create a petition for the mayor, calling on him to send Ghadi to a specialized institution, Leba decides to convince everyone that his son is not a demon or a deranged child, but an angel sent to earth.

Leba begins revealing personal information about each of the men, saying that "al-malek" (the angel) is here to help them not to lie or cheat, and to bring joy and peace to the village. The angel will execute their wishes as long as they don't behave mischievously, he says.

The results are moving and revelatory about Lebanese attitudes.

The role of Leba's wife Lara (Lara Matar) is quite intriguing. She only speaks three times during the whole film, possibly raising questions in some spectators' minds. Khabbaz explained that her restricted role was intentional and bears a lot of importance.

The first time she speaks is to defend her son, the second time to defend the people of the neighborhood and the third time to confront Gerard. "She is like a cello," Khabbaz said. "She gives support to the whole orchestra."

"Ghadi" is a movie like no other, since it reflects many aspects of our society and tackles many different subjects. "The whole project was difficult," Dora said. "It is the type [of film] where you have so many stories, so many characters. You have to choose well the emotions, otherwise you can easily fall into cheesiness."

After a year and a half of preparation, shooting and postproduction, "Ghadi" was born. Up until now, the movie has been a huge success, Khabbaz and Dora say the theaters are full, and people seem to enjoy the film also in part because it tackles the intellect.

Khabbaz and Dora went to Zahle Friday for the release, and there too the success was palpable. "I believe in the case, in the story and in the [Mshakkal] neighborhood," said Dora.

"Ghadi" is currently screening in several theaters. For more information, see cineklik.com.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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