Sleepless Nights (Layali Bala Nom) is a documentary by filmmaker Eliane Raheb depicting two very different people's struggle to come to terms with their tragic connection to Lebanon's civil war.

The audience is first introduced to Assaad Shaftari, an intelligence officer for the Lebanese Forces who publicly acknowledged he was responsible for many killings during the civil war when he sent a formal apology to Lebanese media in 2000 asking for forgiveness. Then we meet Maryam Saiidi, the mother of 15-year-old Maher Kassir, who enlisted to fight with the Lebanese Communist Party during the war and went missing in a June 1982 battle at the Lebanese University campus of Hadath.


(Photo via Voxmagazine.com.lb)

The stories of Shaftari and Saiidi intersect in key moments that link Maher's disappearance during the university clashes to Shaftari's connections with the Christian militia. And at one point, it becomes clear to the audience that Shaftari may hold the information necessary to discovering the fate of Maher and perhaps even offer closure to a desperate mother who, some 31 years after his disappearance, refuses to believe that her son is dead.

Incredibly, the director succeeds in turning the average person's natural inclinations and expectations on their head, for, it's not the mother - perhaps the real victim of the story - who we build sympathy for during the film, but Shaftari. The former militiaman spends his time acknowledging his culpability in the war and now simply seeks forgiveness.

Shaftari lets Raheb get up close and personal to witness every aspect of his private life: his relationship with his son, wife and parents. And in a pivotal moment in the film, Shaftari goes to seek confession from a man he once publicly hated, Bishop Gregoire Haddad, a staunchly anti-sectarian clergyman. The effect of this journey for redemption reminds the audience that, as the French saying goes, "meme les tueurs ont une mere," or "even murderers have mothers." On the other hand, Saiidi's constant negativity and out of touch attitude (consistently denying her son might be dead) stands as a barrier between her ability to evoke sustained sympathy from the audience.

The documentary is a dangerous and dark celebration of emotional highs and lows, causing the moviegoer to hold back tears, their breath and even their judgment during captivating moments in the story's progression.One of these peaks happens when the two main figures of the film come face to face during an exhibition at the Dome - Le Grand Theatre, commonly known as "the egg" in the heart of downtown Beirut. Shaftari remains silent as Maryam shouts, cries and openly blames the former militiaman for her pain.

Another heart-wrenching, though bizarre, moment happens when Saiidi leaves the room in which Raheb is filming only to return with a life size cutout of Maher, cut to fit her arms perfectly. The scene ends with her gripping on to this giant replica while trying to fall asleep, exhausted by the long journey to find him.


(Photo via Reorientmag.com)

The movie has already sparked controversy from retrograde critics who say Raheb's depiction of the civil war is biased because it only focuses on one confession. But the director stands firm in her decision to make the film this way, saying it "wasn't her intention to write a fair history of the Lebanese civil war," adding that those critics appear to be "intentionally overlooking the fact that not a single man other than Shaftari has confessed to their roles in the civil war." The movie should be looked at as a wake-up call for the nation to remember that so little has been said or acknowledged 23 years after the war ended.

Sleepless Nights is showing at Empire Sofil and Prime Bliss Cinema until October 31. For more details, click here

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