Bitter Bread


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Bitter Bread
"This is a bald recording of the lives being lived and the stoicism needed to keep going even in these most grim of circumstances."

There have been many documentaries devoted to refugees' stories in the past few years - from personal tales of attempted journeys to safety like Midnight Traveller to stories of families in specific camps, including the Jordan-set Tiny Souls. Each brings with it a story of lives on the edge and trauma.

Now added to them is Abbas Fahdel's documentary, shot in Lebanon - a country where there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees (half of whom are children), which to put it in some sort of perspective, works out as one for every four nationals. Many of those who have fled the conflict in their homeland live in tented settlements and there are estimated to be more than 2000 of these in the country.

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Fahdel takes us to Camp No 3, a loose settlement of tents in the Beqaa Valley. Camp, in fact, is rather too salubrious a term for this collection of ramshackle dwellings caught between a rocky hillside and a road where traffic whizzes by just feet from the children, only fenced off since one lost their life. On its border pours a torrent of effluent courtesy of the "open sky sewer", which Fahdel - who also shot and edited the film - returns his camera to repeatedly as a reminder of the conditions.

The camp is run by a Lebanese "shawish", in this case Maher Mahoud, who is in charge of the camp and the foreign workers who live there. The refugees are supposed to pay $500 a year to the landowner for the tents - which may not be altered or added to without express permission - but we soon learn that they earn a maximum of around six dollars a day working as day labourers for the local farmers, and then only during certain seasons of the year. Conversations in the tiny shop on the site indicate they're all deep in debt to the shawish - a situation which clearly has long-term implications even in the event of their country becoming peaceful enough to return to.

Fahdel captures the grimness of this situation, showing how Mahoud, though handing out clothing for the kids at one point, can also be seen trying to get a cut of the small amount of milk one of the residents gets from her sheep. "I'm joking," he says, although we - and the woman - know he isn't. Shot in the winter months, the rain seems to fall relentlessly, flooding some camps completely. Worse, is seeing children already wearing barely enough clothes against the cold, running about the camp sockless, in sandals.

Fahdel records conversations, some of which, you suspect he has prompted, not that it matters - two girls talk about how long they've been away from home, a couple of mothers chat about a boy's suspected broken arm and a young man tries to placate his fiance, who is living in a Jordanian camp, about the fact that they can't yet be together and marry. It's clear the adults know they are being exploited but equally obvious that they have little choice.

This is a bald recording of the lives being lived and the stoicism needed to keep going even in these most grim of circumstances, capturing the systemic economic straitjacket the refugees find themselves in. That the children's energy is largely undimmed only adds to the heartbreak.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2020
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Documentary about a community of refugees living in a tent camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

Director: Abbas Fahdel

Year: 2019

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Lebanon, Iraq, France

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If you like this, try:

Tiny Souls
A World Not Ours