For anyone wondering what happens to a great national art museum during a 16-year war, “Challenge to Forgetfulness” fills the gap. The National Museum of Beirut, located at a major intersection on the line separating the city’s warring factions, was turned into an impromptu Syrian army barracks. This well-made docu showing how the museum’s priceless treasures were unboxed and restored after the war ended in 1991 has its dry moments, but they are compensated for by some fascinating material.
Using the unnecessary device of a fictional-girl narrator who visits the museum while it is under repair (it was scheduled to reopen in November ’97), pic shows the shocking after-effects of the war years. A wall-size Roman mosaic has a big hole poked in it for sharpshooters to steady their aim before shooting at passersby on the thoroughfare below. When the war began, the curators boarded up the ancient statues and sarcophagi and poured tons of cement over them. Director Bahij Hojeij’s camera shows the cement being removed, and the reliefs in pristine condition. Not so the vases and small objects walled up in the basement: Metal objects are corroded, and the ceramics have to be painstakingly restored.
Docu suffers from censorship in that it cannot state outright that the Syrian army (still a major presence in Lebanon today) was responsible for much of the internal damage to the museum, such as graffiti defacing the mutilated statues. In contrast, the army of workers who repair the building’s classical facade and its objets d’art have the presence of unsung heroes, and pic’s overall tone is upbeat.