It’s hard to find a Lebanese documentary that doesn’t touch on the country’s bloody civil war, yet it’ll be even harder to find one better than “Sleepless Nights.” Helmer Eliane Raheb’s emotionally trenchant pic slices through fuzzy notions of forgiveness and reconciliation, exposing the concept of clemency without justice as a mask that protects the perpetrators and leaves survivors with festering wounds. Though a few sequences should be cut, “Sleepless” warrants its 128-minute running time and deserves a prominent place in many fest programs.
Raheb keeps the focus on two figures: Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a 15-year-old officially listed as missing after a 1982 battle, and Assaad Shaftari, an intelligence officer from the other side who’s publicly acknowledged his culpability in ordering countless atrocities. Shaftari evinces a masochism no doubt meant to cleanse his soul, in the same way that a priest’s absolution bestowed forgiveness without true contrition. Saiidi is unwilling to completely share her implacable turmoil, despite being consumed by the need to know her son’s fate.
A few introductory lines provided a potted history of Lebanon’s Civil War from 1975 to 1990, ending with a 1991 amnesty exonerating all who committed political crimes during the conflict. The overriding thrust of “Sleepless Nights” is that the amnesty doesn’t work — not for the victims, who have no closure, nor for the perpetrators whose guilt without punishment, at least in Shaftari’s case, provides no hope of release.
Saiidi’s son Maher Qasir was in his mid-teens when he fought alongside communist partisans against the right-wing Lebanese Forces. He went missing during a clash at a university, one of more than 17,000 such people whose fates remain unknown. Shaftari, however, knows what happened: Often tortured and then shot, the people now termed “missing” were dumped into mass graves whose whereabouts largely remain a secret.
For Saiidi, knowing where her son’s body is buried — she knows he’s dead, even though she refuses to have him put on the martyrs’ list — would at least offer an iota of closure, but Shaftari doesn’t see the point. Neither does British psychotherapist Alexandra Asseily, married to a local and pompously boasting, “I’ve become entirely Lebanese.” Asseily has created a “Garden of Forgiveness” and spouts insipid psychobabble, counseling an understandably resistant Saiidi to let go of her pain.
The truly gut-wrenching moment comes when Saiidi and Shaftari are together during the installation of a photographic exhibition on the missing. It’s fascinating to watch how Shaftari seems to be silently inviting her excoriation, wanting to be whipped by the distraught mother’s invective so he can cleanse himself of culpability. During the war he was given absolution by a priest for the annihilation of 500 people, allowing him to wipe out another 500 lives in the knowledge that this, too, would be forgiven. His life since then seems to be a search for a similar sense of divine grace, though deep down, he still believes in the justness of his war.
Raheb includes a few others, including Shaftari’s cohorts from the Lebanese Forces, seen rabbit hunting (not for the squeamish), and a former communist commander stonewalling Saiidi’s request for answers. Their presence ensures that viewers appreciate the breadth of Lebanon’s problems, hardly restricted to a grieving woman and a sad-eyed commander. There’s one sequence, however, that offers nothing but an odd form of humiliation, in which Shaftari participates in a clown workshop. The docu gives no hint as to why he’s there, and the uncomfortable scene offers no additional insight into his complex character.
All in all, watching “Sleepless Nights” is an emotionally exhausting experience, brilliantly capturing a nation’s damaged soul and the raw, throbbing ache that remains untreated to this day. Nizar Hassan’s excellent editing and Didier Cattin’s sophisticated sound contribute significantly to the overall impact. In addition, it’s impossible not to be moved by Raheb’s repeated use of a plaintive song sung by Najat Al Saghira, with the refrain “You left without saying goodbye.”