Rafiq Hariri, the movie

I won’t play the speculation game about the assassination yesterday of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Instead, I’ll recommend that you try to see the film which, I’m sure, will remain the most succinct statement of who Hariri was. I’m referring to the documentary portrait by the Syrian director Omar Amiralay, L’Homme aux semelles d’or, which I reviewed a few years back. The review was embedded in a longer treatment of several films, so here it is, extracted:

It’s an odd combination: Amiralay, a Syrian Marxist, better known for his films on intellectuals (Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus, French sociologist Michel Seurat), has done Hariri. Amiralay was a bit hesitant about the idea, and the film includes sequences in which his mother warns him against criticizing the formidable man while his intellectual friends worry lest he be seduced. At first, Hariri, too, is not so sure he wants Amiralay to film him. Perhaps the filmmaker will use a camera to assassinate his character? As Amiralay discovered, Hariri is so wary of his image that he staffs a small library devoted to recording and cataloguing all of his media appearances.

Nothing to fear: Amiralay slowly succumbs to the allure of the great man of Lebanese politics. Here is Hariri standing on some kind of dock at night, a lone, receding figure, an enigma. Here he is in humble robes, in his mountain palace, ruminating on the meaning of his life. Here he is engrossed in the country’s business, at his sprawling desk in his private jet. Here he is looking out on Beirut from his penthouse office above the city, the solitary, self-made, self-contained man. Hariri engages in some self-deprecation, but his bottom line is clear: “I regret none of my economic or political choices.” “In this kind of duel between the man of power and the intellectual,” Amiralay has told an interviewer, “the intellectual always loses.” Amiralay is absolutely right: he has produced a subtle work of sycophancy of Hariri, of a Hariri excised from the complex nexus of Lebanese politics and Syrian hegemony.

But in its own way, the film tells something about the appeal of Hariri: he is the clean slate, a man not implicated in Lebanon’s wars, a super-contractor who tears down the past to build a new, antiseptic present behind reflecting glass. He is no Berlusconi, he insists; his money was made before he entered politics, outside the borders of Lebanon. He established Solidère because no one else would. In the cut-and-thrust with Amiralay, he argues perhaps his most important point: he did not need a political role, and if he sought one, it was only in a moment of vanity. Now it is a matter of fidelity to the idea of Lebanon.

At the end of the film, Amiralay brings his intellectual friends together around a table where they vent the usual criticisms of Hariri. He turned his money into power; he represents the old order; he is not a national figure, but a Sunni za’im, a sectarian leader. Perhaps this is meant to disabuse the viewer of any notion that this film is a testimonial. But could it be anything else? And might it be more than this: a longing to see Lebanon finally cleansed? The opening and closing scenes show Solidère’s cleansing of Beirut’s massive wartime dump. No evictions, no demolitions: just the clean-up.

If you’re serious about understanding Hariri, try to see Amiralay’s film. This is Hariri as he would want to be remembered, and it gives a real flavor of how he spent his time and money. The spell he casts over the skeptical Amiralay is strong testimony to his persuasive powers.

Pointer: Recently, Amiralay has made another film, a devastating critique of the regime in Syria, that played to great acclaim in Beirut last fall. Whether he can continue to do this and move back and forth from Syria is a very open question.