Second part of the article “You have mail: Letter from Lebanon, a film by John Ash”, an analysis of this short film produced in 1984 by the ICRC. Click here to read the first part.

Framing the narrative

The long opening sequence, about three minutes in length, shows a car driving through the ruins of Beirut and arriving at the building in which the ICRC office is located.

The sense of desolation and loss inspired by the spectacle of the gutted buildings is accentuated by the director’s choice of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade as background music. The allusion to the sumptuous and luxurious Orient of the Arabian Nights – as perceived by the West, of course – poignantly underlines the cruel contrast between the country’s current situation and the “Pearl of the Levant”, pre-conflict Lebanon. The musical motif evokes a fabulous time, outside the pages of history, which will never come back.

The travelling shots past the ruins are interspersed with four close-ups showing a man driving the car. Cleverly, his official identity is not revealed at first, so the viewer can identify with the anonymous individual travelling through the ravaged landscape.

During the second close-up a subtitle tells us that he is “Michel Amiguet, Head of Delegation 1983–1984”. He remains silent, but his thoughts can be heard in a voice-over [00:02:45–00:03:19]:

“Either we’re all crazy or we’re here for some reason, for some purpose. That’s the question and there are times when it needs to be asked. Ten years of war, ten years of conflicts that go on and on … and more than twenty different factions in a country of just over three million people. … Ten years … of not knowing what tomorrow will bring or whether it will come at all.”

Letter from Lebanon (© CICR / ASH, John / 1984 / V-F-CR-H-00165): [00:01:41–00:03:23]

The delegate, facing the magnitude and overwhelming challenges of the situation, is portrayed as a human being who questions and doubts himself. Voice-over is used to express his inner thoughts, which are offered directly to the viewers as the framing invites them to imagine they are in the car.

The only real precedent to this film in the ICRC’s production history The delegates – a short, half-hour documentary co-produced by Derek Hart and the ICRC in 1977 – in which the delegate is portrayed as an action man in the field, close to the fighting and shooting.[1] Eight years on John Ash presented the “character” of the delegate as an individual who questions himself, pondering over whether his principles and actions can rise to the real challenges of the situation. This choice is particularly legitimate precisely because “not knowing what tomorrow will bring” seems never-ending and even the possibility of being able to make a difference is undermined.[2]

A hand-written letter as a metaphor for humanitarian involvement

As for the “letter” from Lebanon that gives the film its title, it appears physically on the screen in the form of a missive that Amiguet, still moved and troubled, begins to write when he has been able to reach his desk and reflect on how the printed text of the 1949 Geneva Conventions can actually be implemented [00:04:22–00:04.51]:

“Did the authors of the Conventions really think of all that?” “An impartial humanitarian body such as the International Committee of the Red Cross may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.” It’s written right there. But it’s still too easy to think of a conflict as two sides facing each other. It seems feasible to be an intermediary between two sides, but twenty or more? Where do you put yourself? Who do you talk to?”[3]

We understand that he is prompted to write by a feeling that the written law is inadequate, because the harsh reality of the situation hinders its effective application. So, hand-writing a personal letter, from an individual an audience can identify with, is used as a means to question the huge gap between the idealism of the Conventions and the real violence in its various manifestations which threaten the lives of the many victims in the conflict. At the beginning of September 1983 alone, “while fierce fighting was raging … around Beirut and in the Chouf area”, the ICRC had been obliged to issue four appeals to respect the cease-fire and remind the parties to the conflict “to respect the emblems of the red cross and red crescent … and above all to spare the civilian population”[4] In such circumstances, writing a letter such as this could not be more urgent.

The questions posed by the letter and their implications for the narrative structure of the film will be discussed in the third part of this article.

[1] This characterization of the delegate was to become more nuanced in another film co-produced the same year by the ICRC and Derek Hart Productions: The Red Cross Delegate: An account by Jean Hoefliger. An excerpt of this film is also available under the title: Entretien avec un délégué. This private production company and the ICRC continued to work together until 1980, during which time two more short films were produced, Challenge in Africa (1978, shot in Zimbabwe, Zaire, Zambia and Botswana) and A Question of Relief (1980, shot in Cambodia, Thailand and on the Khmer-Thai border).

[2] The delegate is an intriguing type of character as attested, for example, by the fact that “Swiss Radio International, in its series on the Swiss abroad, devoted a magazine in two parts to the role of ICRC delegates, including accounts by several of them and a ‘live’ recording made in the Lebanon by its French-speaking service,” ICRC Annual Report 1983, Geneva, 1984, p. 108; or the “Portrait of a Delegate” produced in Israel by Swiss German-speaking Television; ICRC, Annual Report 1984, Geneva, 1985, p. 106.

[3] Taken from Article 3. 2 of Chapter 1 of the General Provisions Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 12 August 1949.

[4] ICRC, Annual Report 1983, op. cit., p. 64.