Third 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 or the second part.

An embedded narrative – in search of a basis

Michel Amiguet’s inner voice asks the question [00:04:58–00:05:14]:

“In this tangled web of conflict, we need a solid basis on which we can act, so that we can reach everyone and everywhere – and the only basis for that is earning each party’s trust.”

As soon as these words are said, the scene cuts from the delegate in his office writing a letter to an ambulance honking its way through the streets of Beirut. Just before this, a close-up of a map of Lebanon on the wall in the delegate’s office [00:04:55] shows us a fleeting view of the country as a whole, which will be shown later in the film as broken and divided.

The delegate’s self-questioning, indispensable if he is to avoid inaction and ensure that negotiations move forward, will be made and shown using images that document the ICRC’s ordinary and extraordinary activities in the field, which make up the body of the film. As for the delegate’s office and the letter, they only reappear a few minutes before the end of the film when Amiguet, having learnt something from the unfolding narrative as if it had been recalled in his own memory, is now able to draw the right conclusions.

It is worth noting that in this first transition we see one of Ash’s hallmarks, i.e. his decision to hide the editing process and anchor the story in a naturalistic portrayal of the daily lives of the ICRC staff and the people of Lebanon. Showing a map of the place where events are taking place is usual practice in television news broadcasting – and for many ICRC reports – but here the viewer does not see a fixed, full-screen shot, but the “real” map of the country on the wall of Amiguet’s office[1] In these two instances, the information is the same, but Ash’s choice creates a “real-life” effect.

The viewer is prompted to perceive the sequence of actions and operations undertaken in 1983 by the ICRC in Lebanon, documented in the film, as a single, long, embedded narrative. This is because care was taken to ensure that this succession of separate episodes can be seen as a coherent whole.

Perhaps the most significant unifying element in the narrative is the female voice-over. Throughout the film, she presents and explains the events as they unfold on screen and is only interrupted when the director allows the witnesses of the events being narrated to speak directly. Hers is the only disembodied voice and she stands for the ICRC’s official point of view – in Ash’s conception, of course – and expounds its principles. Her first words, commenting on the medical examination of the mortally wounded man brought to the hospital by ambulance, are [00:05:32–00:05:40]:

“War kills, war inflicts mortal injuries, but humanitarian work is concerned with life, not death; hope, not grief.”

Scheherazade, the disembodied voice of a woman, links together, one after the other, the ICRC’s actions, leaving death behind to move on with life. And like the narrator of the Arabian Nights, her uninterrupted narrative has the power, if not to stop death, at least to try to keep it at bay, to show how timely action can diminish its power. The theme of Scheherazade returns briefly to underscore the hope indicated by the arrival of a rescue ship, discreetly confirming that humanitarian efforts may overcome barbarity [00:07:56-00:11:06].

Much like the female voice-over narration, the second occurrence of the Scheherazade theme, which accompanies the images of a corpse wrapped in transparent plastic and carried to the morgue on a stretcher [00:06:08], is used to dismiss death from the narrative with dignity. As we shall see, the next return of the theme will be positively connoted.

The embedded narrative takes a first step here on its slow, gradual progress to hope for a better future. For, by playing the role of an “answer” to Amiguet’s questions about the basis that allows us to reach everyone and everywhere and earn people’s trust, the embedded narrative retains a duality throughout: it is both documentary testimony that is as neutral as possible about a set of clearly explained and justified actions and a demonstration of the capacity of these same actions to provide their own moral basis.

Below, in order of appearance are the actions portrayed. We describe them in six episodic sequences, but obviously other viewers may have a different reading of how they might be divided up:

1. Visit to the ICRC hospital, probably in Tripoli, where “neutralization”, i.e. creating a neutral zone, is illustrated and explained by the banner: “No arms authorized within these premises [00:06:35] … This is a protected space where the injured are treated.”[2] 00:05:17–00:07:35]

2. Presentation of the radio broadcast centre. If you listen carefully the narrative voice-over emphasizes that “the International Committee needs resources and planning undreamt of more than a century ago”. [00:07:35–00:07:52]

3. The liner Appia was put at the disposal of the ICRC by the Italian government and arrived in Tripoli on 17 December 1983. Her mission was to evacuate 94 wounded Palestinian combatants to the Cypriot port of Larnaca from where they would be sent on to other hospitals far from the war zone. This was a large-scale operation undertaken by the ICRC in close collaboration with the Lebanese Red Cross.[3] When the Appia arrives in shot the Scheherazade theme returns briefly to underscore the hope pinned on this arrival, discreetly confirming that humanitarian efforts may overcome barbarity. [00:07:56–00:11:06]

4. Detailed presentation of the activities of the Central Tracing Agency in its offices and outside in Beirut. In this sequence there are two portraits: Christiane, a delegate from Geneva, and Hussein, a local member of staff who provides links with the local hospitals and the Arabic-speaking population. The various types of Red Cross messages are presented and their use explained by Christiane, who also talks about her own experience.[4] [00:11:42–00:15:34]

5. The Ansar internment camp set up by the Israeli forces in South Lebanon is an illustration, explained by the narrative voice-over, of the ordinary visits by the ICRC “in its unique role as a neutral and impartial intermediary” [00:16:06], but also, too, of an extraordinary large-scale operation: “In November 1983 after long and secret negotiations, the Israeli authorities agreed to release over 4,000 Ansar detainees simultaneously with the release of six soldiers of their forces held prisoner by the PLO.” [00:16:40] [5] Unfortunately, this considerable success was not complete because some of these prisoners “against the spirit and letter of the agreement were never actually released” [00:19:06].[6] So, the film itself shows that a written agreement is not a guarantee of success, while at the same time offering a bitter echo to Amiguet’s exclamation about the 1949 Geneva Conventions mentioned above. “It’s written right there.”[7] [00:19:14] The voice-over also adds: “Others have since found themselves inside the Ansar camp again.” Yes, humanitarian action often seems to be a Sisyphean task. However, the operation was an overall success and to emphasize this, the sequence ends with a close- up of a red stamp reading “Libéré” or “Released” on Ansar prisoner files.

Letter from Lebanon. Stamp of the word “Libéré” or “Released” on an Ansar prisoner’s form. (© ICRC / ASH, John / 1984 / V-F-CR-H-00165): [00:19:51]

6. The last and longest episode was about a large-scale operation in the Chouf mountains were there had been intense fighting in September 1983. Thousands of people left their villages to seek refuge in the small town of Deir al-Qamar, which was under siege[8] [00:19:54–00:27:56]. This long operation had two phases. First, to ensure that people in the besieged town were able to survive, relief convoys crossing the front line were organized on a regular basis. Later, thanks to an agreement concluded with the various parties, the families taking refuge in Deir al-Qamar were evacuated to Beirut. This final episode also served not only to highlight the capacity of the delegates to work with more than two parties to a conflict, so a response to the insufficient wording of the Conventions initially alluded to by Amiguet at the beginning of the film,[9] but also their ability to create relationships of trust. It was only because this type of relationship had been built that, as the coaches crossed the front line, they were greeted with flowers rather than guns. “A gesture of humanity remarkable in a long and bitter war” [00:27:00]. From then on, the way was clear until Beirut, whose skyline they could make out on the horizon. We see an ICRC flag waving from the back of one the convoy vehicles. When they arrive at their final destination, the displaced people get off the coaches and are reunited with family members.

Letter from Lebanon (© ICRC / ASH, John / 1984 / V-F-CR-H-00165): [00:26:10–00:28:10]

The theme from Scheherazade accompanies this sequence. The music is no longer haunting the ruins of buildings reduced to rubble, but celebrating the joy of the living, of families getting back together and greeting the return of hope. The effect of the music is heightened by the fact that it is used sparingly in the film. Sometimes it is quickly faded out to leave space for the spoken word or the sound of kisses exchanged as people find each other again.

This last part of the embedded narrative is not only the longest, given the importance of the ICRC operation it covers, but also the most complex in the overall narrative structure, particularly with respect to the treatment of witnesses as characters. First, this is achieved with the return of Christiane, whom we learn more about, and then, especially, with the appearance of Najila. She is introduced into the narrative by Christiane, who wants to know what happened to this displaced woman she had been helping. After Najila’s first appearance, she never quite disappears from the story of the displaced people in Deir al-Qamar. Her face, a mirror of the hopes and horrors of the evacuation to Beirut, is always somewhere to be seen in the group, in the coach or on arrival in the Lebanese capital, or when she gives her own personal statement to camera in Arabic with a voice-over translation [00:24:38].[10]

Letter from Lebanon (© ICRC / ASH, John / 1984 / V-F-CR-H-00165): [00:23:15–00:25:22]

Although the Letter from Lebanon aspires to the objectivity of news reporting, it does not seek to avoid portraying witnesses as sympathetic individuals whose words voice painful memories of past suffering and nostalgia for people they knew but lost sight of. And it is important to stress that they are all treated even-handedly. The close cooperation throughout the year of the ICRC with the Lebanese Red Cross and, to a lesser extent, with the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and the decision to broadcast the film in Arabic are factors that probably contributed to this even-handedness at a time when the beneficiaries were often kept in the background in ICRC productions[11]
Now that the various initiatives and operations organized by delegates and local staff in Lebanon under the aegis of the ICRC had sufficiently demonstrated their capacity to deal with the various difficulties and challenges posed by an extremely complex conflict, the drafting of the letter begun by Amiguet can be resumed and lead the film to its conclusion. The fourth and final part of this article will discuss the issues raised by Amiguet finishing his letter.

[1] Ash uses the same method later with the portrait of Henry Dunant [00:07:31].

[2] Cf. examples of declaring neutral zones in hospitals and private buildings in Tripoli, ICRC, Annual Report 1983, Geneva, 1984, p. 64.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “During the first eleven months of 1983, nearly one million Red Cross messages were exchanged, through the ICRC, between prisoners and their families.” Ibid., p. 62.

[5] For all the details, cf. Ibid., pp. 62–63.

[6] “In spite of all the precautions it had taken, the ICRC found, at the end of the operation, that at least 218 prisoners who should have been released by the Israeli authorities had not been freed … The ICRC president [Alexandre Hay (1976–1987)] sent a personal message to Israeli prime minister Shamir, with an appeal to the Israeli government that it should free those prisoners and observe the terms of the agreement that had been concluded”, Ibid., p. 63. Similar behaviour by Palestinians was condemned. Ibid., pp. 63.

[7] See the second part of this article.

[8] ICRC, Annual Report 1983, op. cit., p. 62. “In a second phase, the ICRC organized the departure from Deir al-Qamar of all non-combatants who wished to leave the village, after consent had been given by all the parties to the conflict. Accordingly, between 15 and 22 December, eight convoys reached Sidon and Beirut, enabling 5,130 persons to be transferred. There were seven convoys of twelve buses each, while the final convoy consisted of 485 private vehicles. The persons transferred to Beirut were taken charge of by their families or by a reception committee.” Ibid.

[9] “Negotiations between the ICRC and the opposing parties went on unceasingly behind the scenes, trying to arrange the evacuation of displaced people out of the besieged town” [00:23:04–00:23.13].

[10] Julie Farine, in the fourth part of her article (in French) “Filmer l’exode: entre permanence et évolution”, (Cross-files, 18 January 2018), mentions Letter from Lebanon because it let the original voice of the beneficiary be heard; available at:, accessed on 10 December 2019.

[11] Annual Report 1983, op. cit., p. 61–66, especially p. 65.