Life below the poverty line in Beirut’s concrete jungle is explored in Sarah Kaskas’ humanistic feature debut Underdown

Film Review by Dalia Al-Dujaili | 27 Jun 2019
  • Underdown
Film title: Underdown
Director: Sarah Kaskas

“In life there is honey and there [are] onions; it’s not all honey”, we are wisely told in Sarah Kaskas’ feature documentary debut Underdown. As she reveals throughout the film, life below the poverty line in Beirut’s concrete jungle is certainly not that sweet.

Refreshingly simple cinematography captures pulsating images such as politicians’ eyes on posters plastered over the walls of the city looking on to their collateral damage, setting the scene for this politically-fuelled observational documentary. Kaskas zooms in on an affected trio: Arak-drinking cigarette-smoking taxi driver Abu Hassam, eleven-year-old Syrian refugee Ali, and Lebanese Samya struggling to make ends meet.

This is an important film exploring the lasting effects of inflation, war and a corrupt government on a class in Lebanon known as the ‘underdown’ – the lowest of the low. But interestingly Kaskas avoids observing Beirut’s decadent wealth and the film chooses to focus instead on the very specific problems our trio have faced, such as Abu Hassam’s heartbreak and Samya’s struggle in paying for her mother’s glaucoma operation. This is not necessarily a problem, but it does not make for a particularly engaging watch considering there is a lack of vital information such as the Middle East’s abhorrent lack of wealth distribution and the 1.5 million refugees who have recently fled to Lebanon.

Understandably, Kaskas chooses to pivot her film around raw human experience. She intelligently and with delicate empathy captures her subject matter at their most vulnerable. Overwhelmingly humbling the viewer and evoking a rare kind of hope, Abu Hassam, sleeping in his car and envisioning a life on the streets, considers himself “a king” because at least he still has both legs – many aren’t so lucky.

Despite a certain lack of self-awareness regarding the film’s political voice, Underdown never fails to capture moments of profound sorrow and endearing hope.

Underdown had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Dalia Al-Dujaili is a student at University of Edinburgh and part of Edinburgh International Film Festival's Student Critics Programme. For more on EIFF's Student Critics Programme, click here

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