Mazen Khaled’s Martyr is a meditative, sentimental film about the complexities of loss and grief within an impoverished area of Beirut.
Writer/director Mazen Khaled found inspiration for Martyr in the stories of young men diving off a waterfront promenade along Beirut’s Mediterranean coast, in an area known locally as the Corniche. They were ‘jumping out of society [and] into their freedom’. It is this action that is the crux moment within Khaled’s film, a stunningly crafted exploration of grief and loss within a small community.
Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is a young man in Beirut. Jobless, uninspired and struggling to make sense of his place in the world, he brushes off the pressures of his parents and takes a trip with friends to the rocky shores of the Corniche. There, Hassane makes a decision that causes grief to ripple through his community, his friends and his family, ultimately changing their lives forever.
Martyr is certainly not heavy on dialogue – in fact, the final 15 minutes or so are almost completely silent – and instead, it relies on its performances to act as physical manifestations of the complex feelings being explored. Isolation, marginalisation, grief, loss and guilt are presented through touches and glances and weighted silences.
Khaled, alongside cinematographers Rachelle Noja and Talal Khoury, frame the interactions of Hassane and his friends through a series of close ups, fleeting and reverent touches, and slow-motion underwater frolicking that are almost sensual in their depiction of male closeness. There is certainly an air of homoeroticism, but also that of the sexualisation of the affectionate touch between young men, an action often discouraged. The camera is hyper-focused on the details of a touch – the way fingertips dance across the handlebars of a motorbike, the brushing of shoulders as two bodies lean in in conversation, the reverence and gentleness of movement when undertaking the ritual washing of the deceased – and it adds to the meditative quality of the film. Khaled is not interested in making a commentary on the situation of young men like Hassane, rather in expressing the intricacies of an intense emotional experience through physical performance.
It is a sensual, poignant film that is emblematic of the grieving process being undertaken in the last act. It is thoughtful, reflective and almost more visual art piece than narrative story at times. Martyr offers up the idea that Hassane is a symbolic body that represents a generation of Lebanese men in the theoretical prime of their lives, struggling within impoverished neighbourhoods, societal pressures, and longing for the escape of a place like the azure waters of the Corniche.
Martyr premiered in the UK on Curzon Home Cinema on 12th March, 2021 and was released on all other digital platforms, as well as DVD, from 22nd March.