This essay attends to Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer (2020), the latest feature film by Lebanese filmmaker Mohamed Soueid. Drawn from footage gathered over eighteen years, this deeply personal experimental documentary engages the wounds of war, yearnings of love and obsessions of cinophilia. Soueid organizes his work through a somnambular conceit: that by telling him bedtime stories, his friends might help him fall asleep. This pretext serves as a container for a form of compulsive storytelling whose intimate emotional textures are threaded with melancholy and nostalgia. Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer explores the possibility of a curative cinema—one whose attitude to the past is not to stabilize or hermetically seal it away—but to materialize the imprecisions and uncertainties of collective memory through the cinematic medium as a form of social relation.

Compulsive storytelling animates the cinema of Mohamed Soueid. He has a kindred spirit to that of Scheherazade, the fabulist of One Thousand and One Nights who staves off death at the hands of her new monarch-husband by telling him a sequence of interlocking stories, nested within each other and spinning out seemingly infinitely.1 Her mosaic of fables is mirrored in Soueid’s multiform cinema, where images and sounds collide, playfully and dangerously, without ever resolving into a finite story. Though generating a spell of perpetually unfolding narratives, Soueid is also in a way the opposite of Scheherazade: while she strives to keep her sanguinary husband awake, he is trying to fall asleep.

“Do you want me to tell you a bedtime story?” With some variation, this is the refrain of Soueid’s The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer (2020), the latest feature documentary by the prolific Lebanese filmmaker. It is both a temporary culmination and a natural extension of an unclassifiable and intentionally not-quite-traceable oeuvre, one that has spanned experimental documentaries, TV work, film criticism, and books. Soueid is perhaps most known for his Civil War Trilogy: Tango of Yearning (1998), the first in the autobiographical series made after the war, followed by Nightfall (2000) and Civil War (2002). There is a mythically mundane quality to Soueid’s cinema, which is frankly grounded in the pillars of love (often painful), war (almost inescapable), and cinema (larger than life).

From rushes gathered over eighteen years and shot in a variety of formats ending with an iPhone, Insomnia runs for three hypnotic hours.2 The film is an angular collage of disjointed personal recollections, cinematic cannibalism, and obsessive observations, whose intonations of sentimental cynicism nevertheless yield a sincerely moving love letter to his three passions: cinema, friendship, and Beirut.

A cinephile from his youth, Soueid experienced his first professional encounters with cinema as a film critic. He was a regular contributor to several newspapers, including the Lebanese daily As-Safir. And he has written two books on film: Postponed Cinema: The Lebanese Civil War Films (1986) and Ya Fouadi: A Chronicle of Beirut’s Late Movie Theatres (1996). In the mid-1990s, Soueid worked for Télé-Liban, a public television network, through which he produced a number of programs and made a few of his feature-length works. His first novel, Cabaret Souad, was published in 2004.

Mohamed Soueid in Beirut in 2014. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

Mohamed Soueid in Beirut in 2014. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

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Soueid’s extensive experience in criticism, writing, teaching, producing, and filmmaking speaks to a practice that has never settled into any singular form. He is firmly a filmmaker and not a video artist, though the medium of his cinema has been video and not celluloid. The materiality of his cinema has been circumscribed by the limiting material conditions of filmmaking in Lebanon, especially for independent artists. The relative ease of production for video, with its elastic and adaptable nature as a medium, is also well suited to Soueid’s commitment to irresolvability and the ways his films are held in accumulative flux through their self-referentiality. Soueid refers to editing as a form of writing, and his cinematic language is one of run-on sentences and unexpected line breaks.3 His affinity for slow long shots, prying close-ups, and comically unsound camera placements contributes to the creation of a somnambular psychogeography of erotics and politics.

The title of Soueid’s film offers a contradiction: does the insomniac, exiled from sleep, even have access to dreams? The association of cinema and dreaming, or thinking of cinema as a technology of dreaming, is almost as old as cinema itself. From as early as the fantastical visions of Georges Méliès, the theoretical lyricism of Jean Epstein, and the hallucinatory nightmare of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) to the Surrealists’ interest in cinema as a corollary for the oneiric, and Hollywood’s definition as a dream factory; to the crucial importance of psychoanalysis and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to the development of film scholarship in the 1970s, theoretical contributions of figures such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Christian Metz, and Tarkovsky’s emphasis on the process of dreaming in his book Sculpting in Time (1989)—with all these precedents, filmmaking cannot be uncoupled from dream making. For Soueid, the association between them is deeply attached to how to channel both desire and memories. The errant movements and unexpected associations of his narratives have the irrational qualities and augmented registers of a dream.

While insomnia is the film’s pretext, the hazy narrative organization through which Soueid requests and is offered bedtime stories does not become clear until the film’s halfway point. It is then that Soueid appears on-screen for the first time, sitting behind a young woman playing the piano, and says:

With time, the film turned into a dream. But dreams need sleep and I am an insomniac. I recorded the sleep prayer on a CD and kept playing it every night to sleep and dream. When I realized the film would never be made, I got anxious because I couldn’t wait to fall asleep and to wait for it. I thought to myself, Come on, boy, let people tell you stories to fall asleep.

Soueid associates his insomniac anxieties with the psychic structure of waiting for a film to be completed. The conceit of these bedtime stories as sleep aids, though, is in charmingly bad faith. It does not diminish the soporific effects of a bedtime story to acknowledge that one told in bright daylight to an alert camera deflects the possibility of sleep. Yet, once this somnambulant plan is announced, The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer takes on something of an organizing logic, as structured by the sequencing of friends telling him stories.

Soueid’s cinema is fundamentally shaped by his friendships. And the reverse is also true. Insomnia emerges from the ongoing intermingling of the director’s social and professional worlds. The documentary is deeply personal in a way that has been a mark of his filmmaking. As noted in the voice-over, “Cinema is my life. But this has nothing to do with the number of films I have seen or produced,” meaning that his attachments to the medium spill over from just what can be contained in the visual works themselves.

A significant portion of Tango of Yearning, already populated with his friends of twenty-some years ago, has Soueid interviewing them about himself; this latest work is something of a new riff on the same model. Its form could best be summarized as a series of conversations, which in turn shape the film’s meandering set of shifting thematics. The warmth and intimacies of these exchanges are the film’s connective tissue and its affective grounding. Desire and devotion are determinant of Soueid’s cinema, whose emotional textures are saturated with eroticized longing. Being Camelia (1994) was an experimental television series he made for Télé-Liban, and its titular character reappears in Tango of Yearning as the coalescing of the almost mythologized figures of a lost love and an Egyptian actress who died young. Both consume Soueid, becoming the objects of an intense fervor. In Tango of Yearning, cinema, love, and war are entangled, rendered formally through such collisions as words about his love for Camelia and images of Beirut in partial ruins.

One of the earliest friend-characters to appear, who presents himself throughout as a service taxi driver, is the Lebanese actor and director Fadi Abi Samra. Cinema has been a conductor of their twenty-five years of friendship, with a voice-over adding: “There is more Fadi than there is cinema in Lebanon. I see his name so often on film posters that I don’t bother calling him anymore. I check up on him in his movies. It’s nice to check up on people through films.” Soueid’s approach is one that does more than suggest a porosity between cinematic space and what reality lies outside it, for it relishes exposing that boundary as a false one. Samra, who also appeared in his earlier film Civil War, is this film’s narrator, and his voice becomes the carrier for Soueid’s own oral storytelling. Soueid abdicates singular vocal control of the narrative, nesting his authorial voice inside Samra’s in a form of sonic slippage.

The Lebanese actor and director Fadi Abi Samra, in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

The Lebanese actor and director Fadi Abi Samra, in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

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The most recurring friend is Mirna Shabaro, whose changing hairstyles, from a layered black bob to longer, red-tinted locks, are one of few indexes of the passage of time, be they one that doesn’t offer any clear sense of chronology. Shabaro appeared in Tango of Yearning, and a black-and-white clip from her role in this earlier film is inserted while the voice-over mourns the end of cinema as Soueid first encountered it. Their previous collaboration provides insight into the process of his storytelling, such as its improvisatory quality. As she says, “You don’t give me a script. You don’t even give me an idea about the film. You don’t tell me what it is, where it’s heading, and how, or [what] my role within it [is]. You’re the only who knows.” Yet this is not quite an accusation. When Soueid asks, “But how can you work in a film without a script?” Shabaro responds, “Because I love you, and I trust you.” The affective component is crucial to Soueid’s method.

Soueid’s is a self-referential and additive visual practice whose latest documentary also unravels a personal cartography within the particularities of Lebanese cinema. Soueid was born in 1959 and came of age during the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), which presses lightly at the edges of Insomnia. There is a degree of seeming inevitability to this, as Lina Khatib notes: “[T]he Civil War has become the defining feature of Lebanese cinema.”4 Soueid is part of a generation of filmmakers that came up after the war, which, in the aftermath of the decimation of what cinematic infrastructures there were, saw a rise specifically in the areas of television and video work.5 While the adaptability and skills honed in the context of television are not an unusual background for Lebanese filmmakers, Soueid was one of the earliest to turn toward experimental documentary practices.6

Soueid’s first film, Absence (1990), was in part a response to the premature passing of an aunt he was close to, in part a reflection on his determination to act on what had been a long-held desire to make movies.7 Shot in the last year of the war, this melancholic black-and-white documentary is focused on the ordinariness of loss, metabolizing the deaths of four people through how they are experienced by four surviving loved ones. The concern for how loss and absence are carried individually and collectively runs throughout his entire oeuvre, all the way up to and including Insomnia.

The changing hairstyles of Soueid’s friend Mirna Shabaro provide an index of the passage of time. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

The changing hairstyles of Soueid’s friend Mirna Shabaro provide an index of the passage of time. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

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For Soueid, this historical context is of essential importance, if sometimes oblique, given his deep and ongoing excavations into the development of Lebanese film culture. As reflected even in his fixation on Souad Hosny—known as “the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema” and iconic in every sense of the word—Lebanese cinema started out closely tied to its neighbor’s industry. Although it initially followed the model of Egyptian cinema, the “development of a national character for Lebanese cinema started only in 1975 with the eruption of civil war.”8 The war has shaped moving-image practices in Lebanon in ways that are acute and enduring, but never unidirectional.

The cinematic conjugation of the “present-past” of the war presented a significant obstacle for cinema in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition but has also inflected its relationship to history and memory in a particularly charged way. The Lebanese state’s intentional amnesia regarding the war added to the impossibility of stabilizing such an intensely sectarian sequence of turmoil.9 As a result, it de facto delegated the task of memorialization to other avenues—and cinema has been one of the major avenues in which the war could be taken up and analyzed.10 The strain of sometimes brutally politicized remembering and forgetting is routinely seen in Lebanon’s moving-image culture. According to Norman Saadi Nikro, “[M]emory in Lebanon remains a much contested and conflictual theme of discussion and representation, not only amongst activists but also in respect to works of cultural production (literature and film) emerging from and thematizing the debris of the civil war.”11

Fraught engagements with memory, addressing the lacunae in state and official renderings of history, testimony, trauma, and exile, are all consistent themes in Lebanese cinema and indicative of the shared ecosystem that shaped not just Soueid’s cinematic sensibilities but those of other filmmakers of the same generation such as Maroun Baghdadi and Ziad Doueiri. While there is a divergence between commercial cinema and art cinema, the latter is incredibly diffuse. As the filmmaker and scholar Hady Zaccak notes, it is a cinematic tradition that has been more a story of individual filmmakers than one of cohesive groups or movements.12 There are, however, closer affinities, such as that between Soueid and Ghassan Salhab, who have coauthored a film: Aala kad al shawk—Le Voyage immobile (As Far As Yearning, 2017), a moving polysensory composition that reveals the formal affinities of their individual practices.

The multifaceted engagement with memory and the use of moving-image works as a form of memory making in Lebanese cinema—and in Soueid’s filmmaking—constitute question marks imposed upon the representability of historical memory. Khatib has referenced the potential of cultural practices to address the lacunae in history books that “do not comment on the everydayness of the war experience.”13 Thus with their capacity to attend to a minor scale of experience, cultural practices such as personal filmmaking are able to avoid the false promise of forcing the unassimilable morsels of history into the tidiness of a grand narrative. A consistent concern throughout Soueid’s filmmaking lies with how the larger movements of history are grafted onto the intimate subjectivities of everyday people. He uses his filmmaking as the syncretic ground on which the individual and the collective collide, enmesh, and modify each other, as recorded in the emotional geography of Beirut.

The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer addresses the relationship between the city’s spatial configuration and memory both in terms of the accumulation of historical violence and as a site of encounters, layered over each other over time. The psychogeography of Beirut looms large in Lebanese cinema, as in Lebanese life, wherein the city is “not a mere background space [but] another character with its own story to tell.”14 Soueid has been documenting these stories and changes for much of his career, and as is the also the case for some of his fellow Lebanese artists, this focus has sometimes exercised a corrective function toward the contested imaginaries of a city that has been consistently romanticized from the outside and written over with Orientalist fantasies as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Despite its omnipresence in the country’s filmmaking culture, Beirut has no stable identity. This instability intensifies film’s potential importance in offering even a virtual apprehension of the city’s many forms, which are indeed constantly reinvented cinematically.15

If Soueid’s cinema is locked into a perpetual process of mourning and longing that is attached to the capital the way much of Lebanese cinema is, it is also important to recognize that his cinema can be restless in general. An earlier work, My Heart Beats Only for Her (2009), cycled between Beirut, Hanoi, and Dubai to consider both the contemporary globalization of those cities and the ways in which they coincide with the revolutionary geographies and political energies of the 1970s to present the three cities as containers of conflictual memories and loss.

The emotional geography of Beirut on display in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

The emotional geography of Beirut on display in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

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Soueid’s friends and subjects in Insomnia all express the ways they carry Beirut with them and, even more forcefully, how they cannot ever leave it behind. In Shabaro’s initial appearance, she speaks about having longed to return to the city only to immediately reverse course, eager to leave it again. Later, having obtained her hoped-for approval to emigrate to Canada, she is unsure about actually being able to leave Beirut. One of the other characters, seemingly a graphic artist, who is shown at numerous points drawing planes, notes his nostalgia for how Beirut, and especially Hamra Street, used to be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hamra Street was the site of a vibrant intellectual and artistic social life gathered in its bustling cafés, thriving cinemas and performance venues, elite shopping and restaurants, which drew tourists from the world over. A pervasive nostalgia haunts Soueid’s eighteen years of footage, rendering it as a capacious historical gloss, having passed through the political upheavals of the early 2010s and the crisis of the Lebanese economy since 2019.

However, any sense of nostalgic melancholy was shattered anew by the horrific explosion that took place in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. Thus indexed, The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer has some of the qualities of a rubble film—showing a maimed city as a wounded space, on which is inscribed a national history. Indeed, the second image in the film shows a man climbing across a pile of building debris. Comparing Soueid’s earlier Civil War Trilogy to the city itself, Laura U. Marks writes that Beirut “is already performing a psychoanalysis.”16 The particular historical record that these ruins represent is one that is not evidently legible but demands the dynamism and irresolution of continual interpretation. A crucial aspect here is also the fact that the ruins are not in a fixed state. While it may be called rebuilding or repair, their effective erasure through the state’s pairing of enforced nonremembrance and reconstruction jolts the representational terrain of filmmaking. Soueid’s elegiac tones govern the mapping of an unstable, layered space of materiality and memory, organized through emotional networks of loss.

In his book Ya Fouadi: A Chronicle of Beirut’s Late Movie Theatres (1996), Soueid offered a cataloguing of the vibrant film culture he knew in his youth. The charged terrain of Beirut—as a place of remembering as well as forgetting—functions in the book, as in his films, in conjunction with a longing for an earlier cinematic culture. More than two decades later, this same sentiment becomes manifest visually in Insomnia through an image of the evidently abandoned Commodore Cinema, over which a voice-over says: “You’re leaving, why are you leaving?”

Later, Soueid laments: “I am sad that cinema as I first learned it and practiced it is gone. I can still flip through books and newspapers, but there no longer is a Moviola on which I can place a reel, pull out a filmstrip, to cut and edit by hand.” Soueid’s nostalgia is also applied to the sense of a loss of the haptic dimension of cinema:

The Moviola disappeared and the sense of touch moved from cinema to the telephone. Now the image is a memory erasing another memory. The explosion of the image, they say. The image is everywhere but cannot be touched.

The notion of the image itself as memory, with constant threats of being overwritten, constitutes a fear of a virtual remove that collides powerfully with Soueid’s cinema of proximity, constantly attempting to bridge those distances with emotional exuberance even as his filmmaking has by necessity been rendered through video formats.

While Insomnia could register as variably as chaotic self-indulgence or acutely perceptive mosaic, it unquestionably emerges from an unrelenting passion for cinema. Soueid’s imaginary is not concerned only with Beirut or Moviolas, though. The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer is also encoded with allusions to classical Hollywood cinema. When Shabaro enters a shop to buy an umbrella, she is accompanied by Nora Desmond’s famous lines “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Samra, seen for the first time outside of his car sitting in a chair recounting a story, is positioned next to a poster of Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry, 1978) and later appears seated in a similar context, this time next to a poster of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). In one of the last clips, a man is shown jumping into a pool as the audio from On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) plays, cutting away from Marlon Brando’s speech right before its most recognizable line: “You was my brother, Charlie. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit…. You don’t understand. I coulda had class.”

For all Soueid’s studied, even relentless, references to cinema in this film and throughout his filmography, there is a total lack of preciousness. While the films mentioned in Insomnia are those that influenced Soueid’s early years and clearly have a continuing hold, his cinematic references are evidence of the cosmopolitanism of cultural forces in Beirut and the indiscriminate voracity of his cinephilia.17 His Tango of Yearning (1998) opens with an intertitle with a prayer from the poet of slow cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky: “Save me, Lord, from losing everything.” Arguably, Soueid’s cinema of devout cataloguing staves off exactly this fear.

Finally, some of the last words heard in Insomnia are those that accompany a shot out of a plane window: the famous closing lines of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). While the audio sample eventually becomes indecipherably interwoven with the film’s own voice-over, its last clear words are: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have … we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” A nod to one of the many filmmaking traditions that formed Soueid and his generation, these references to so many touchstones of American cinema serve to establish his traditional cinephilic credentials, but embellished with a mischievous pastiche that places his film within a wider global, polytemporal visual landscape.

The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer is in many ways a performance of Soueid’s feverish devotion to cinema. Opening with Shabaro raising the blinds on a window—a symbolic transition from darkness to light, which, if pressed metaphorically, could also connote the movement of a camera shutter or recall the famed scene from The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)—the narrative voice-over’s first words are: “In the beginning was the image.” He repeats this sentence a few minutes later and again closer to the film’s ending. For Soueid, all begins and ends in cinematic dedication.

There is a self-conscious aspect to Insomnia as Soueid folds references to his own production and process into the finished work. Littered with musings on the relationship between cinema and reality, despite his track record of generative disinterest and contestation of such divisions, it also offers doses of insight into his method. Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” plays for a few seconds alongside a pensive point-of-view shot overlooking a body of water. A voice-over adds: “As is my habit, I drift. I walk and I drift. I sit and I drift.” Drifting is an apt framing for Soueid’s wandering approach to constructing this film out of loose fragments gathered over a long time. Numerous metacinematic comments inflect the film itself, its drawn-out process, and almost fated origins.

The bedtime stories in Insomnia echo his earlier themes: one told by Samra concerns a clearly idealized woman called Camelia who is much sought after by many suitors before agreeing to marry one, in a love story of unrequited feelings and yearning. When, in their one-on-one interview setup, Shabaro suggests, “Maybe you’re confusing real life with the film,” Soueid immediately responds, “It’s true, I don’t separate film from real life.”

Tamer El Said, another of his friend-collaborators, who appears several times in the film, is an Egyptian filmmaker who recounts his emotional encounter with Soad Hosny while he was making a student film. He expresses a similar position and serves as an avatar for Soueid’s own obsession with the actress. Sitting on a white duvet, he says: “Everything I said to you is true, but sometimes I feel it’s more like cinema. Get it? In other words I don’t know anymore where the film starts and real life ends. Like the door that you were telling me about, the door in between that transition…. So I am living all the time between those two riverbanks and going through the door. Between the world and films, between cinema and reality. Sometimes I feel the opposite.”

Soueid interviews his friend Mirna Shabaro. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

Soueid interviews his friend Mirna Shabaro. Courtesy of Mohamed Soueid.

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Insomnia, with its somnambular framing, presents cinema as both portal and danger. The conceit of a filmmaker trying to fall asleep at the wheel is a deliciously ironic twist on those who, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, welcome their films being used as an entry into sleep.18 At one point, the voice-over comments: “A film is like a person, it needs to be cajoled and loved. A film grows jealous of what’s inside it, whether it’s a kiss, a hug, or two people sleeping together.” This notion of an autonomous filmic object and dormant cineast brings out a Pirandello-esque quality in Soueid’s self-referential cinema: one can imagine not only his real friends but also phantom characters such as Camelia freely roving across his cinema, independently generating the film so that he may rest.

One of the exceptions to Soueid’s cinematic circuitry of familiar characters and friends is psychologist Ola Ataya, who is subjected to a series of questions about a variety of clinical conditions. She cautions him against the saturation of virtual images and the risk of being so seductive as to draw people away from their “real” lives. Soueid’s response is to intentionally collapse those spheres. Insomnia is sketched as a sort of curative process. Over a shot of some birds and a body of water, a voice-over announces that “since physiotherapy is the best treatment for clots and calcification, then the best treatment for an unemployed film director is to train his eyes.” There is a solemn aspect to Insomnia’s approach to the curative possibilities of cinema. The stakes of healing for Beirut’s wounded history and the haunting of the civil war take on an additional dimension when Nadim Jarjoura—a friend, journalist, and film critic—is interviewed leaning against a terrace railing. He applies his almost hypochondriac preoccupation with bodily ailments to the city itself: “Let me talk, if I may, more about the city than the country. I feel it has no soul. I don’t know if it has bones. Maybe … maybe if the country’s bones are fixed, if they are tightened, if they get massages and curative exercises, then it could regain its soul, and become a city again.”

Identifying a parallelism between urban spaces and biological bodies is hardly a new activity. The famed and sometimes politically rancid French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s notion for the utopic “Ville Radieuse,” which was never completed but recorded in a 1935 publication of the same name, saw the body as the ideal foundation for designing a city space.19 In “Bodies-Cities,” the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz writes persuasively of a co-constitutive relationship between the two, framed as “an interface” and proposing “a model of the relations between bodies and cities that sees them, not as megalithic total entities, but as assemblages or collections of parts, capable of crossing the thresholds between substances to form linkages.”20

The psychologist Ola Ataya in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer.

The psychologist Ola Ataya in The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer.

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A somatic approach to the city and urban anatomies of Beirut identifies it as a living, changing body that always keeps the score in some way. That approach not only affects the city and its inhabitants as discrete entities, but modulates the relationship between them. Writing about the corpse as an entry point for how the patterns of mourning function in Lebanon, and the plural temporal structures at play, writer, artist, and scholar Walid Sadek has written that “the presence of the corpse marks a refusal to part with what, in certain situations, constitutes the only remaining evidence of violence, a refusal to allow for indifference, or the feigned amnesia that holds sway when the body is surrendered to inhumation.”21 His analysis meshes well with anthropologist Mark Ryan Westmoreland’s framing: “faced with all these violent forms of disappearance Lebanese experimental documentary has endeavored to resurrect these latent bodies.”22

Cinema as a technology has a unique capacity to archive and mediate this reciprocal relationship. Through an anthropomorphic framing, the notion of reconstruction from a ruinous state becomes more complicated. If the city is seen as a corpus and not a machine, it cannot be returned to any sort of clean, blank state. In the absence of the sorts of reckonings with these events that might be marked in history books, state policies, and public discourse, the removal of their traces in the ruins themselves takes on a more sinister inflection. In his discussion of the function of experimental documentaries in Lebanon, Westmoreland cites the writing of Lebanese artist Jalal Toufic, whose essay “Ruins” addresses “the massive reconstruction of Beirut’s Central District and its prerequisite bulldozing of much of downtown.”23 Toufic calls this destruction “sacrilegious because of the brutal unawareness it betrays of the different space and time ruins contain … the war on the traces of the war is part of the traces of the war, hence signals that the war is continuing.”24

When reconstruction is a process of concealing what was never looked at in the face, it amounts to a bandage on a severed limb. The city as a wounded body is inadequately attended to by the state’s quick fixes, which means that what cinema could provide is an extended cure—one that is not easy, not linear, not guaranteed, and will never be able to succeed, but also makes no pretense of trying to return the city to some false stabilized idea of a “before.”

Considering the Lebanese state’s investment in amnesiac policies, paired with the physical reconstruction of Beirut, the essential work of filmmakers like Soueid is perhaps to reconstruct everything else. There is a need to enact the slow, inexact process of assembling a vital historical record along with a present-tense dynamic imaginary—maybe not quite to move forward, but at least not to remain entirely stuck. Cinema has a vast archiving, psychoanalytic, archeological, and curative potential in being able to address chronic and ever-changing ailments. Destruction can reify the idea of a preceding whole, distracting from the fact that even a demarcation such as “before” or “after” the war is temporary and tenuously held, while the problem with the mechanics of nostalgia can be that they try to fix in place something that is always—horribly and beautifully—in flux. Events and experiences are recorded in images that are themselves wounded, gnawed at by time, trauma, and displacements.

Under the pretext of curing his insomnia, Soueid offers up a film that is a passionate, giddy acceptance of never being cured of the affliction of cinephilia. The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer delves into the function of cinema in the aftermath of war by constructing a film characterized by storytelling that allows for a process of both witnessing and working through. His cinema acts as a shock absorber.

In the schema of cinema as a technology of testimony, Soueid’s film would be a chatty witness with a wandering eye. He artfully stages the debris of a layered psychogeography that operates through a dialectic of remembering and forgetting. The oneiric topography that permits Soueid to approach Beirut as a palimpsest also points to the imaginative flexibility with which Lebanese cinema as a whole takes on a historically inflected task of reassembly, not as ex post facto closure but as continual processing in the face of the battering of ongoing violence. It is also a cinema of individual excavation, opening a way to explore identities not shaped by state policies.

Aside from Soueid’s circle of friends and coconspirators, Leonard Cohen is a reliable presence throughout the film. Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” from Various Positions (1984), is passed between several of the film’s characters in a sort of sonic relay—singing it a cappella, solo, and in an informal chorus. Toward the end of Insomnia, the narration penned by Soueid and delivered by Samra returns to Cohen: “In one of his last songs, Leonard Cohen said that he wanted to go traveling light. A few days later, he passed away. He traveled light.”

Soueid’s passion for gathering snippets from friends and samples from films leaves him ultimately disinterested in having even the weightier historical significance of his practice coalesce into a hermetically sealed, permanent record. Souied’s sensitivity to the micro movements of history comprises interruptive interludes, exercises in intermediacy, and a nonmonumentalizing welcome for the ephemerality of such gestures. The architectonics of memory in his latest documentary are alive with the affective force of friendships shaped by shared recollections, disappearances, and returns. In Soueid’s hands, memory is material—necessary, yet always temporary.


The comparison was suggested by Mohamed Soueid during a virtual introduction for a screening of The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on September 1, 2021.


Mohamed Soueid, “Mohamed Soueid in Conversation with Giovanni Vimercati,” Vimeo, March 2, 2022,




Lina Khatib, Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008), 188.


Ghada Sayegh, “Images d’après: L’espace-temps de la guerre dans le cinéma au Liban, du ‘Nouveau cinéma libanais’ (1975) aux pratiques artistiques contemporaines (de 1990 à nos jours)” (PhD diss., Université Paris X—Nanterre, 2013),


Michel Tabet, “Le documentaire libanais contemporain à travers l’étude de trois films sur l’identité, la nation et la transmission,” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, December 17, 2013,


Soueid, “Mohamed Soueid in Conversation.”


Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999), 30.


Sabine Salhab, “Esthétique de la ‘ligne verte’ dans le cinéma libanais de la guerre civile à nos jours,” Les Cahiers de l’Orient, no. 106 (2012): 75–89,


Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy, eds., The Social Life of Memory: Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 56.


Nikro and Hegasy, 17–18.


Hady Zaccak, Le cinéma libanais: Itinéraire d’un cinéma vers l’inconnu (1929–1996) (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1997), 179.


Khatib, Lebanese Cinema, xvii.


Khatib, 60.


Elie Yazbek, Regards sur le cinéma libanais (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012), 23, 28.


Laura U. Marks, Hanan Al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 84.


Mohamed Soueid, email message to author, June 8, 2022.


Dennis Zhou, “Apichatpong the Memorious: History’s Sleepwalkers Awake in Memoria,” The Baffler, March 9, 2022,


Le Corbusier, La ville radieuse: Éléments d’une doctrine d’urbanisme pour l’équipement de la civilisation machiniste (Boulogne: Ed. de l’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, 1935).


Elizabeth Grosz, “Bodies-Cities,” in Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, 381–87 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), 385.


Walid Sadek, “In the Presence of the Corpse,” Third Text 26, no. 4 (2012): 479–89,


Mark Westmoreland, “Crisis of Representation: Experimental Documentary in Postwar Lebanon” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2008), 244.


Westmoreland, 241.


Jalal Toufic, “Ruins,” in We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask (Montreal: Atlas Group with the Ellen Art Gallery of Concordia University, 2006), 7–16.