It is more than two years since the Beirut port explosion.
The cause of the blast is clear.
On August 4, 2020, a fire broke out at the port, where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were improperly stored. A highly combustible chemical used commonly in fertilisers, the ammonium nitrate ignited and produced one of the largest and most catastrophic non-nuclear blasts in history.
More than 200 people were killed and 7,000 injured. The blast also left 300,000 homeless as it devastated swathes of residential and commercial districts in the Lebanese capital, which had already been in the throes of an economic breakdown.
What is not clear, is why was it allowed to happen and who is responsible?
Since the incident, filmmaker Fahed Abu Salah says it has come to symbolise the corruption and negligence of the Lebanese government, as well as a lack of accountability in relation to the tragedy, which is causing an indefinite strain on the healing process.
“The only thing that has changed is the buildings,” he says. “The new paint, the new glass panes. But everything is still there. People are still suffering psychologically from the event.”
Abu Salah’s film Beirut After the Blast aims to focus on this agonising stasis. The 50-minute documentary is produced by the NFT-backed crowdfunding platform MContent. It was filmed over the course of 50 days and features interviews with several people affected by the blast as well as with activists and lawyers trying to secure justice for the victims.
A shorter director’s cut of the documentary premiered at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Dubai International Financial Centre on Thursday. The screening took place in the metaverse, with audience members accessing a virtual cinema through VR headsets. The full version of the film was released on the MContent streaming platform on Friday.
“Have you seen those movies where everything just freezes after a blast? This was exactly what it felt like that day,” Abu Salah says. “Nobody understood what was happening. People were confused. It wasn’t just something that affected a building or two. It affected a whole city.
"The port is located right in the middle of Beirut. The damage was beyond imagination. My son was five years old then, and he was shocked by the sound waves. I told him it was the sound of fireworks and until this day, he hates fireworks. This is only a small example of the trauma that people suffered. People want answers. They want to understand what happened.”
One of the last scenes that Abu Salah filmed for the documentary was merely one month ago, during the two-year memorial of the blast. One of the demands of the victim’s families, Abu Salah says, is to have an international committee investigate the events that led to the blast.
“People are fed up. They want answers,” he says. “Another demand is to consider this a crime against humanity. We wanted this documentary to just remind people that we will never forget this event.”
The documentary, Abu Salah says, aims to show the humanitarian side of the blast and tries not to delve into its political aspects.
“Lebanese politics is complicated and messy," he says. "We had the governor of Beirut state his thoughts and his mind, but that’s it. I want people to see what’s been happening after 24 months. Where are we? What happened to the victims? Is there anyone helping them? What happened in the city?”
Abu Salah says it was also important for him that the documentary makes it to MContent and the “cineverse”, to encourage other Arab filmmakers to make use of the metaverse as well as its crowdfunding potential.
“This technology exists and it isn’t the future, it is now,” he says. “I wanted this to be the first Arabic documentary of its kind on the cineverse and at the same time to show other Arab filmmakers that entering this virtual world is not hard.”
MContent also launched a collection of NFTs after the documentary screening. Titled 961, after Lebanon’s area code, the collection comprises 961 artworks by Lebanese and international artists. The artworks are available to view and purchase through the MContent website. All profits from sales of the NFTs will reportedly be donated to those affected by the blast.