Summer 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. A boat embarks on a besieged Beirut to evacuate foreign nationals. From under the rubble of destroyed buildings, relief workers pull the bodies of the dead. Moving between light and darkness, life and its extinction, bodies redraw the boundaries of other bodies, the smell of death cloaking all.

Credits and information

Filmed & Directed by: Maher abi samra
Editing: Ammar Albeik
Sound Design: Nadim Mishlawi (db studios)
Produced by: Maher Abi Samra
Co-Production: Les Films D'Ici - Serge Lalou

Duration: 10 minutes
Original Language: English
Subtitles Available: Arabic, French
Year of Production: 2007


Merely A Smell received Honorary Mention at the Norwegian Short Film Festival
Jury’s statement:
"The film unravels in a poetic and filmic way the daily work, which has to be done in between the bombings. Few images and even less sound takes us inside of a routine in which in the end the car is always too small to carry so many coffins”.


The international jury of the 13th edition of It's All True - International Documentary Film Festival, held in São Paulo, gave the Award for Best International Short Film award to Merely A Smell, for:

"transmitting, without music or excessive gestures, in 10 minutes and just five shots, the anguish of death .."

Accepting the award, Maher sent the following letter of thanks:

“It was a pleasure to start with for "Merely a Smell" to be selected for the international competition of "It's all true" film , and an added delight for it to receive the Jury's appreciation.

Though unfortunately I am not with you and can't see your faces, your smiles nor your sorrow, I do feel that the Jury's award is a sign that some of the "smell" that penetrates our daily life in the region, as well as the resistance of its people in the search of just paths, has reached through to you. That same smell which I have experienced as early as 1982 with the invasion of Beirut by the Israeli Defence Forces and the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, is one we have been invaded by as early as 1948 when the Palestinian people were colonised and expelled from their land.

The 17 dead, whose smell permeates the film, are from Aynata, a southern Lebanese village and their continued death has little been condemned. At the same moment, the European ship embarks on Beirut to select the few it considers worth of rescue from death and its smell, while the death of all remaining others continues to be an insignificant trivial occurrence. Black and white contrasting colours and distinct sounds were the only manner I could find to express moments such as these; a manner that continues searching for a cinematic language, as opposed to the language of reportage, to convey an experience as deep and personal.

Though geographic space distances us from Brazil and the rest of Latin America, I am sure that we are brought closer by intersections in each of our pursuit of a just paths for the life our societies, and I hope when I join you in future festivals, that we would be much further ahead in such paths.”


Merely a Smell was awarded
The International Jury for Documentary Film award (the Golden Dove) of "The International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film - DOK Leipzig", the largest German and one of the leading international festivals for artistic documentary and animated films.

What the Festival had to say about the film:
"Five shots – one dedication – the rest is your imagination."

"A dead person is a scandal. Many dead people, on the contrary, create a logistics problem. You have to get rid of them, because the dead burried under the ruins of bombarded houses smell badly und endanger the health of those who survived. Naturally, pictures by international news agencies know nothing about this. They simply squish our perception of the never ending catastrophy in the Middle East by providing always same images of always same ambulances surrounded by always same crowds of screaming men, fireing shots from their Kalashnikovs to the sky. Where is the remote control? Great art by Lebanese director Maher Abi Samra – who had already pictured a totally new image of the Palestinian nightmare with his film “Roundabout Shatila” – is the ability to withdraw from superficiality, and place the essence of facts in the foreground In this case: the removal of the dead after a bombardment. Transport of the dead through the ruins of Beirut by night. Loading a lorry with coffins. A glance from the deck of a ship off the coast of Lebanon over a tortured city. A short, but great film."

Read more about the Award Winners here.


ولا شكّ في أن فيلم ماهر أبي سمرا «مجرّد رائحة» الذي ينطلق من جملة لجان جينيه في «4 ساعات في شاتيلا»، هو من أقوى لحظات المهرجان. الفيديو بالأبيض والأسود، يقتصد في اللون، يقتصد في الحركة، يقتصد في الكلام... كأنما ليقول هول المجزرة وفظاعة الحداد. لقطات ثابتة وقليلة، فيها من العنف المضمر، والقهر المبطّن ما يتناقض مع الهدوء الظاهري. أهالي قرية جنوبية يبحثون في الأنقاض. تطلع صرخة ملتاعة من مكان مجهول، يواصل الرجال بحثهم عن الموت. لقطة أخرى لبيروت شبه الممحوّة من البحر، من إحدى السفن الآتية لإجلاء الرعايا الأجانب. «رائحة الموت تطبق على أجسادنا، نصبح أمواتاً أو مشاريع أموات»... ربّما قدّم صاحب «دوّار شاتيلا» هنا الشريط «السياسي» الوحيد ــ بالمعنى الأكمل للكلمة ــ في المهرجان."
بيار أبي صعب، "حكايات فيديو ذاتيّة من حرب تمّوز"، الأخبار ١٦\٤\٢٠٠٧

"... في فيلميه السابقين، «قالت» الصُوَر أشياء كثيرة إلى جانب «الخطاب» الدرامي، بينما في «مجرّد رائحة» احتلّت المشهد كلّه، وتوغّلت في شرايين المتلقّي وروحه إلى لحظة تغييب الفاصل بينهما، فإذا بالمتلقّي يجد نفسه في داخل اللقطة والإطار البصري، وإذا بالمتتاليات الصُوَرية تنفتح على علاقة جديدة بالمتلقّي."
نديم جرجورة، "مـا قالتـه الحـرب بمفرداتهـا الصغيـرة"، السفير ١٧\٤\٢٠٠٧

"The most masterful mingling of political engagement and narrative subversion is "Merely A Smell" by documentarian Maher Abi Samra. [...] The film inverts the television aesthetic to distil war to its basics. Shot in black-and-white, it wrings the scene dry of the vivid colors that are TV's stock-in-trade. Though the tableau would be impossible without television's principal actors - the villains and victims - both are removed from the frame in favor of those working to pick up the pieces."
Jim Quilty; Strange alchemy: devising a language to make art from war in Lebanon - Video Avril's selection of movies from summer of 2006 is more valuable than the sum of its parts. The Daily Star, April 21, 2007

"Maher Abi Samra's "Merely a Smell" presents a minimalist tableau that amplifies the fine line between beauty and horror."
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie; Video art: the next generation that isn't: Hits and misses at Ashkal Alwan's Video Avril showcase. The Daily Star, April 16, 2007