Following the Wires: Conflict and Power Outages in Beirut

By Dr Daniele Rugo (Lecturer in Film at Brunel University London), Dr Maria Kastrinou (Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University London) and Dr Dana Abi Ghanem (researcher at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester)

Combining filmmaking, sociology and anthropology, this project follows the wires that crisscross the skyline and buildings of Beirut to articulate the impacts of electricity disruption on everyday life. The electricity infrastructure and the responses to its failures will serve as a lens to make sense of the lived and material legacy of the conflicts that have affected Beirut.

In the early 1960s, a programme for the universalisation of services and infrastructure – including electricity – began in Lebanon, culminating in the creation of Électricité du Liban in 1964. Since then, violence and political unrest in Lebanon have upset that effort, resulting in the debilitation of services and the prevalence of power outages. Since the civil war (1975) infrastructure provision has been used as a political weapon, resulting in significant disruptions that changed the nature of provision of electricity. The 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war further affected the performance of the utilities: military attacks on power plants and network have further diminished the capacity of power production.

Today, power outages are an inherent part of Lebanese everyday life, with areas experiencing power cuts ranging from 3 hours to more than 12 hours per day. This has led to the emergence of a diverse set of strategies for maintaining desired levels of service, resulting in the growth of an informal network of supply through private generator owners/entrepreneurs (PGEs). The end result is a fragmented system of provision that belies the increasing reliance on electricity services and appliances in homes across the country.

Our research aims to:

  • explore how energy infrastructures are revealing of the obduracy of conflict;
  • investigate informal electricity supply as revealing of the dynamic between State and non-State actors;
  • visualise the impact of energy disruptions on everyday life and on the urban environment.

This work will build on innovative approaches from visual methodologies, ethnography and sociology, and look into how discrepancies in access to energy can be used to articulate the lasting impact of conflicts on everyday lives and the urban environment.

Conducting fieldwork comes with various challenges. Firstly, negotiating access and building rapport with diverse interlocutors that we would like to involve in our project. This is going to be a demanding task — especially considering the use of film in our research. As such, the work will build on the team’s previous research in Beirut, their expertise in the region and local knowledge, as well as on the ability of film to articulate the immediacy and sensorial nature of everyday practices vis-à-vis electricity supply. In some cases, we will need to navigate and manage the bureaucratic lacunae of the Lebanese State, as well as the diverse structures of local municipalities. We hope to turn these challenges into another opportunity to explore the ways in which State and non-State actors manage and regulate energy infrastructures.

Along with more traditional academic outputs, one of the primary outcomes of the project is the production of a feature-length documentary film. Structured around a set of characters and their everyday interactions with the networks of electricity supply, the documentary will pay equal attention to interactions between subjects and to the material infrastructures that are entangled in these interactions. The film will rely on the metaphorical richness of electricity as a symbol of modernity and urbanisation to capture how the disruption of electricity evokes a larger failure.

We aim to have the film screened in Beirut to a diverse audience, including our research participants, as well as architects and urban planners, academics, representatives from government and local authorities, local and international NGOs, and stakeholders from the energy sector.

Following the Wires’ is a project by Daniele Rugo (PI), Dana Abi Ghanem (Co-I) and Maria Kastrinou (Co-I)

Dr Daniele Rugo is Lecturer in Film at Brunel University London. His main research interests are in documentary practice, film-philosophy and world cinema. He is currently exploring the visual cultures of energy, with a specific focus on the interaction between energy infrastructures and landscape. He is the author of two books: Philosophy and the Patience of Film (2016) and Jean-Luc Nancy and the Thinking of Otherness (2013).

Dr Dana Abi Ghanem is a researcher at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester. She is interested in the intersections of technology and society, specifically energy technologies, infrastructure and electricity consumption. Her research engages with scholarship from science and technology studies, sociology, theories of practice, and cultural geography.

Dr Maria Kastrinou is Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University London. Her research focuses on sect and state relations, energy, and Syrian refugees in the Middle East and South-Eastern Mediterranean. She conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Syria and is the author of the recently published book Power, sect and state in Syria.