The New Battles of Lebanese Cinema

The following is a translation of Hugo Lautissier’s article “les nouvelles batailles du cinéma libanais” published on the french edition of Middle East Eye. It was translated by Joey Ayoub and is being published here for educational purposes. Needless to say, this piece reflects the author’s opinion.

Cannes, May 2015. Wearing a suit with a bow-tie, Ely Dagher is giving a press conference in front of a crowd of international journalists. The young Beiruti of 29 years old just went to the Short Film Palme d’Or for his animated film Waves ’98 [Translator’s note: Ely Dagher was interviewed on Hummus For Thought].

“We are really proud of you!”, a euphoric Lebanese journalist yells at him from the crowd. And for good reasons: it’s the first time that this small country reaches the highest distinction since the first election of Georges Nasser for him film Ila Ayn? in 1957.

Has the young generation taken over in this country of cinema where, in 1897, a year after the invention of the seventh art, Alexandre Promio was shooting in Beirut a film on behalf of the Lumière brothers? Regardless, in the past few years Lebanese directors have made their ways to the world’s major international festivals.

These past months have seen Ziad Doueiri win an award in Venice for his film The Insult, and then nominated at the Oscars in the category of best foreign film. They’ve also seen the young Dania Bdeir, 28 years old, and her first short film In White crowned at the international festival of Curtas de Rio de Janeiro, qualifying her for the 2019 Oscars. As for Nadine Labaki, she is currently in competition in Cannes for her new film Capharnaüm.

This success is tied to the slow but sure growth that the Lebanese cinematic industry has seen in recent years, despite the absence of public support.

Between the years 2016 and 2017, the Fondation Liban Cinéma identified 40 Lebanese fims, nineteen of which were played in theaters, compared to just one or two in the early 2000s. The Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) estimated that 32.4 millions USD were invested in 2015 for 31 feature films compared to only 8.8 millions USD for 11 films between 2011 and 2014. The number of films has doubled in a decade, reaching about a hundred theaters while the number of training opportunities has also exploded.

“I’m seeing a lot of young talented directors”, enthuses Myriam Sassine, producer at Abbout Production. “I couldn’t say that ten years ago. There were ten directors and we had to choose three or four. Today it’s completely different. There is a virtuous circle that is favoring talents. It used to be that one had to be crazy to make a film, but it’s become more feasible today.”

One generation, two identities

A year and a half after his Palme D’or, Ely Dagher is at Demo, a cosmopolitan bar in the Christian quarter of Gemmayze. There, filmmakers, freelancers and all types of unemployed European students rub shoulders. He is wearing a bowtie with a brown sweater and a jean jacket.

With a low voice and an impeccable french language, he welcomes the dynanism of the Lebanese seventh art; “A few years ago, there were very few films. Most students that I used to frequent wanted to work in a pub and now work in Dubai. It is no longer a bad word to want to do cinema, even if money is always lacking. We are just starting.”

Waves ’98 revolves around a young man, Omar, wandering in the suburb of Beirut until he stumbles upon a dreamlike world, a metaphor of the bubble in which a segment of the Lebanese youth is evolving.

As most young filmmakers of his generation, Ely Dagher made several back and forths between Lebanon and the West. He did his studies in London and now lives between Bruxelles and Beirut, a dual belonging that feeds his film and his reflection on his country.

“In Beirut, we have a tendency of being disconnected from what happens around us. Weirdly enough, it’s when I’m abroad that I follow what is happening in Lebanon the most. But due to these back and forths, there are times where I have difficulties reconnecting. You go grab a few drinks with friends and at the same time, there is a war that has just started again in Syria, the army is everywhere… This film is born out of a personal approach through which I am trying to find my place in the city.”

In the short film In White, Dania Bdeir, who lives between New York and Beirut, bases herself on a personal experience, the death of her father and his funeral in Lebanon, to ask herself questions regarding the return to one’s origins and the shock this generates.

“Lebanon is a progressive country in many respects, but there are cultural moments, such as marriages and funerals, where everything tilts back towards a traditional direction”.

“Suddenly, it is as if there is a code of conduct that came out of nowhere and that we are supposed to know inside out”, she observes while sitting at a sidewalk cafe. “This feeling of not really belonging to either societies while being a bit in between both, it’s something I strongly feel.”

Lebanese Melancholia

To understand today’s Lebanese cinema, we need to go back in time. Before 1975, Lebanese society, as well as its cinema, was experiencing its golden age. Under the pulse of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egyptian cinema, which had its own golden age until the 1960s, was nationalised in 1963. After that, many filmmakers and stars of the big screen left Egypt for Lebanon.

In Beirut, studios developped and film theaters multiplied. However, it was still far from being Lebanese cinema’s most interesting period.

“It was a golden age in terms of quantity, but catastrophic in terms of quality, a bad copy of what was being done in Egypt until then,” explains Haddy Zaccak, director of many documentaries, professor of cinema at the Saint Joseph University (USJ) of Beirut and author of the reference book ‘Le cinéma libanais: itinéraire d’un cinéma vers l’inconnu’ (Lebanese Cinema: a cinema’s path towards the unknown).

Paradoxically, it is with the war that Lebanese cinema found its identity, led by a new generation of filmmakers such as Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab and Jean Chamoun, each carried by an urgent need to narrate.

The postwar period then gives way to a tormented generation of directors in a city under reconstruction. It’s what Dima El Horr, director of the film ‘Everyday is a Holiday’ (2009) and author of the book ‘Mélancolie libanaise: le cinéma après la guerre civile’ (Lebanese Melancholia: cinema after the civil war) qualifies as ‘wandering cinema’.

“During the war, film characters still had a goal. They were planning their future,” she argues. “We don’t find this dimension after the war: it is the cinema of wandering, like in the film A Perfect Day by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and those of Ghassan Salhab.” [Translator’s note: an essay on A Perfect Day will be published soon on Hummus For Thought].

Ely Dagher has only vague memories of the war: his pregnant mother dragging him to the basement of a building during bombings, and card games by candlelight.

According to him, the new generation of filmmakers evoke the war in a more contextual manner. “But clichés have thick skin. During a projection of my short film last year in Brussels, a woman came to me to tell me that she likes my film but that there wasn’t ‘enough war’. It’s what people expect. I told her that the war was over twenty years ago. But to her, Lebanon is the 1980s. History stops there.” If in the outside world the civil war continues to fascinate people, in Lebanon it remains taboo.

“War is life”

In the documentary Trêve (2015), the young director Myriam El Hajj follows her uncle Riad, owner of a hunting shop. His journeys are defined by the comings and goings of his friends, former comrades-in-arms, and the discussions of the latter on their past 25 years.

It’s a rare utterance in this country often tight-lipped when it comes to evoking the ghosts of the past. Trêve first came out in France, in various festivals, before being screened in Beirut a year and a half later, a date which Myriam El Hajj kept on postponing and for which she waited anxiously.

During the first session, followed by a debate in the presence of the various protagonists of the film, the discussion quickly turned into a confrontation. A section of the room, the older one, took the side of Riad while the other, younger, blamed him for his aggressive past.

“Would you take up arms again if the situation demanded it?” asked a young man. “Without a doubt”, answered Riad, one of whose first lines in the documentary is “war is life”.

“It shows that these types of debates couldn’t yet take place in Lebanon”, Myriam El Hajj reflected some months later. There is a hole between the children of war and former combatants, and no discussions happen in the household. In fact, my parents never speak to me about the war either. And yet, my father took up arms and met my mom on a battlefield. You live in a country that you cannot appropriate, that doesn’t resemble you.”

From his office at Saint Joseph University, located on the infamous green line which separated Muslim neighborhoods from Christian neighborhoods during the civil war, Hady Zaccak saw a generational change. When he started teaching cinema, his students were not interested in the war. They wanted to turn the page.

“But the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict awakened in them the question of ‘what is a war?’ It only lasted 33 days, so what about a fifteen-year-long one? This generation has also realised that the last war wasn’t really over. Especially with the return of personalities and symbols of the Lebanese conflict, which re-emerged in our current political scene. It’s like a remake. We cannot say no to the films of war while war is everywhere. “

Is Lebanese cinema condemned to remain a cinema of memory on which the ghosts of the civil war will continue to roam endlessly? It is already no longer the case. With the international success of the Nadine Labaki’s comedy Caramel (2007), other doors have been opened and, with them, other themes.

The release of Nadim Tabet’s first feature film on the 12th of April, One of these days, which explores the sexuality of Lebanese youth, is already announced as one of the sensations of this year. Last year, it was Wissam Charaf’s absurd feature film Tombé du ciel which was seen as some sort of cinematic UFO.

At 28 years of age, Mounia Akl is one of the leading figures of this new generation. Her last short-film, Submarine, screened in festivals around the world, shows the evacuation of Beirut during the waste crisis of 2015. A handful of Beirutis continue to meet at a bar, the Submarine, in which life continues. [Translator’s note: Mounia Akl was also interviewed on Hummus For Thought.]

“I chose the submarine because it’s buried in a space with no oxygen, while being an air bubble in the middle of nothing”, explains Mounia Akl. “It is often the feeling that we have in Lebanon, to be living in a bubble. We are often drowning in problems, but we always manage to create a bit of life and hope. Lebanon is a film with an absurd humor.”

The waste crisis, which reached its peak in 2015, strongly mobilised the youth of a country which saw a point of no return as well as a metaphor for a political situation in a country ‘governed by trash’, as we often heard during the protests on Riad El-Solh square.

Most of these young directors took part in the protests and supported the Beirut Madinati (Beirut is my city) movement, an apolotical and non-sectarian citizen’s slate which achieved an honorable result in the municipal elections of 2016 in a padlocked political system.

This crisis contributed to having this generation cement itself around common battles and allowed them to renew a political conscience itself subtly feeding current productions. They would nonetheless have to create while avoiding the scissors of censorship which won’t hesitate to crash down on the most ambitious projects.

Submarine was censored when it came out, as well as an additional two feature films since the start of the year (both debut films): Heaven Without People, by the director Lucien Bourjeily and awarded at the festival of Dubai, and Panoptic, by Rana Eid.

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