Les États généraux du film documentaire 2017 Doc route: Lebanon

Doc route: Lebanon

“A house of many mansions”: these are the words historian Kamal Salibi used to describe this territory of ten thousand square kilometres inhabited by numerous communities and as many allegiances. The recent history of Lebanon is also that of a whole region, the Middle East. A land of refuge for neighbouring peoples, Lebanon is also a place one leaves. The millions of Lebanese emigrants settled throughout the world attest to this. But in this so small country, paradoxes abound. The armed conflict that broke out in 1975 was the beginning of numerous wars, an imbroglio of internal and external strife that left the country scarred and shapeless.
In 1991 a truce was declared. The warlords of yesterday are today, if not their descendants or subordinates, the guarantors of civil peace. This fragile peace is the pretext used by censors to ban films, as was the case with In this Land Lay Graves of Mine. More than twenty-five years after the end of the fighting, it is still impossible to name those responsible, to count the missing, to map the mass graves or even to declare one’s guilt, to admit being executioner or victim, or both at the same time. Still today, history textbooks skirt around this seventeen-year period. As for cinema, it has been able to find the forms to narrate. But what is there to say when a catastrophe erupts? What is there to film when a war breaks out? Nothing. Everything that will be said, everything that will be filmed will necessarily be done afterwards. And what if that after never comes? And what if Lebanon, endlessly caught up in pockets of violence, was neither quite at war, nor quite at peace, eternally stuck between the two? No doubt the lingering superimpositions in Ghassan Salhab’s (Posthume) – an essay shot after the Israeli aggression of July 2006 – speak truly of this territory constantly vacillating between devastation and reparation.
It is inside this breach that the documentary films presented here have come to exist, materials and forms as different as they are demanding, having in common a tenacious need to register the past within the present. And if “times of war” and “times of peace” are endlessly confused, the filmmakers’ intention is to apprehend “space”. Each film, embodying closed spaces, urban meandering or the transformation of a territory, becomes an attempt to register one’s place in the world, at a time when memory and History are no longer only a matter of heritage but are (re)constructions of the present. Hence it is within a closed space, a reconstitution of the (then) President’s office, that today’s students play the roles of those who participated in the student movements at the American University of Beirut in 1974. Further north, in the city of Tripoli, a young woman films, inside the family cocoon, a father who looks so like Abdel Nasser, at a time when she already knows that she’s going to leave. Elsewhere, in front of a crumbling wall that could be anywhere, a mother poses for a final motionless journey with her filmmaker son, a journey to the other country where he was born in 1958. It is in the empty soundless spaces of the everyday, inhabited by the absence of the father, that another mother is filmed. Her voice reaches us from the past, audio letters on old cassettes recounting the forced migrations of a family from the South, which are those of an entire country. Still in the South, in Surrounded, the filmmaker digs into the past of another absent father, this time for other reasons – the unspeakable story of those men who “collaborated” with Israel. Other voyages still, an Armenian tale that spreads over the entire region, geographies which in their present state recall the past; a complex journey through the public spaces of the Arab World where statues representing political figures become an eloquent interpretation of history; a unique setup where characters are shot within a glass van that both isolates them from and merges them with the city, as they turn into helpless birds of September, vainly trying to fly away.
Some trajectories are more intimate, like that of a young filmmaker, last descendant of his lineage. The spaces of the film unfurl like so many facets of possible or impossible kinship, from a family home on the verge of destruction to an escape to the mountain with one’s father, to the most intimate spaces, where exposure is not only of that which is visible.
In Lebanese documentary, the family portrait is not a strictly narcissistic form but rather a dual observation of love and resentment, guilt and emancipation, individuality and kinship, heritage and transformation. Numerous Lebanese filmmakers have made this gesture: seemingly looking for meaning in a present which endlessly shows its powerlessness, they grab hold of the camera and point it within. They then find themselves facing disillusioned figures that happen to also be bearers of memory: their parents. This phenomenon is too recurring to be eluded and clearly finds its place in our programme. Whether it be present on the screen or absent, the face of a father or mother is as familiar as it is mysterious. In a part of the world where family ties are highly sacrosanct, cinema seems to undertake a double movement of approaching and drawing back, doubtlessly to take a distance necessary in the face of this sometimes asphyxiating love.
In Diaries of a Flying Dog, a young man in his thirties falls victim to a generalized anxiety disorder and notes that it has also affected his dog! It is a fear so paralysing that he is pushed to search its causes in his childhood, education, the civil war… His former teacher suggests: “They ask a child to do things beyond his capabilities, which brings the feeling of always failing to meet expectations. The child never does enough.” It is the filmmaker who then confesses: “They never feel they have accomplished anything, given that the final goal is to free Palestine!”
“Some people have elastic souls to support suffering, others are permeable to life.” This is the way the beautiful and perspicacious dentist describes her patient, a filmmaker who disappeared in mysterious circumstances named Mohamed, and of whom Mohamed Soueid is making a portrait – or is it really a self-portrait? A pioneer of video in Lebanon, Soueid makes his films astride a police enquiry and a session of psychotherapy, using digression/diversion as the only way possible to apprehend the world, or in any case to film it. Film buff, critic, author of essays on film and a novel, he directed from 1998 to 2002 an exhilarating trilogy, three films both insolent and sad: Tango of Yearning, Nightfall and Civil War. These cinematic objects are so many facets of the same playful and despairing character: the filmmaker himself. Hand-stitched, they require spectators to let themselves be carried along and to accept the risk of getting lost. For it is indeed the sense of being lost that Soueid films above anything else, “a loss still alive, palpitating in spite of everything, fully conscious of the decline of things, making it heady”, writes Ghassan Salhab on Nightfall. “Soueid practices cinema, and it makes no difference if it’s video, as an art of editing and editing as an art of circulating intensities. The art of passing from one colour to one intonation of a voice, from a simple camera movement to a musical phrase, from the birth of an emotion to the discovery of a space, from one speed to another. What constitutes the supreme elegance of this film is the rigour which pushes him not to cut, but to change lines, to shift, as soon as one intensity threatens to become localized and to stick to the viewer.”
“I stepped into a garden one night to smell the fragrance of the flowers”, sings the vacillating voice of the mother over her own silent image in 1958. Old love songs, parodied patriotic anthems, revolutionary songs, prayers and chants, scout songs, solemn poems declaimed around a glass of arak, or gravely superimposed over archive images… In these films, oral tradition is not just a question of rhythm, musicality, but it weaves together the multiple layers that accompany the image, mix with it, while language itself is worn out, the silence too full of the unspoken. Songs and poems run through Lebanese documentaries and they are above all materials, passages, braids. They naturally irrigate the films and allow us to weave connections. But they are also, and particularly with Mohamed Soueid, counterpoints to life itself.

Carine Doumit and Christophe Postic

Debates led by Carine Doumit and Christophe Postic.
In the presence of Chaghig Arzoumanian, Reine Mitri, Ghassan Salhab, Mohamed Soueid and Fadi Yeni Turk (to be confirmed).

With support from the Fondation Liban Cinema (Maya de Freige) and the Institut français du Liban (Luciano Rispoli).
Special thanks to Myriam el Hajj (FLC).