Greater than memory: 3 Lebanese filmmakers explore traces of the past in Cairo Cinema Days

What does Lebanon before the civil war mean for the generations born in the middle of the conflict, or after? How did the collective and individual memories of this war construct their sense of identity, and the way they see their present and future? What do they know, and in what way can this knowledge lead to a different kind of awareness, liberating them from the ghosts of fear and discomfort? How can the past be employed to make a statement about the present?

Three documentary films that screened in this year’s edition of Cairo Cinema Days are the result of Lebanese filmmakers’ disparate journeys into the past to grapple with these questions: Siska’s In the ruins of Baalbeck Studios (2017), Rana Eid’s Panoptic (2017) and Mary Jirmanus Saba’s A Feeling Greater Than Love (2017).

Although each film reintroduces an overlooked part from a dark period of Lebanese history from the very personal perspective of its filmmaker with a different narrative style, they all explore innovative methods to represent the past through its traces, at times using archival material in unusual ways to reconstruct the current moment rather than document an earlier time.

The title of Siska’s film pays homage to the first Lebanese talking movie, Julio de Luca’s In the Ruins of Baalbeck (1933). In the Ruins of Baalbeck Studios explores the beginnings of Lebanese cinema through the remains of Baalbeck Studios, which was founded in 1956 and become one of the most prominent production houses in the Arab world during the 1960s. The company’s downward spiral began during the Lebanese Civil War, when it was repeatedly looted and the production of films became sporadic. In 2010, the building of the studio was set to be demolished, and part of its archive was donated to UMAM Documentation and Research, a cultural organization that works towards raising awareness of civil violence and memories of war in Lebanon.

In 2009, Lebanese director Siska started a research project about the amateur practice of analog filmmaking in Lebanon before the war, focusing on a former Kodak laboratory for Super 8 and 16mm films. The project, which culminated in a multimedia presentation, was the reason why Siska was asked by UMAM to work on restoring the archive of the studio, a mission that was never completed due to financial issues and property rights disputes. However, it drove Siska on another quest: to make a film documenting the act of negligence that led to the disintegration of the studio’s archive.

“I found myself in front of nearly 3,500 rolls of 35mm and 16mm film, and I thought that it was not my responsibility to document their contents, but rather to highlight their loss, and those responsible for it,” the director tells Mada Masr. “I wanted to introduce these archives as though they are ruins themselves, not less valuable than the ruins of the Roman temples in Baalbeck.”

In the film’s 48 minutes, we do not see any archival scenes from the company’s film productions. Instead, we roam through the remains of Baalbeck Studio, a white modernist villa located in East Beirut, with its open doors, broken windows and a wild garden, the plants haphazardly taking over the building’s facade.

However, the restoration mission is not the full story behind In the Ruins of Baalbeck Studios. Siska, born Elie Alexandre Habib in Beirut in 1984, is also a street artist who spent many years as a hip-hop and graffiti artist. “Street art is a matter of attitude,” he explains. “To be a street artist is to speak about yourself, about your feelings. To say something personal and to let everyone interpret it in their own way. In all my films, including the latest, there is a personal story.”

The personal story, which does not appear directly in the film but gives it the intensity and intimacy that can be felt throughout, is linked to Siska’s father. “My father was a merchant on Hamra street who lost all his money in the 1960s because of the collapse of Banque Intra, which was the largest financial institution in Lebanon until 1966, and also the biggest funder of Baalbeck Studios,” he recounts.

In the mid 1960s, Yousef Beidas, the bank’s founder, was accused of funding Palestinian resistance groups, and the bank was seized by the authorities. “I feel that, in a way, Baalbeck Studios and I share the same history,” Siska says. “When I was born, my family was poor because of this grand loss, and the legacy of the Baalbeck Studios Company had started to fade, starting with the bank’s collapse and after that because of the civil war, as the Syrian military captured the Baalbeck Studios building and destroyed a part of its archive.”

Among the few interviews in the film is one with Georges Nasser, a pioneer of the Lebanese film industry, despite having directed only three films throughout his career. His film Ila Ayn (Towards the Unknown, 1957) was the first picture to represent Lebanon in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. His 1962 feature Al-Gharib al-Saghir (The Little Stranger) also competed for the Palme d’Or. He was one of Siska’s professors at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. Nasser, who worked closely with Baalbeck Studios for many years, was another motivation for Siska to make the film. “Georges Nasser is one of my idols, and I wanted to make a film about him,” he says. “His era was the most glorious time for Lebanese cinema, and as a teacher and filmmaker he is a phenomenon.”

Through his experimental use of analog filmmaking, Siska takes us to a forgotten era of Lebanese film, shedding light on how the art of cinema was and is perceived and treated by the authorities, and also how parts of history can be erased as a result of willful neglect. “I was born in the middle of the civil war. I never saw Lebanon before the war. There is something I want to know [about this time], that I have to know. Me and my generation. This history is like the temples of Baalbeck, it’s there but it’s in ruins,” Siska says. “My film is a homage to the art of cinema and to the history of its founders in Lebanon.”

In the Ruins of Baalbeck Studios premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) as part of its Forum Expanded program months before it screened in Cairo Cinema Days, but Siska says that showing the film in Cairo has a different kind of significance. “It is very important to screen my film in Egypt because part of the film is about the connection between the Egyptian and the Lebanese film industries,” he says. “For me, screening in Cairo is more important than Cannes.”

In her first feature length documentary Panoptic, Lebanese filmmaker and sound artist Rana Eid sends a poetic letter to both her father, who was a military general, and to Beirut. Although her film is based on her memories from the city’s underground shelters where she hid with her family during the civil war, as well as her relationship with her father, Eid doesn’t use any archival material throughout the film, with the exception of one scene where footage from the war is superimposed on the image of a sunken tank under the sea, barely visible.

Instead, the 79-minute film is made up of several audio-visual layers that thread the past together with the present. Memories of the war and the filmmaker’s childhood are represented through different forms of underground life in today’s Beirut, including detention centers for undocumented foreigners, community churches, old torture facilities and even underground nightclubs. Footage of these haunted spaces is interspersed with panoramic scenes of the city’s bridges, highways and deserted buildings. It is a structure that highlights the paradox of life in the Lebanese capital, between the city’s surface and its subterranean world.

One notable manifestation of this duality can be seen in how a joyous yet somewhat grotesque seeming Lebanese Armed Forces celebration that takes place in the city’s streets during the day contrasts with the heartfelt prayers performed by Ethiopian immigrants in an underground church. Throughout the film, Eid’s voice-over doesn’t reveal any more than the images do, while the layered sound design works as the main protagonist, filling the gaps between the recited text and the visuals.

For Eid, a prolific, award-winning sound designer who’s been working since 2003, sound is the medium of choice when it comes to self-expression. “In our society, where you are not allowed to speak freely or to voice your real opinion, the use of sound is a form of resistance. It is an attempt at liberation.”

The director says the entire construction of Panoptic began with sound. “It all started when I discovered that what I thought was a parking lot turned out to be a front for the underground headquarters of a security building,” she says. “What the people underneath hear from above was the first question that led me to the comprehensive cinematic look at the complex relationship between these two layers of the city.

While writing the script, Eid found herself digging further into her own relationship with her father and her memories from the war. “Although my father passed away and we buried him years ago, I had never been at peace with his being beneath ground, in the same place as all these restless spirits. It was only after I made this film that I could I say I made my reconciliation.”

Eid’s poignant essay film, which won the award for Best Feature-Length Documentary Debut Film at the 2017 Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and was selected to compete in the Locarno Film Festival, was banned from showing in the Beirut Cinema Screenings initiative held in March as part of the 2018 Beirut Cinema Platform. In response, the director uploaded her film on Vimeo, making it temporarily accessible to the public.

“Right now, particularly with the Internet and social media, imageries of the past are everywhere. What is absent is mapping the traces it leaves on our skin, on our soul. On our city and our generation,” Eid concludes. “This is what I am trying to do. This is what we need. To explore our relationship with the past, and how deeply it affects our present.”

Mary Jirmanus Saba’s directorial debut, A Feeling Greater Than Love, deals with two suppressed strikes that took place at a tobacco and a chocolate factory in Lebanon in between 1972 and 1973, before the civil war broke out and erased this social movement from collective memory. Saba reintroduces the events by interviewing a group of workers and political activists who participated in the strikes five decades ago.

Saba’s intention is not to create a docudrama of the strikes, but to explore the failures of the past in light of present mistakes. As eyewitnesses recount the factory strikes, telling the story of the past, the director uses archival footage from militant documentary films that were produced in Lebanon at the start of the war as a means to reflect on the present.

Initially, it was a desire to shed light on the undocumented stories that prompted Saba to think about the project. It was in the wake of the 2011 uprisings that the focus of her project, which was produced over the course of seven years, shifted. “At that time, I discovered that we have plenty of stories represented in many films. The question became how we can open moments of political possibility and sustain them?” Saba said during an interview with Istanbul-based visual artist Merve Ünsal. “Could I make something that could intervene in this political impossibility, and help myself and maybe others imagine what else we might do? How do I relate to the history I am dealing with? I’m trying to respond to that, to our collective history.”

A Feeling Greater Than Love, which won the FIPRESCI International Prize at the Forum section of the 2017 Berlinale, is Saba’s way of examining the destiny of revolutionary possibilities in Lebanon and the Arab world. “Why did the revolution fail? Are we repeating the same gestures of popular movement, and do they bring us closer to justice and equality? Today, what to do with such desire for change and unity?” Saba writes in her director’s statement. By revisiting the past, “the film proceeds as if in a dream, through the memories of (its) main characters, their personal stories of political involvement and disillusionment. An exploration of the past and its traces today in the gestures of everyday life.”

Nahed Nasr 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism