In the wake of renowned directors such as Nadine Labaki for “Capernaüm”, Jury Prize at Cannes, Lebanese auteur cinema is reborn. Talents most often forced into exile, to find funding and escape censorship.
It is a gigantic and strange object which, for more than forty years, has resisted all outrages, war and real estate speculation. A short walk from the city center, in this former Beirut hotspot that has become a rather bland patchwork of renovated buildings, gleaming but deserted luxury boutiques and a massive shopping mall, the carcass of the Dome rises arrogantly and melancholy.
This silhouette of a stranded whale should have been a cinema, the largest and most modern room in the Mediterranean basin, like the Lebanese seventh art which, at the beginning of the 1970s, displayed a dazzling prosperity. Popular melodramas and musicals in the Arabic language then filled the halls, alongside American and European productions, making Lebanon the first territory in the Middle East in terms of cinema attendance.
Permanent political and economic reversals
The civil war, in 1975, interrupted the construction of the Dome, becoming, according to the fighting, a refuge or an improvised bunker for the army, the militias of all stripes and the blue helmets. Since then, there has been talk ten times of demolishing this cumbersome memory but, thanks to the mobilization of associations and above all by reversals of the economic or political situation of which Lebanon is the permanent theater, its flanks riddled with bullet holes continue to taunt the new Beirut of steel and glass.
In the shadow of this imposing metaphor of the country’s contradictions, Lebanese auteur cinema has miraculously survived. For a long time, it was worn by a handful of filmmakers, including Georges Nasser, whose first feature film, Vers l’inconnu?, was selected at Cannes in 1957.
Later, when the time of hostilities ended, others appeared on the international scene, such as Danielle Arbid, the inseparable Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Ziad Doueiri, rewarded in Venice in 2017 for The Insult, twenty years later his smashing West Beirut (À l’abri les enfants), or, of course, Nadine Labaki, the incarnation of current Lebanese cinema with her first three feature films all presented at Cannes.
Mostly multiplexes and blockbusters
A tour de force for the 44-year-old director, whose career began with the production of music videos and commercials in the early 2000s, when Lebanon had practically no production structures.
A decisive meeting with the Franco-Belgian producer Ange-Dominique Toussaint made possible the filming of Caramel, selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in 2007, then of And now, where do we go? (Un Certain regard, 2010) and finally Capharnaüm*, in official competition this year, leaving the Croisette with the Jury Prize. A golden career that allowed him to raise, for his last film, funding of around 4 million dollars, well above the average of most other Lebanese films whose budget is around 750,000 dollars.
Even if the international recognition of these filmmakers has sometimes been accompanied by fine successes at the Lebanese box office, the new theaters in Beirut – multiplexes nestled in the air-conditioned comfort of shopping centers – welcome American blockbusters and comedies more readily. eau de rose and other adaptations of popular local television series produced on an industrial scale.
Hope for an independent film industry
However, in recent years, a young generation of filmmakers, insolent and protesting, has been trying to find a place in the sun by attracting the attention of programmers at all festivals. They are sometimes talented, determined and, above all, more and more numerous. To the point of arousing here the long unthinkable hope of an independent film industry.
Their names are Ely Dagher, winner of the Palme d’or for short films at Cannes with Waves 98
in 2015, Mounia Akl, director of Submarine, a short film selected in a good dozen festivals, or Wissam Charaf, author of Fallen from Heaven, selected for the Association of Independent Cinema (ACID) in 2016. A large sample of this youth will meet in Montpellier, from October 19 to 27, at the Cinemed festival, which devotes a special program to them.
“It’s true that we come across a Lebanese zozo more and more often with his film in the programming of festivals”, smiles producer and distributor Georges Schoucair, bass voice and playboy look. At 50, the boss of Abbout Productions embodies, with his partner Myriam Sassine, this vitality. His office on rue Gouraud, in the heart of Gemmayzeh, an overactive district whose countless bars and restaurants are coming back into fashion these days, receives almost all the projects of young directors in the country.
In less than fifteen years, Abbout has produced films by Ghassan Salhab (The Last Man, 1958, The Valley…) or Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, which have seduced even Catherine Deneuve: the actress has toured with them I want to see, in 2008. It is moreover with the latter, filmmakers but also contemporary artists, that everything began.
Professionalize the production sector
Long before their installations were exhibited in Paris (Jeu de Paume, Center Pompidou…), New York (Guggenheim), San Francisco (SFMoMA) or London (British Museum), before they were awarded the prize Marcel Duchamp, in 2017, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige first turned to cinema.
A cinema often navigating the blurred boundaries between fiction and documentary. “I left Beirut to study in Paris at the School of Audiovisual Production (ESRA), explains Georges Schoucair. I wanted to become a director, but family circumstances led me to work for almost ten years in Lebanon. Then I joined my friends Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on their first project. It was time for me to change direction or drop the cinema. So I produced A Perfect Day. »
Noticed in Locarno, Toronto or Tribeca, the film, released in 2015, launched the career of Georges Schoucair and, above all, convinced him that it was urgent to professionalize the production sector.
“I took this decision because, in 2003, Lebanon was a virgin land. There were directors and a desire for cinema, but few projects and even fewer structures capable of producing them… And it was exhilarating to embark on the adventure. »
A single arthouse room
A pivotal figure in this young cinema, Georges Schoucair also co-directs the Metropolis, the capital’s only arthouse cinema with Hania Mroué, the venue’s founder, former director of Beirut Film Days and tireless promoter of auteur cinema, d wherever he comes from. The elegant economics graduate, born in 1975, the year the war began, is a privileged witness to this evolution.
“I see that, for ten years, there are many subjects of satisfaction, she rejoices. The young generation of Lebanese who want to make films is one of them, even if their inexperience is sometimes a bit scary. In a dozen years, the Metropolis has won over a loyal, attentive public. And to sum up: “There is still a long way to go but, paradoxically, this precarious situation for the cinema, in addition to the modest budgets, encourages young filmmakers to show extraordinary tenacity. They make their film, whatever the circumstances and the obstacles they encounter. »
Hania Mroué has good reason to nurture this optimism. When it created the Metropolis, originally in the popular district of Hamra, the company had all the trappings of the priesthood. “We opened the cinema, with a resumption of Cannes Critics’ Week, in 2006. To be precise, on July 11th. And on the 12th, Israeli bombs fell on Beirut. “ Forced to close the room after two days, Hania Mroué transformed the brand new cinema into a shelter, a sinister summary of a story that goes on and on.
“There were mainly families, and therefore a lot of children,” she says with a smile that comes from afar. “And, as we had to pass the time, we screened films. It was, for all those who were there, a breath of fresh air. Moreover, it taught me that you should never underestimate the ability of young viewers to enjoy films, even if they are not made for children. »
“HERE IN LEBANON, IT IS A PARTICULAR STATE OF MIND THAT IMPLIES BOTH A VERY STRONG DESIRE FOR CINEMA AND THE CERTAINTY THAT EVERYTHING CAN STOP OVERNIGHT. » HANIA MROUÉ, FOUNDER OF THE METROPOLIS, BEIRUT ART AND ESSAY HALL
Since 2008, the Metropolis has moved to Achrafieh, thanks to a partnership with the operating circuit Empire. Here, very close to the sumptuous Sursock Palace, part of which has been transformed into a modern art museum, there are fewer pirate DVD shops than in bustling Hamra.
But for a few dollars, you can get a decent quality copy of just about any movie there. “Just give them the title, come back a little later and the DVD is available,” sighs Hania Mroué. We can console ourselves by thinking that at least the films are seen. It’s like Beirut and Lebanon: here, everything is always a little wild, improvised, ephemeral… It’s a particular state of mind that implies both a very strong desire for cinema and the certainty that everything can stop overnight. »
A future abroad
If the combined efforts of Hania Mroué and Georges Schoucair constitute tangible signs of a form of renaissance, the future of young Lebanese filmmakers is also, for lack of means, outside the country’s borders. Maya de Freige has been the director of the Fondation Liban Cinéma (http://www.fondationlibancinema.org/) since its creation in 2003. The structure, whose vocation is to promote national cinema abroad, can measure the difficulty of exercise.
“We organize writing workshops and calls for tenders for artist residencies in Cannes, Paris, Berlin, Turin. We receive about twenty-five projects each time, a figure that increases year by year. It is a good indicator, but the main problem, of course, is that there is no public funding. The difficulties encountered by the country are such that the authorities, even if they are aware of the dynamism of the sector, do not have the means to grant significant loans. »
“TO FIND FUNDING, IN OTHER WORDS, WESTERN PARTNERS, THE FILMS MUST PLEASE A WESTERN AUDIENCE. » GEORGES SCHOUCAIR, PRODUCER
A little more direct, Georges Schoucair hammers home the same message. “Clearly, there is no money for cinema in Lebanon. With Maya de Freige, we have tried, over the past two years, to convince partners, notably banks, to work with us, but the guarantees offered by the mostly fragile film projects have not convinced many people. This is why we are adopting another strategy by appealing to patronage, as in contemporary art. »
While waiting to measure the results, Georges Schoucair has not let go of his pilgrim’s stick, tirelessly criss-crossing all of Europe in search of co-producers. High precision work, often tedious and full of pitfalls. “To find funding, in other words Western partners, the films must still be able to appeal to a Western audience, he nuances. For Lebanese cinema, which is currently experiencing a form of effervescent adolescence, this is often a brake. »
“For example, I am currently working on two films with diametrically opposed results. The first, The Notebooks, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, raised almost all of the funding
possible. It’s a fiction built on a story that happened to Joana: at the start of the war, she had a friend from whom she was separated and with whom she exchanged entire notebooks of letters and audio cassettes. Gradually, their relationship became more strained and, thirty years later, Joana found this friend who had kept all this material. »
The other project is the story of “a hoodlum from Beirut who comes out of prison and who encounters the worst difficulties in trying to find his life, which is much less interesting. However, producing this film only for Lebanon, where the market is very modest, would not really make sense”.
Wedged between, on the one hand, a narrow domestic market, moreover weighed down by censorship which systematically penalizes films in which the taboo themes of homosexuality and especially religion are profiled, and, on the other hand, the slow co-production process, young Lebanese directors are not discouraged, however, to say the least. Even if exile seems an almost obligatory step.
Mounia Akl, 29, graduated in architecture from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, continued her studies in the United States but in the cinema section. Admitted to the prestigious Columbia University in New York, she was noticed thanks to her graduation short film, Submarine, a wandering in a Beirut in the midst of a waste crisis in 2015, after the closure of the largest landfill in the country. .
“I was very involved in the protest that shook the city at that time,” says the young woman at a café terrace, rue des Martyrs, in Paris. “Beirut was then an open dump, like the confession of the corruption and incompetence of the public authorities. But it’s hard to be Lebanese without being an activist or, at least, being driven by the desire for change. »
Today, like many of her fellow filmmakers, she shares her life between Lebanon and abroad, in this case Paris, where she often spends time at the residence of the Cinéfondation, a breeding ground for young authors under the leadership of the Cannes film festival. “I am currently preparing my first feature film, Costa Brava Lebanon. It is produced by Georges Schoucair, and it will again be about the waste crisis. »
Sometimes tortuous paths
For other young filmmakers, such as Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, also 29, the path is more tortuous. Three years ago, his first feature film, Very Big Shot, burst into a plethora of festivals, pocketing a few awards along the way. It was the story of three Beiruti brothers living off the income of a small pizzeria and a modest drug trade.
Forced to switch to the international deal, they develop a clever strategy: ship the drugs in film reels, objects exempt from airport checks, to a European lab. And, in order not to arouse suspicion, to pretend to shoot a movie. Except that everyone is caught up in the game, carried away by cinema fever…
Three brothers who don’t know much about cinema and who act as a film crew in the permanent semi-chaos of Beirut, it’s not very far from the story of the Bou Chaaya brothers. Lucien, a lawyer in a large international firm, Christian, his twin, a graduate of a hotel and restaurant school in Beirut, and finally Mir-Jean, a year younger, director and screenwriter of the film, have decided to join forces to invest body and soul in the emerging Lebanese cinema industry.
In this last week of August, Christian has reserved a large hotel to celebrate his wedding. Less than an hour from the center of Beirut, the luxurious establishment is nestled in the heart of the mountain, once the scene of bloody clashes between the Druze militias and the Maronite community to which the Bou Chaaya belong. While the preparations for the ceremony are in full swing, all the siblings gathered around a solid mezze.
A first Netflix series in the Middle East
“We work together with great ambitions,” explains Mir-Jean, a huge smoking cigar in hand. Lucien is in charge of the financing, Christian, the technical producer, takes care of all the questions relating to the shooting, and I am the creative part. Christian’s wedding is a brief interlude in a busy schedule. The next day, they will return to Amman and Petra, Jordan, where Mir-Jean is directing the filming of the first Netflix series in the Middle East, Jinn, which is about teenagers and strange phenomena…
This production of the powerful platform is not trivial. Netflix, which produces dozens of films and, above all, series all over the world, pursues a very deliberate strategy of – retaining its subscribers. Its first series in Arabic is not exclusively intended for the growing Middle Eastern market, but it is a strong indicator of its establishment.
For Mir-Jean, who, since working with Anglo-Saxons, prefers to speak English rather than French, to his father’s chagrin, the key words are speed and determination. “It’s a new age,” he prophesied. A favorable period for creation, where it is important to try experiments, think outside the box and not try at all costs to build stories intended for a Western audience. »
Of course, the Netflix series is only the first step in a journey that the three brothers already imagine rich in adventures and even rich in short. “Everything remains to be done,” says Lucien. It’s a booming industry and we want to be in every part of its development. We are already working on producing films from other directors. Lebanese cinema cannot be satisfied with a few brilliant strokes from time to time, being the first Lebanese film to win the Cannes Palme d’Or, the Berlin Golden Bear or the Oscar and then, after , to fall into line… We want it to be all the time! »
“WHERE ARE THE WOODY ALLENS OR WES ANDERSONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST? THEY OBVIOUSLY EXIST, BUT HOW CAN THEY EXPRESS THEMSELVES? WITH THE CURRENT SYSTEM, THEY ARE RISK OF WAITING TO RUN OUT. » LUCIEN BOU CHAAYA
In the sights of the Bou Chaaya brothers, the detection of new talents. “There are some, in their raw state, throughout the region, but they still have to be found,” says the young lawyer. Where are the Woody Allens or the Wes Andersons of the Middle East? They obviously exist, but how can they be allowed to express themselves? With the current system, they risk becoming exhausted by dint of waiting. »
More philosophical, Mounia Akl does not see her comings and goings to the country as a renunciation. On the contrary. “It’s a strange but very strong feeling,” smiles the director. I spend a lot of time out of the country, but the feeling of distance is always fleeting. As if, often leaving Lebanon, I was perpetually casting new eyes on it that brought me closer to it. I know that, in a way, I will never leave him. »