The Missing Link Part Two
Lebanese auteur Christian Ghazzi's 1972 film 100 faces in a single day is the fulcrum on which Marwa Arsanios' ongoing project for Ibraaz turns. Following on from Arsanios and curator Cecilia Andersson's Missing Link, for which they interviewed Lebanese filmmaker Ghassan Salhab and actors from the film about the elusive Ghazzi and the importance of the film to the archive of Lebanese cinema, The Missing Link Part Two features interviews conducted by Arsanios with filmmakers Mohamed Souied and Nadim Tabet. Delving deeper into the conditions of avant-garde film production in Lebanon and the wider MENA in the 1970s, The Missing Link Part Two explores Lebanese cinema's ties to French cinema, Ghazzi's influence on Soueid and Tabet's filmmaking practices, and the sense of nostalgia they feel in relation to the strength of political conviction conveyed in 100 faces in a single day.
THE MISSING LINK PART TWO
This is the second part of my research into Christian Ghazzi's film 100 faces in a single day. It was very insightful, especially because it branched out to encompass the history of Beirut's film production since the early 1970s. In fact, talking to Mohamed Soueid was revelatory: from Christian Ghazzi's film, Mohamed led me into the interweaving political and economic conditions of production that were set in Beirut in the 70s, and I followed. He is a filmmaker, writer and historian.
Then, a day later, I met with Nadim Tabet, a young filmmaker and one of the founders of the Né à beyrouth film festival, which he inaugurated in 2001 along with Pierre Sarraf. It was at last summer's edition that I first discovered Christian's film. Actually, I discovered many films through this festival. I remember seeing Jocelyn Saab's 1975 documentary Le liban dans la tourmente (English title, Lebanon in a whirlwind) as well as Maroun Baghdadi's Beirut oh Beirut from the same year.
At that time, they were still using the French Cultural Center on the main Damascus Road as a venue. Perhaps all three of us (Mohamed, Nadim and I) could say we had a longing for the strongly-held beliefs conveyed in Ghazzi's film. Of course, it belongs to its time but it is also capable of moving us still.
There are still many other people to talk to; filmmaker Rania Rafei and actor Jalal el Khoury, who plays a bourgeois in the film, among others. But I guess I will need a Missing Link Three for that.
CONVERSATION WITH MOHAMED SOUEID
I finally met with Mohamed in a café in Hamra. Bread Republic. He is a great storyteller, and it is fascinating listening to him delving into the various histories, interweaving the personal and the political, all the while describing Christian Ghazzi, the man, and how he came to make his film.
I had already seen him presenting in front of a big audience at the Home Works forum last year. He is quite an astonishing orator! I had also watched most of his films. There is always love in them; love for the actors (who could be friends, close friends or just acquaintances), love for the setting, love for the dead, love for storytelling, love for the image, for the movie theatre and for writing.
Love and knowledge, in Mohamed's work, are always linked.
In a post-1990s Beirut, Mohamed dealt with the ruins of an exhausted city, the bankruptcy of ideology, which he once espoused, and a world in pieces, which he tried to pull together and understand in his films. What happened to us? What happened to all that we believed in?
Marwa Arsanios: You were telling me that Christian's story is a bit complicated?
Mohamed Soueid: I used to hear about him. He started being famous at a time known as the 'golden period' for the arts in Lebanon and other Arab states in general. There was a new movement at that time known as 'The current of alternative cinema' and it was pronounced in a decree in Damascus during the festival for young filmmakers in 1972. They made a statement opposing the industry of commercial cinema in favour of a new alternative cinema.
It was not the first attempt to oppose commercial cinema. Before this decree, there was a group called 'The New Cinema', who came out of Egypt in 1962. But their artistic value was somehow lost in the political discourse. They formed in retaliation to the 1967 defeat, and there is also the idea that defeated nations are defeated along with their cultures and that corrupted regimes produce a corrupted cinema. Their main problem was with Egyptian cinema representing a commercial cinema.
I think that Christian's value, at that time, was dismissed and lost in the collectivity of the group. The value of the individual was not as important in relation to the value of the group, as they were all standing behind one single discourse and ideology.
When Ghazzi made 100 faces in a single day, it was something of a golden age for Arab cinema. In that same period, there was Kafr kasem, a film by Lebanese filmmaker Borhan Alawiyeh; from Palestine, Ghaleb Chaath's Al zilal fi el janeb el akhar (in English, The shadows on the other side, 1973); from Egypt, Oghniya ala al mammal (in English, A Song on the Passage, 1972) by Ali Abdel Khalek; and Iraq-born Kais el Zoubeidy also made an adaptation of a book by Hanna Mina.
One could only see these movies in festivals, as they weren't shown in cinemas. I had the chance to see some of them in a cinema in old downtown Beirut, in the Nadi Cinema'e Arabi. But I discovered Christian's film later. I saw it after I began making movies. I loved it more, because I felt that the issues I was working on had already been explored by somebody else, and it was as if a stranger were now part of my life. I liked it all the more for that.
In most of the interviews with him, he talked about politics. But in Rami Sabbagh's documentary, he was talking about something personal. And you could see his fatigue. When you see him, you see that he is a broken man. He is an accumulation of scars and the death of Madonna Ghazzi (his wife) was one of those scars.
She was a great actress, we remember her very well from when we were young; she had her own character. It was like I encountered his films and at the same time I encountered his wounds.
I was working as a journalist at the time. He had a house in Barbour and was living off his job at the radio station Sawt Loubnan el Arabi. I wanted to do an interview with him. It was like mission impossible. I knocked on his door. And someone holding a Kalashnikov opened it!
MA: It wasn't him!
MS: It was him. He felt threatened. But at that time, after the Palestinians left Lebanon in 1982, there were problems between Amal (the second Shi'a party after Hezbollah) and the Communists. Amal took Christian's home and threw him out. He was totally afraid. This was in 1982, it was summer like now. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was making a film for the Popular Front's main leaders. And that he was filming in 8mm, Jean Fevre-style, in the south, and he had chosen the title of the film after a Mahmoud Darwish poem. He never finished the movie, he stayed in the south filming but I remember he was very into the woman he was filming. Anyway, when the Palestinians left, there were a lot of films and negatives that were lost. This was my first impression of him; I felt that he saw the world as black and white.
MA: What do you mean by black and white?
MS: Let's not forget that after the Israeli invasion (in 1982), religious fanaticism was at its peak, there were some small massacres that no one talked about. There was the first migration of Christians during the war from west to east Beirut.
MA: Most of the Christians stayed in west Beirut because they were Communists.
MS: Yes, Communists and followers of the Nationalist Syrian party. And some of them had private interests, Syrian followers.
He didn't see the religious fanaticism; he still believed in a national project. So after that period I used to go to Ouzai/Khaldeh area, to some restaurants where there were singers and that were frequented by high military chiefs from Amal. They would start to shoot in the middle of the night, can you imagine the atmosphere?
MS: And many singers went along with it. There was one singer called Chadia, who Christian married. At that time I tried to reconnect with him, but he was already somewhere else. After that he became a lonely person. If you told him he was lazy, he would say, no, I am being persecuted. I don't know how much he could have produced because many talented people start up with doing one film and then stop.
I think that his beliefs -
MA: Do you mean his political beliefs?
MS: I mean his artistic as well as his political beliefs, created a sort of protection for him and gave him the excuse not to produce anymore. Because, in reality, at that time, a person with leftist beliefs would be censored, crossed out, marginalised. And he gave up the aristocratic part of him. His father was a symbol of the military institution of the political Maronites. He gave up everything. The last time we spoke, he told me that he had found a room next to the Palestinian camp of Rond-point Chatila. He was ready to inhabit the role and wear the cloth of the persecuted.
MA: What other films did he do?
MS: 100 faces in a single day was found in Syria, Christian said there was a second one in Iraq. But it is difficult to find it now, after Saddam I am not sure how to look for it. But maybe it can be found in Germany in the archives of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. Many things could be found in East Germany.
When I saw 100 faces in a single day, I loved it. At that time, it was something special. The sound that is parallel to the image - it was something. The problem of the film now is its demagogy.
MA: But that is its beauty as well.
MS: Yes, that's true.
MA: It is very ideological but …
MS: Yes, it still moves me in a positive way. I think of it whenever I feel that I am giving up and moving towards a language that is very polite or that doesn't try to bother anyone at all.
MA: So you see the special energy of the film?
MS: Yes, of course, for sure. I see that it is avant-garde in relation to the regional productions of that time. But I still don't feel that cinematographic production in the region had yet found its direction.
MA: Do you think this is why he was lost?
MS: If there had been more communication at the time, he could have been in the same league as the nouvelle vague filmmakers. Many Czechoslovakian films fall into that category too.
MA: From his generation?
MS: From his generation, Borhan Alawiyeh, Maroun Baghdadi and Jocelyn Saab had started making films. There was F.N. Georges Chamchoum, who believed that cinema was an industry and liked American films. Jean Chamoun was just starting out. On the commercial side, you had Samir Khoury, Samir Ghosseini and Mohammad Salman.
At that time, Abdel Nasser had nationalised cinema in Egypt and all productions in Lebanon were made through the Egyptians. So these 'alternative' creators had no choice but to work with Syrian producers. Christian worked with the Palestinian resistance and Borhan worked with Syrian producers, as with on Kafr kasem. So in order to be able to work here in Beirut, you had to get funding from Syria. The trend for making films through Fonds Sud Cinéma and the French Ministry of Culture was not set yet. There was some funding from UNESCO, though.
MA: For you, personally, was 100 faces in a single day influential?
MS: Without even watching the film, yes. I read about it and heard about it. One is influenced not just by what one sees only but also what one hears. In that sense, yes, it had a certain influence. Anyway, it was difficult to approach him; he had to test you to see how much of a nationalist you were. Now we say that he is paranoid but in fact he is just carrying the paranoia of all of us. Listen, revolutionaries are like Jesus Christ, but it is important that one finds one's cross.
There is something contradictory in his personality. If you read his poems in French, you can see that it is written in old French. He comes from a very old place, it is as if he is nostalgic for a bygone time but he hides it for the sake of the national project.
MA: Yes, yes! Do you remember those scenes where he portrays the bourgeoisie? He wants to be critical towards them but the atmosphere is so strong, as if it is coming from a place deeply embedded within him.
MS: Yes, of course. There was a very classical and aristocratic side to him, which he rejected. Rather like Luchino Visconti, who was an aristocrat. The denial of this part of him didn't exactly change him. He left this environment but didn't take the positive sides of it.
Maroun Baghdadi once said to me: 'We all are against the bourgeoisie but they want to force you to portray them in film as a lost woman in the pub, because their political opinions are lost.'
Even his marriage to Chadia was proof that he was with the people. His life became like an Egyptian drama.
MA: The idea or ideal of being an artist for him was about denying his class and joining the people in their struggle.
MS: Yes. It was even the case with Jocelyn Saab, who was so proud of relinquishing her father's wealth. Maybe Christian was more honest than the rest because he consented to wear the victim's robe, much like Christ. He won't be happy with me for saying this. But the main problem facing this generation of filmmakers was that when the Palestinians left the country, the production system they had grown used to, collapsed. Those who survived were those who could continue making films after that. For example, Randa Chahal continued to be funded by the Palestinians and the Communists, Jocelyn Saab too. Maroun Baghdadi wanted to get out of this system and he managed to liberate himself from it, but in doing so, caused the Palestinians and leftish funders to brand him a traitor.
MA: Do you think we have the same problem in the funding system now?
MS: I think now it is worse. I know from the people who work in fundraising that if you make your film bilingual, in French and Arabic, you will have a shot at getting funding. The Egyptians were doing the same thing in the 60s. They wanted all productions to be in Egyptian. In the 70s, you could bring an actor from Egypt and make the language of the film Egyptian and get funding. But you couldn't do it in Lebanese; you wouldn't find money for it.
MA: So, the scenario is more adapted to funding now.
MS: The problem is that these films were not shown. Even if they had been, not many people would have gone to see them. That generation was still thinking that the problem lay with production and distribution. They never considered that the problem might be with the audience. We know now that it is the case. The proof is that now there are a lot of experimental films.
MA: Maybe the ideological side of Ghazzi's movie could attract audiences?
MS: Yes, because the audience here is very political. I mean, the Little Red Book and the pictures of Mao Zedong were very popular, maybe they weren't all reading it but even I had a copy. I remember there was a scene in 100 faces in a single day of a man in bed (played by the actor Jalal el Khoury) reading a copy. It creates a link with the audience - visually, that is, I don't mean on an ideological level. And because he is a nationalist and a progressive, the film could be read as a mobilisation call for the people. If you take a film by Ghassan Salhab, one that is not underpinned by political ideology, there is a real audience problem. He has the producer and the distributor but no audience.
Christian didn't have a producer or a distributor and in addition couldn't find a cinema to show his films. So even if one has a producer and a distributor and a cinema, the real question is: what is wrong with the people we are living with?
If our problem with the people we live with is resolved then our problems with the distributors and producers could be resolved too.
MA: What is the problem?
MS: There is a gap. The easy answer would be that people are used to commercial films. But this is too easy. In all countries that have gone through a war, the films that came out of these places built a base for something, an industry, or a movement. That didn't happen here.
Because the problem in the region is that people do not agree on one version of the story or one way of telling history. There is no agreement on the official story. They want to make films without accusations or accountability. It is too consensual. We needed to go through a period of accusations.
If you look at Iranian or Singaporean cinema, you will notice their specificity, in the sense that they have emerged out of their literature, for example. Whereas Lebanese cinema is disconnected from its literature; hence we are disconnected from our own culture. When I interviewed Abbas Kiarostami, he never once referred to Jean Cocteau.
Maybe we don't take things in a simple way. Sometimes you can do great things in a much more simple way.
CONVERSATION WITH NADIM TABET
Nadim is a young, Paris-based filmmaker and organiser of Né à beyrouth, the Lebanese film festival. I have seen many short films by Nadim since the first edition of the festival. His is a visual talent strongly influenced by European cinema.
We met at Demo, a café. He had spent the night before DJing there.
Marwa Arsanios: I wanted to talk to you, not only because you are a filmmaker but also because I discovered Christian's film through you. In fact, the first time I saw it was at Né à beyrouth last summer. I am mostly interested in this strand of experimental cinema, which I guess indirectly inspired many filmmakers and new media artists today.
Nadim Tabet: Yes and I also showed a film called Woman, made by Andrée Sfeir-Semler, a gallerist. It is interesting to watch that as well. It's a 20-minute film that shows scenes of women working in a factory, with sudden inserts of women wearing white dresses and dancing in the fields. I mean, it was at the heart of the feminist discourse in the early 70s, but also interesting in terms of the clear ideological voices of the working class and the bourgeoisie. In that sense it goes back to Ghazzi's dialectical mind.
MA: It is very interesting how these bourgeois kids at that time, coming mainly from Christian families, wanted to deny their backgrounds and join the fedayeen. You see this in Christian's film but also in his life. What do you think?
NT: Yes, exactly … I will look for a copy of Woman for you. Anyway, there wasn't much of this experimental cinema in Lebanon. What could rightly be termed 'experimental cinema' is what we saw in the post-war period in the 90s. Video allowed it to develop.
MA: But what came before the 90s? This is what is interesting to me.
NT: I would say that all that can be called experimental cinema in Lebanon was inspired by the west. I would say it is a Godard film that maybe inspired Mohamed's first video. I mean, maybe not Godard only but western experimental cinema in general.
The problem is that there is no accessible archive of Lebanese cinema and for young people it is difficult. But anyway I think that people like Akram Zaatari and Ghassan Salhab were educated more by international cinema rather than Middle Eastern cinema. Japanese cinema was very strong, as was Asian cinema in general. South American filmmaking, too, was strong, as was Iranian cinema. But there was no Lebanese cinema, it was non-existent.
NT: Maybe for Jocelyn Saab and Mohamed Soueid, Egyptian cinema was important because they know a lot about it. But for me, it was less present. In any case, I don't think that our generation and the one before it watched many Lebanese movies before making films themselves. Now it is changing a bit in terms of diffusion, because we have been working on showing and making accessible those films.
Before, I mentioned a movie that could have influenced me a lot, but never saw it before I started my own career. It is an amazing documentary/essay called Hanin, made in 1982 by Maroun Baghdadi.
MA: In 1982, the Palestinians were already gone. So maybe there was a cut in the funding?
NT: But Baghdadi was already working with the French funders. Films like Jocelyn Saab's Le liban dans la tourmente and Christian Ghazzi's 100 faces in a single day were influential even if I never saw them before I started making work. I think these films were really essential to the development of Lebanese cinema. Have you seen Le liban dans la tourmente?
MA: Yes, I have. It was made in 1975, just months before the eruption of the civil war.
NT: Yes, and I think for example this film was partly funded by the PLO or some kind of leftist party. She is quite biased against the Kataeb party and bourgeoisie.
So I think that these three movies, 100 faces in a single day, Le liban dans la tourmente and Hanin make a strong corpus or base for a Lebanese cinema. And after that you have all the Baghdadi fictions such as the 1982 film The Little Wars and of course, Beirut oh Beirut, which was made in 1975 and is also, in my opinion, a very strong archive of the last images of Beirut before the war.
I think that my generation discovered these films fairly late but maybe Akram, Ghassan and Mohamed had prior knowledge of them.
I think that Christian's film is as mythological as he is. And this is what I like about all these films. For me to really like a film, it has to have something that touches on a truth in a certain way and at the same time touches on a collective imagination. How to move from the postcard fantasy to a moment when something is happening? There is something very melancholic about this film. The image of the beautiful fedayeen, the image of the romantic revolutionary … For me, the important thing is to do something particular or special with these images that are common to everyone. From this real phantasmagoria that is common to everyone, you reach something singular. This is what touches me the most in cinema.
I think that the images of the fedayeen in this movie are very successful, but the presentation of the bourgeoisie is somehow less successful. It is strange, he comes from a very bourgeois world but he never conveys the poetics of this world. He is very much in the offensive towards this class. But the portrayal of the fedayeen, it is really strong!
MA: Maybe he was really living in that world.
NT: Yes, well I think that this was really his environment and he was very critical of the bourgeoisie anyway.
MA: We can see that there is a huge conflict inside him in the movie.
NT: Yes, exactly, not only critical about the bourgeoisie but also attacking it in a very aggressive way.
Ultimately, being a filmmaker is about making films. I mean, it is about the act of making them. It is an act, not a social position. That is sad, perhaps, but it is what I have come to realise. If for ten years you haven't produced any movies, then I am not sure that you can be called a filmmaker.
MA: You mean in relation to Ghazzi?
NT: Maybe it is a bit strong, to say that he is not a filmmaker. But one is only two things: what people say you are and what you really are. Okay, Christian is a filmmaker because he made some films in his life, but Christian isn't a filmmaker because he also spent most of his life not making any films. There is being on the one hand and then there is being in action on the other.
MA: I also believe that it is an everyday act. Not shooting perhaps, but preparing for it. But sometimes you have nothing to say. I prefer silence than speaking just for the sake of speaking.
NT: Some people say they need four years to make a movie, but in these four years one is making it, preparing it. It is not a theoretical question; you need to be producing, especially if you are young.
It is difficult to theorise the present, it is difficult to even talk about the present and it is always easier to talk about the past! But I think that in Lebanon we have too strong a relationship to the past.
Another film that I find really interesting in terms of representation of a certain bourgeoisie is Beirut: The Last Home Movie, by Jennifer Fox. I was telling you that Christian was not successful in representing the bourgeoisie because he was very accusative and critical.
If you study the dominant trends in critical thinking in the 1960s, for example, deconstruction in philosophy and so on, you can see why certain cinematographic languages were born. The sequence of images, for example, in films by Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, is shocking, and when you confront images in such a very rough way they can take on oppositional meanings. The types of deconstruction mechanisms that were used in film in the 60s were dialectical and you see it a lot in Godard's movies from the period, such as Week End or La Chinoise [both made 1967]. And this is a very important aspect of Christian's film. But look at Godard's work since the 90s, it is no longer about the rough editing. If you look at the way the images follow each other, it is very fluid, as if each image is giving birth to the next. No rough confrontations. The images are called to co-exist with each other, not to confront each other anymore. In Christian's films we are still in this confrontational and dialectical way of thinking
MA: It is the ideology of the times
NT: Godard was lucky and continued making movies. Look at how his output has changed since then! The editing has changed because the times have changed. It is softer, more melancholic. Softness implies trying to understand your subject more, in Christian's movies it was more about confronting the subject. There was no attempt at understanding the characters. It wasn't just the images that were confrontational; the sound, too, would come in at certain points to contradict the image.
MA: The scenes where he portrays the bourgeoisie remind me of Luis Buñuel. It's strange to find those scenes funny now. Not that I'm laughing at the artistic and cinematographic language of the film but more at the ideology that it was carrying. He was carrying it in such a heavy way, as if desperately trying to prove that he was pro-fedayeen. But at the same time, I feel a sort of nostalgia for these figures and the intensity of their ideological beliefs. It makes things seem so vivid and alive. It's vibrating, the film is vibrating, and I am somehow nostalgic for that.
NT: Yes, you are right but already in 1972 he had predicted the end of this epoch. He kills his Palestinian at the end. I tried to talk to Christian about that, but anyway he himself doesn't see it as a sort of melancholic poem, he refuses this interpretation. But for me, Christian somehow predicted the end of this epoch in his film. It is very strong, it touched me a lot.
MA: Godard predicted this end also in La Chinoise. One could draw a parallel between them.
NT: There is a 1967 documentary film, called Loin du Vietnam, in which a number of French directors, including Godard, show their sympathies with the North Vietnamese army. Godard treats the subject very well but talks from his own removed perspective, unlike Christian, who directly participated in his fight. Somehow Godard was more conscious of his bourgeois position, he was an intellectual Parisian guy and he never pretended otherwise. Godard's question of how you step into the field of action, how you pass from theory to action and vice versa - well, I suppose it's the question that every thinking person must ask.
Also, what you can see in Christian's movie is a sort of diary, and if you look at certain productions now, you can see this diary style of filmmaking is really strong. So, in some way you can see a direct influence or continuity between Ghazzi's film and production now.
There was a '68 in the theatre in Lebanon, but in cinema it was less apparent. Christian was a rare figure.
MA: I think that the films that were made at that time, regardless of their artistic innovations, have become historical documents. But as for the films that were made during the 2006 war, I am not sure what will remain of them. I mean, there was such a quantity of production!
NT: I don't know what will remain of all that, when you have so many archives … We could think of [the filmmaker] Reneé Vautier, who was in the Algerian war, actually in the field, and who said 'I am in the event'.
MA: It reminds me of Koji Wakamatsu, and the film he made about the Red Army. Anyway, what can a filmmaker do when he gets very close to the terrain? I mean, what does he do other than shoot film?
NT: Yes, there was a time where the terrorist act was difficult to judge. Now, I find it difficult to romanticise such acts. Whereas, for me, the terrorist acts of the 60s seemed necessary.
MA: Maybe because we weren't there and so we idealise such acts as revolutionary?
NT: It's not just us; it was also the intellectuals from that era.
MA: But people who lived during that time maybe didn't idealise it the way that we do now.
NT: In relation to the festival, I think it is important to keep on working and so make up for the lack of imagery; I mean the lack of historical links.
MA: You have the 80s as well, all the action movies that were made back then.
NT: Yes, yes, of course, they were super erotic and sexual. It's funny that now they censor our sex scenes; back then they were so sexual! Oh my god.
You know, by the way, what is great is Mohamed Soueid's movie Nightfall? It portrays the Ghazzi generation 30 years later. You should see it.
MA: I know it …
NT: Or the film My heart beats only for her, where he films his friends that are now working in Dubai.
MA: Yes, it is wonderful.
Coming soon: The Missing Link Part Three