BEIRUT: The 2020 port explosion provoked different reactions in filmmakers. For those who were in the midst of production that August, the blast posed one more challenge, on top of the financial and public health crises.
For many of those who weren’t shooting or in post-production, the conflation of tragedies compelled reflection, not filmmaking. Others were driven to take up their cameras.
The port blast lured Mahmoud Kaabour out of a yearslong silence. In Berlin when the port detonated on Aug. 4, the Beirut-born writer-director said he was back in Lebanon the next day.
From that visit emerged the 13-minute short “My Family and The Explosion.” The film looks in on the Makhloufs, a young middle class family whose plight will likely speak to overseas audiences. (The doc debuted earlier this month on the Dutch broadcaster Humanistische Omroep.)
The principal narrator is Nicole Torbey, a bank employee, whose flat in Mar Mikhael quarter was among the many that were just a few hundred meters from a substantial cache of ammonium nitrate that went up in a massive blast that rocked the city and gutted nearby neighborhoods.
Like other films that have documented this blast, “My Family” is replete with images of ruined buildings, wrecked cars and stunned residents.
Among them is Torbey’s husband Naji, an online fitness instructor, who sustained a substantial head wound when the explosion tore his front door from its hinges and threw it across the room. He’s sometimes visible, unconscious in his hospital bed, while Torbey addresses the camera.
Aside from registering her anxiety at the prospect of losing her husband, the trauma of her 10-year-old Yasmina, and the impossibility of repairing your house during Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis, her narration reflects her wariness of the government and the environment generally.
“We don’t trust them assessing our property,” she says. “They may claim it’s safe when it’s not, or the opposite! ... People keep calling me to buy [our badly damaged car] for cheap. Four calls already! I will decline that sale too.
“I don’t know how we’ll pay for the house repairs. Shall I pray to go for that too? God doesn’t have cash money.”
“My Family” is Kaabour’s first work in eight years. Shot in 2003 (the year the US and its allies invaded Iraq), his debut short “Being Osama” draws upon the testimony of six guys named Osama to examine what it’s like being a Muslim man in Canada in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Six years later Kaabour found success with “Teta Alf Marra,” a mid-length film chronicling the life of his gran, Teta Fatima, as she reflects upon her life, her musician husband (who passed away two decades before) and her own mortality. “Teta” debuted at the former Doha-Tribeca film festival, where it won the audience award, and a handsome purse.
In 2013 Kaabour released his first feature, “Champ of the Camp.” Located in the UAE’s migrant laborer camps, the doc follows a number of competitors in a contest in which South Asian guest workers vie to prove their mastery of Bollywood trivia, and their skill in belting out Bollywood tunes.
The Daily Star reconnected with Kaabour during the Doha Film Institute’s film incubation platform Qumra (March 12-17), where his new feature-length doc project, “Handala, the Boy Without a Face,” is in development.
Naji al-Ali’s cartoon of a scruffy little boy, silently witnessing the latest outrage or absurdity of the Palestinian condition, is said to have inhabited some 40,000 pieces of political caricature. En route he came to personify Palestinian identity around the MENA region and beyond. Kaabour’s film promises to track Handala’s, sometimes incongruous, global proliferation.
“The ‘Handala’ the project is the result of a geeky exercise I’ve been doing for years, collecting the manifestations of the Palestinian illustration I’ve found in country’s around the world,” Kaabour said in a WhatsApp chat. “I ended up with a database that documents more than 100 appearances in such forlorn places as Ferguson, Missouri, the Mediterranean, along a Senegalese highway, and in Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab countries.
“My interest stems from the fact that I myself was a refugee at the age of 10, when my parents and I had to flee to Syria to escape the Lebanese Civil War. Handala himself is forever 10 years old, so in this film I will be weaving his story into mine, and [those of] an entire generation of Arab men and women, who were being uprooted when they were 10 years old.”
After his Qumra sessions, Kaabour was anxious to get back into production.
“I think I was able to tweak my creative a little [during Qumra] and am going full steam into hiring producers out of Europe for the project,” he said. “I hope to enter preproduction as soon as travel eases a little bit and I can start maneuvering.”