BEIRUT: “But I’m sure it’ll impact them one way or another, even indirectly. If not ... ” The movement of Ghassan Salhab’s face had stalled some time ago. Now his words drizzled into an indistinct interstellar hiss.
Welcome to Zoom Lebanon.
Salhab is among Lebanon’s more successful and productive art house filmmakers. Earlier this month he was participating in Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubation platform. Dozens of younger filmmakers, from the MENA region and beyond, brought projects to Qumra, with Salhab, Tala Hadid, Talal Derki and Annemarie Jacir serving as mentors.
During the present Zoom-mediated press briefing, Salhab ruminated over how the pandemic year had marked the projects he’d worked with.
“It’s not easy,” his unstuck voice resumed. “Look, we’re talking to each other in a very strange way.” A chuckle emerged from the static. “Zoom you know, it is not so far from the word ‘Zombie.’”
This year Salhab noticed a lot of fragility in the discussions, not only in their projects, but in the filmmakers themselves – one he recognised in himself. It’s not a mentor’s job, he observed, to tell another filmmaker what to do. “For me, the most important thing is to not [work] as if nothing is happening, as if it were just a parenthesis.
“It’s not a parenthesis, this past year. It has impacted our lives, [so] it had to impact not only the movies but the industry.” He paused, then interjected, “but I’m sure it won’t impact anything because, unfortunately, we will go on as if nothing happened. This is us.”
The remark resonated less, perhaps, with the pall of global pandemic that’s blanketed the film industry than with Lebanon’s COVID-infected economic collapse and political paralysis.
“It’s complicated,” Salhab said. Personally, “it didn’t come into my brain to make a film now ... I understand the need some feel to do something about the 4 August [port] explosion. I understand it and at the same time I don’t understand it.
“This isn’t about understanding. It isn’t even about the industry ... I don’t want to sound like the Leftist in the room, but we must remember that the industry is the industry. The market is the market. It eats everything. Even the greatest catastrophe they make money from it. Halleluiah. This is not about cinema. It’s about everything.
“So when people try to make movies in our zone, as if it’s nothing, for me this is weird, because cinema isn’t just telling stories or whatever. It is also about dealing with life.”
Lebanon’s gridlock of local and global crises has made it impossible for many of its citizens to work. In a country without social welfare institutions to offset economic shutdown, that means hunger. Nothing is worst than not being able to feed your family.
For those working in Lebanon’s creative sector, where regional institutions do exist to help offset state negligence, the challenges of 2020 and its aftermath have been different. For Lebanese filmmakers, the object has been to continue and complete projects that have been years in preparation, to work toward new projects, despite everything. Even with institutional support, this requires reserves of optimism.
When Qumra held its sixth edition, March 12-17, it was the second instalment to run since the pandemic drove it online. Of the 48 projects from 21 countries, there are 30 features, six series and 12 shorts. In all, Qumra Projects includes six Lebanese features in various stages of completion, four of which were highlighted in this session.
In Picture Lock, the final stages of post-production, is the narrative feature “The Sea Ahead,” by Ely Dagher (whose “Waves ’98” took Cannes’ Palme d’Or for short film in 2015). “A Road to Damascus,” Meedo Taha’s adaptation of his police procedural of the same title, is in Development. Mounia Akl’s dystopic futurist drama “Costa Brava Lebanon” is a Work-in-Progress. Also in Development is Mahmoud Kaabour’s second feature-length doc “Handala, the Boy Without a Face,” which will track Naji al-Ali’s caricature, which came to personify Palestinian identity around the region and beyond.
In addition, artist Mohamed Berro is developing “TCA186: The Tarmac Year,” a television series set during the the Cold War-era skyjacking craze and located in fictional Strovia, a Soviet-backed island state off the coast of Lebanon. Rawane Nassif is working on an essayistic short film, “Ode to Loneliness.”
Dagher’s “Waves ’98” had participated in Qumra in 2015. He said the online iteration of the incubator was different, but useful.
“I had some great discussions with some sales people,” he said, though “The Sea Ahead” already has a sales agent. “It was more about strategy and how to move forward with the film. For many of us, this is something we don’t know much about. You finish the film. Okay now what? On that level, there were a lot of answers.”
Akl said Qumra fell two months into editing “Costa Brava Lebanon.”
“We finished the second cut, which is still rough but it’s a good cut to show to my editing mentor,” she said. “It’s like ‘Shit, I really wish I could be there,’ but it’s been a very well planned online experience. It’s been great receiving the first feedback on the cut but also first reactions on the 20-minute [clip] that we presented. It’s the first time people outside me and the editors have watched anything, so it’s been nice.
Akl and Dagher shot their films at different stages of Lebanon’s bipolar year.
“Our shoot actually happened in the beginning of the year,” Dagher told The Daily Star. “At that moment there were still a lot of protests still, lots of blocked roads. Logistically it was very complicated. At that moment, we just wanted to be on the streets.
“One day [lead actor Manal Issa] and I met at a protest around noon. We had to shoot at 1pm. I remember driving to the protests and seeing the van with our lighting driving in the opposite direction,” he chuckled. “I knew they were going to the set and here I was driving to a protest.
“It created the sense that, whatever we were doing ... We had to believe that we were doing our share to keep cinema alive, to work for the sake of doing something. The day we finished shooting was the day they announced the first case of COVID-19. The first lockdown was a week later.”
Akl’s shoot was also an intense experience.
“A lot of our anxieties were related to everything but the creative process,” she said. “One day [producer Miriam Sassine] came on set and the line producer told her, ‘Yeah today the scene is not working out so well because it’s taking time for the actors to relax.’ ‘Finally!’ Miriam said, ‘a problem related to the film, not everything that’s happening in the world.’
“We started pre-production on Aug. 3. We were at the office on Aug. 4, talking about how we’re gonna change the world. Then the office collapsed on us.
“Basically we made the film in those two months after the [port] explosion. The highlight was that I felt like this little bubble we created together was very healing,” she said. “It’s like we all needed to be surrounded. We all needed to be doing something. We all needed to have a purpose.
“The downside was that and also the financial collapse, the PTSD, the Israeli drones constantly in the sky, reminding us of those things that we fear and this being the end of the world. There was the pandemic and the fact that we live in a country where we’re very worried if we get sick. The fact that you also have the responsibility of people who are older.
“Of course we created a COVID protocol,” Akl paused. “We had to face the lockdown, that the country had a financial collapse that my producers had to deal with.
“The moments between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ were really pure pleasure. It was our opportunity to escape and just do what we know best. That was precious and I think it helped us in a way that I can’t explain in words, because it helped us heal on some level ... or repress,” she laughed, “one of those two.”
“The explosion was a big blow for everyone,” Dagher recalled. “I stopped editing for a month after that. The film deals a lot with the challenge of always standing between hope and despair, this limbo state that we live in, in fear of the disaster. So when this disaster hit, it was impossible to imagine continuing. Then we pulled it together with the editor and continued because we had to keep going.”
“When I wrote my film,” Akl said, “the story was located in 2030, in a world where the air had become toxic and everyone wore masks and the country was in its lowest state. So when Corona and everything else happened in Lebanon, the movie became one that happens in 2020.
“I’m really excited to see what stories will come after this,” she continued. “Will they be stories that challenge what COVID has taken from us, or will they be stories about what we became during the pandemic? I think COVID made us question our toxic relationship to our environment and the people around us and our resources. Hopefully these will be themes that emerge into future stories.”
For more on Qumra 2021, see https://www.dohafilminstitute.com/qumra/projects