Recalling two strikes and a martyr

BEIRUT: “If I tell the story again, will it make any difference?” It’s a sentiment that may occur to any filmmaker making historical documentary. When this question flashes on screen partway through the doc “A Feeling Greater Than Love,” it’s uncertain whether the filmmaker is addressing the audience or herself.Mary Jirmanus Saba’s debut feature-length film focuses on Lebanon’s social and political history in the 1970s. In this, it’s like dozens of docs made in recent decades. Unlike nearly all of them, “A Feeling Greater Than Love” is only peripherally concerned with the country’s history of sectarian civil conflict.

The film re-examines the secular political unrest – specifically politicized trade union activity – that was later superseded by civil war, which (like the society it played upon) came to look increasingly sectarian.

She’s chosen two specific strikes. The first was tobacco farmers’ 1973 action against the Tobacco Regie (the French-created, Lebanese-run institution that monopolized tobacco purchase, processing and resale).

The other was the 1972 strike against Ghandour, a Lebanese sweets manufacturer.

In both cases the state was prompted to deploy the security services to suppress the strikes, resulting in civilian deaths.

To put a human face on this shared narrative, Jirmanus Saba highlights the figure of Fatima Khawaja – a young woman from the tobacco-growing regions of south Lebanon who’d moved to Beirut and was employed at a Ghandour plant when she was shot and killed during the 1972 strike.

Outside scholarly circles, Lebanon’s trade union history is all but forgotten alongside tales of Phalange-PLO conflict, sectarian atrocity and Israeli intervention that came to dominate media coverage.

To collect the narrative threads of this story, the filmmaker draws upon traces of file footage and still photography from the actions themselves, the institutional history of Lebanon’s Communist Party (which embraced Khawaja as one of its own after her death), as well as a half dozen or so militant and documentary films and features shot in that period.

Since the filmmaker’s research springs from professional activism, historic material is complemented by footage of more recent mobilizations – particularly the 2015 anti- sectarianism marches, prompted by the political class’ inability to dispose of the country’s garbage.

She also spent time with family members who said they remembered Khawaja and filmed the testimonies of a handful of labor activists who worked in the tobacco fields and at the assembly line in the 1970s.

One of the activists was Nadine Acoury. In the movement she’d assumed the nom de guerre “Warde.” Lebanese cinema buffs might recognize her for her role as Zeina, one of two principal characters in Bourhane Alaouie’s poignant 1981 feature “Beyroutou al-Lika” (Beirut Meeting).

While some of the old activists – notably Acoury, now a long-term resident of France, and Saniya, a tobacco grower – retain militant views, others have distanced themselves from politics.

Ahmad Choulan, a Ghandour union organizer who says he was refused factory work after the company sacked him, grins that he became an organizer to meet girls.

Hajje Khadra – a well-spoken rural activist in the early 1970s, renowned for disarming a soldier – no longer recognizes herself in the archival footage the filmmaker shows her family.

For history buffs, especially those with an interest in labor history – or in the state we’re in today, for that matter – “A Feeling” is an engaging piece of documentary research.

It’s a raw sort of engagement. Though much of the footage is intriguing, there is little effort to aestheticize the film language.

It’s also restless.

The dearth of cinematic pauses – to admire tobacco fields or the postindustrial shrine erected where the Ghandour factory once stood – keeps the audience busy for the film’s entire 90-odd minutes.

The main obstacle “A Feeling” poses to audiences today is its militant subject matter. Skepticism of political ideology (secular political ideology, anyway) is our default setting nowadays. Similar feelings mark popular attitudes toward mass political mobilization. Any optimism born of the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011 was throttled by the blood, security chaos and state repression that later unfolded.

Watching politically engaged documentary can be taxing for cinemagoers in search of escapist diversion but – spare as the film’s aesthetic is – “A Feeling” is not itself a militant film.

Jirmanus Saba appears to have absorbed contemporary skepticism but – ballasted, perhaps, by the self-evident economic inequalities of late capitalism and state negligence – she’s done so without jettisoning her optimism that alternative forms of popular activism are possible and needed.

The militant cinema her film samples – work by the late Christian Ghazi and Masao Adachi, for instance, and more accessible docs by Jocelyne Saab and the late Maroun Baghdadi – may be hard for some audiences to take seriously today, but her own film’s language is more detached.

Using 1970s-era footage without comment, Jirmanus Saba allows audiences to see it as period decor, if they choose.

One clip, meant to highlight Lebanese sympathy for the Palestinian struggle, also betrays the mundane patriarchy of much left-nationalist sentiment, lending some comedy to the proceedings.

The filmmakers’ sober distance from her source materials is also evident in her treatment of her living informants. After sharing their memories individually, the film’s cast is assembled in south Lebanon to retell the story of the Ghandour strike together. The longer the aging activists talk, the more they disagree – especially in their analysis of why things turned out as they did.

While Acoury blames the Communist Action Party for abandoning the workers after 1973, some shrug that the Marxist premises of the party were simply wrong. Others suggest sectarian identity was already more important to workers than class.

More perplexing is the true identity of Khawaja. The party and press documented her as a “martyr” of the Ghandour strike. For their part, family members insist she was an innocent victim of a stray bullet – though the two accounts of her that arise from family members do differ in significant detail.

By embracing the self-interested, frequently contradictory, testimonies of her various sources, the filmmaker nods to the element of contingency in what we do.

She hasn’t abandoned moving beyond cinema, asking in another intertitle, “How else can we make something new?”

“A Feeling Greater Than Love” screens April 13 and April 16-18 at Metropolis-Sofil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2018, on page 16.




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