Old stories told by young directors

DOHA: “‘In Vitro’ is about the global apocalypse in the wake of a climate-change disaster,” Larissa Sansour smiles. “It’s set in Bethlehem, where a group of scientists have moved into an underground bunker. Two protagonists discuss a plan to reseed the surface.

“One, the dying leader of the mission, named Dunia [Hiam Abbass], tells the story of her experiences in Palestine in the 1970s.

“Her successor Alia [Maisa Abd Elhadi] eventually learns she’s part of a huge subterranean program devoted to transplanting memories from previous generations.”

The Bethlehem-born artist is well-known for sardonic time-based work that riffs on the Palestinian condition under Israeli occupation.

“In Vitro” is her debut feature, but it’s not her first science fiction. Pieces such as “A Space Exodus” and “The Nation Estate” have wedded Sansour’s concerns to science fiction tropes.

Sansour’s latest contribution to this body of work will be unveiled in May at the Venice Biennale, where she’ll be the Danish pavilion’s featured artist.

“‘In Vitro’ is a sci-fi film about this tension between generations,” she tells The Daily Star. “It discusses the hazy line between personal memory and collective memory, and how much of reality is constructed on myth and how much of it is ‘real.’

“It addresses how trauma is dealt with among the Palestinian diaspora -- though its themes can be understood beyond Palestinian trauma.

“One generation’s source of pain is frequently attached to something that the next generation feels it must move away from.

“That tension is accentuated here in one of the protagonists who’s never known life above ground,” she explains, “and realizes she’s a clone imprinted with the trauma of the generation that lived on the surface.”

Sansour brought “In Vitro” to Qumra, the project incubation platform of the Doha Film Institute, which recently awarded her project a development grant.

Though CGI effects have featured prominently in the artist’s sci-fi-themed art, Sansour says “Qumra has been important because it’s introducing me to a world I’m not a part of.

“This film occupies a problematic niche, at the intersection of art and film. That’s something I want to keep but I can’t make it using arts funding.

“I’d like to explore the same concepts differently than how I treat them in an art video,” she continues, “as part of a narrative.

“The feature will have more of a narrative curve than I’m used to, so it’s been good to network with people from the film industry and understand the challenges I’ll face in raising money.”

Another DFI development grant recipient is Tripoli-born Farah Kassem. Her debut feature is a documentary set in an all-male poetry club in the city in the north of Lebanon, but it too is concerned with intergenerational dialogue.

“We Are Inside,” the film’s working title, is premised on the filmmaker’s decision to move back to her father’s house in Tripoli after more than a decade. Kassem and her father get on well but the half-century of experience separating them does make itself felt.

“Whenever we have a conversation about how I see my life, the city, my political beliefs, the conversation gets heated. He tries his best to avoid this conversation. Sometimes he pretends to have a heart attack.”

After these exchanges, Kassem’s father always offers to read his daughter his latest poem.

“The more he reads his poetry, the more disconnected I feel,” Kassem says. “I find classical Arabic really hard to access and I don’t like his poetry because it romanticizes a certain era, while my generation is trying to move on.”

Then, one day, he invited his daughter to accompany him to a lawyer’s office. There, for 12 years, he and 12 other men have gathered every Monday at 5 p.m. sharp to read and share their own poetry.

“I was mesmerized,” Kassem recalls, “and touched just to see a group of retired men pursuing what’s left of a dream they had when they were young. They all wanted to write poetry but they all needed a job to survive.

“They’re very funny. They always make fun of each other, in a friendly sort of way. ... It’s very vibrant. Between poems, there is amazing conversation. Some of them wonder why, as poets, they can’t reflect what’s happening in society today. They feel they’ve failed in that.

“Others say, ‘No. that’s not our job. ... The moment people understand what we’re trying to say is the moment our poetry fails!’”

Kassem’s film will center on her decision to join the poetry club, hoping to have a conversation with her father and his poetry -- as well as formal Arabic and the city of Tripoli itself, which has undergone radical changes in her father’s lifetime.

“His generation was so political. Then, with the Civil War, the Syrian occupation and the Islamic radicalization, the city grew more conservative. His generation became afraid to express their opinions in public. My generation inherited this fear of being political in any way.”

“We Are Inside” had already attracted important backers before receiving its DFI grant.

It was nominated for the film prize of Germany’s Robert Bosch Foundation, won prizes at Cairo Film Connection and Dok Leipzig’s co-production markets, and Chicken and Egg, a U.S. fund and lab supporting women nonfiction filmmakers.

Al-Jazeera Documentary will co-produce and broadcast the film once it has finished its tour of festivals and cinemas.

“We also received a $10,000 grant from the Lebanese Culture Ministry,” producer Cynthia Choucair says with a smile.

“We have half the budget and are looking for co-producers.”

Kassem’s is one of two Lebanese documentary projects at Qumra 2019, the other being Reine Mitri’s “Children of the Famine.”

Mitri’s films are concerned with personal and collective memory.

Her new project examines the 1915-18 famine that devastated what was then the Mutasarrifiyya of Mount Lebanon, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead in its wake.

The film contends that the famine was integral to the formation of Greater Lebanon -- and thus the Lebanese Republic.

“Today there is no memorial or national day for these dead,” Mitri writes. “Why has the memory of this famine been excluded from official history?”

“I go from there to talk about the crisis of history-writing in Lebanon -- how it has been governed by the very sensitive relations between communities,” Mitri tells The Daily Star.

“The film will also discuss identity and the relationships among the communities today, after a hundred years together.

“It is also my own search for identity, because I constantly suffer from living in this conflict of identity. ... World War I ended for the fighting powers but it didn’t end ... for Palestine, for Syria, for Iraq, for Lebanon. We are still living its repercussions today.”

For archival material, Mitri’s film will principally draw on a series of 22 famine-era photos from the collection of Brahim Kanaan.

Further archival material documents the creation of the Mutasarrifiyya and the Lebanese Republic as well as the violent clashes that mark the history of Greater Lebanon.

The archival material will be supplemented by Mitri’s footage of villages abandoned during the famine and interviews with historians and political writers as well as elderly people from villages where the famine left some survivors.

“I’m collecting the oral history where it was transmitted,” she says.

“The main source for this history is no longer living. Nobody filmed them but you do have the generation in between who remember what their parents told them. They’ll be making testimonies throughout the film.”

Mitri says she started research for “Children of the Famine” in 2017-18, and decided to produce it herself. She found no financing before receiving a DFI production grant in 2018, which itself covers about 30 percent of her (admittedly small) budget. Aside from applying to other funds, she says that she plans to launch a crowd-funding campaign, her first.

Two feature-length nonfiction projects were presented at Qumra 2019 -- “Republic of Silence,” Diana El Jeiroudi’s work-in-progress, and Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave.”

Fayyad’s 2017 White Helmets doc “The Last Men in Aleppo” made him a celebrity -- not only because of the Emmy that the film won in 2018 and its subsequent Oscar nomination, but because he was the subject of a Russian smear campaign, culminating in the U.S. administration’s refusal to grant him a visa to attend the Oscars.

“The Cave” is not unlike “The Last Men” insofar as it focuses on civilian volunteers dedicated to helping civilian victims of pro-regime offensives. In this case the protagonists are women -- Amani, Alaa and Samaher. They are among the doctors staffing a network of subterranean hospitals in Eastern Ghouta whom the director first encountered treating civilians after the reported 2013 chemical attack.

Fayyad met Amani, his principal character, again in 2016, when Daesh (ISIS) and the Nusra Front controlled swaths of Syria and pro-regime offensives upon civilian targets were intensifying.

“It was like a flash,” Fayyad says. “I had a feeling in my gut that there was something missing in this picture. So when I met Amani, I feel myself that something touched me, as a child, completely.”

He says he was inspired by “this strong female character who had a very strong point of view about everything around her, even criticizing her side [of the conflict].”

He was equally fascinated by the way she thought about her society and herself.

“I felt this is the character who can tell different stories,” he says. “That was the starting point of the project.”

Fayyad and his producer Kirstine Barfod acknowledge that the project did encounter some Syrian conflict fatigue among potential backers.

“We’ve seen a lot of footage [from the Syrian conflict],” Fayyad admits, “but there is no female perspective, no characters that can tell us something different from this conflict. I think it’s part of this global movement -- #MeToo, #TimesUp and the time for the woman to move and tell their stories and show their work and share it with the world.”

“To be honest,” Barfod says, “while we were shooting and financing, Feras got the Oscar nomination. That, and the fact that the new film would be from the female perspective ... made it hard to say no.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2019, on page 12.




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