Right now we don’t have a film industry, only film-makers. You can tell we don’t have a film industry of our own by the way we’re always claiming other Arab personalities as our own Yusuf Chahine and Omar Sharif, for instance.”
But Assad Fouladkar, Lebanese film-maker and academic, is optimistic about the future of the film industry in Lebanon. The chances are greater than ever that a proper Lebanese film industry will be established. The reason, Fouladkar believes, is the number of talented film-makers who have returned to Lebanon from abroad for exactly that purpose. But there is very little backing available for film in this country.
“People are willing to put their money into television but not film,” explains Fouladkar. He feels this lack of private-sector support should be filled by the government. But the state remains reticent about committing itself to any substantial investment unless it’s likely to make money. The film-makers won’t remain in Lebanon forever, though. “I see a window of perhaps five years before those who’ve returned leave to find opportunities elsewhere.”
In a sense, Lebanese film is still in its infancy. From the 1930s to the 1960s the regional film industry was dominated by the Egyptians. Lebanese films were being produced in the ’50s and ’60s but movie-goers continued to prefer the Egyptian product to any homegrown efforts.
“Lebanese films during that period suffered from the influence of the worst Egyptian films. At that time, Lebanon was much more permissive than Egypt. It was even possible to produce films that had nudity in them. Some film-makers took advantage of this and shot Egyptian formula films here.” He winces: “Egyptian dialect, lots of songs, belly dancing, the whole thing.” Unfortunately for the industry, the beginning of serious film production in Lebanon corresponded with the start of the civil war.
The war saw a number of film-makers like Maroun Baghdadi rise to prominence. Baghdadi was the first Lebanese film phenomenon, and though his output is framed by the war, in a way he is emblematic of the state of the industry today. Fouladkar characterises Baghdadi’s films as being more popular among foreign audiences than among the Lebanese, and his prominence overseas was achieved at the expense of alienating himself from his countrymen.
“He was the first film-maker to go outside the country, to France, to fund his productions. In Baghdadi’s films all the Lebanese are ‘terrorists’. And many people resented his airing of Lebanon’s troubles abroad and then being honoured for it at Cannes.” Baghdadi’s film ideas weren’t dictated by his backers but he probably felt he had to take the French audience into consideration when choosing his perspective.
The practice of obtaining foreign backing for Lebanese cinema has continued. Directors still have to make concessions, not in the subject matter, but in the language. Films with French funding often feature a French actor and French scripts. “One film that was in production recently (the working title is The Pink House) was released in two versions, one in French for the backers and one in Arabic,” Fouladkar says.
Francophone film-makers are still getting French backing but there are other sources as well. Iran has co-sponsored one film, and is sponsoring another, dealing with the resistance to the Israeli occupation.
But perhaps the most interesting film to deal with the resistance is Roger Assaf’s Maraka. Assaf was born a Maronite but converted to Shiism. The title of the piece derives from a village in the south, the name of which means “fight”. Maraka was controversial because it was produced for the Amal movement but was suppressed for being too “Islamic” in its orientation—this was in the days before Hizbullah.
The tiny Lebanese audience makes foreign markets as important to Lebanese film as foreign funding. Lebanese cinema is actually more popular in Europe than in Lebanon. The small domestic audience makes Lebanese film more international, more outward looking, than Egyptian cinema. “We already know our own stories,” Fouladkar says smilingly. “Now we’re telling our stories to other people.”
Elsewhere in the region, where the term “Arab film” is still reserved for Egyptian work, Lebanese film is viewed in the same category as foreign film. Egypt, the largest film market in the Middle East and historically one of the biggest film producers in the world, has tended not to screen Lebanese film.
Fouladkar believes the Lebanese industry could potentially be the most important in the region and win world-wide recognition. The film-makers who have returned to Lebanon have brought with them their diverse experiences and training in different film techniques. The prospect of this pool of talent being able to work together is terribly exciting for Fouladkar.
But for this collection of film-makers to be turned into an industry, the government must play a larger role. “Right now we have Franco-Lebanese film and Lebanese-American film. We need film which is just Lebanese, and this requires a more aggressive government cultural policy,” Fouladkar says. “It isn’t good enough to have to go elsewhere for funding. It’s as if you’re saying that the country is not sufficient by itself.”
Fouladkar is confident about the place of Lebanese on the world stage but for him the true significance of cinema is local. It is also implicitly political.
“Cinema is politics. Even if the media tells you: ‘just relax and enjoy’, the instruction to relax, is political. Why should we relax, and why relax this way as opposed to any other?” he says.
For Fouladkar the primary value of the medium is communicative and educational. The Lebanese today, regardless of confession and political persuasion, have come to expect certain standards in living conditions, political freedom and the like and this is because of their exposure to international media.
In post-war Lebanon the potential role of film cannot be over-emphasised. As a medium of expression film is also a means of reconciliation. He sees the source of all the bigotry in the world, let alone this country, as being too many closed doors. If people were allowed to communicate with each other, if the doors are open, then understanding would ensue.
“Borders are becoming an outmoded concept,” he says. “In the future people won’t fight over borders.”
Assad Fouladkar has been involved in film and television production in the US, Australia and Lebanon since the 1980s. In 1989-90 he received a number of awards, including an Oscar nomination, for his film Kyrie Eleison, which he produced while still a student at Boston University. Last year his script The Cedar Tree won the Beirut Film Festival’s Maroun Baghdadi Award for best non-produced screenplay. He teaches film and television at LAU Beirut