The film-maker “is not just a story teller. You have to give your opinion. Sometimes you have to be a poet. Sometimes you have to be a fanatic. I love this mixture of emotions.” So says Mohammed Soueid, one of four Lebanese documentary film makers being featured at the Beirut International Film Festival this year.
Soueid has been involved in the film industry since 1980. He began working for foreign film crews and subsequently studied film in France and Italy. Since returning home he’s been active in the Film-Makers’ Union and worked for Télé-Liban in addition to making his own films. His first piece, a 45-minute documentary titled Absence, was released in 1990. His documentary Destinée premiered on Sunday and will be screening again on Wednesday night.
Destinée is a film about the trials of a Syrian immigrant to Lebanon in the 1920s. As Soueid describes it, “the film is about compromise, about how you come to be known for the things you do, even if you hate doing them.” This is Soueid’s first film that has nothing to do with the war. “I usually deal with nostalgic themes,” he said, “and the voice-over makes this film seem autobiographical as well, but it’s fiction. The film I completed after Destinée, Tango of Yearning, is much more personal.”
But Soueid is not absent from this film. I was interested in knowing whether he felt any discrimination as a Muslim film-maker, or if he thought the Lebanese Muslim voice is being heard.
“Up to now I don’t feel myself to be...” he paused and leaned forward. “I love icons. This is a mystical film in a way. Spiritually, I feel close to Christians and I express that feeling in this film. But outside of film it’s impossible to find anyone ready to listen to this. It would be advertised, exploited in different ways. So I prefer to be silent in my belief. I think everybody has a problem with God. I even feel excluded from within my religion.”
Like all Lebanese film-makers, one of Soueids’s greatest challenges has been finding backers. Aside from his time with Télé-Liban he’s had no public or private sector support for his work. He financed his first film with the help of friends. Destinée is a Lebanese-Belgian co-production. Soueid attributes private sector reluctance to the service industry mentality of Lebanese business. “I think they feel safer playing the role of merchants. Lebanon isn’t a productive country; it’s a consuming country. Its also a small country and a small market.”
There has been a government infrastructure in place for the support of film production since before the war but it does not seem to be very active.
“Within the ministry of culture supposedly we have the national centre of cinema. Unfortunately this centre is nothing but bureaucratic nonsense,” he said. “If we had the good will this centre would actually be the basis of a film industry in this country.”
This lack of optimism on the part of Lebanese financiers and their cousins in government has made Lebanese film synonymous with foreign backing technical as well as financial. Soueid characterises this foreign influence as being very positive. “For Lebanese film-makers to do good work, we must leave the country. You don’t have production facilities here.” He smiled, “A film is like a spoiled child. You have to feed it and raise it up and be generous with it. Without Belgian support Destinée would have been a poorer film. I think also that I needed to be outside the country for creative reasons. You need to have distance from the subject itself. And that gave me freedom.”
Soueid has a great love of the Arab language and that expresses itself in his film making he even pans his camera from right to left. Did foreign funding imply any ceding of creative control?
“No. I was obliged to make my film in French, but the Belgians I worked with were extremely supportive. They took my side in any debates that arose with the producer. At first he refused to have the film shot in black and white. So the technicians wrote a good report on the direction and I ended up getting my way. What we need here really are defenders, because neither the government nor the public protects you.”
The main advantage of making films in Lebanon is how cheaply they can be made here, but this is an equivocal benefit. “There are standards outside. Here people will give you a hand for nothing. They will work just because they love the work. You don’t face the same regulations you have outside. In any western country the working hours and pay rates are very defined. You have a system. Here there is no system. You create your own system. I don’t think any western film-maker would be satisfied with these conditions, and the low esteem given film-makers.”
After finding the support to actually produce a film, the major hurtle facing Lebanese directors, especially documentary makers, is getting it seen. Has Soueid been successful in having his films screened?
“I’m not successful. Like many film-makers here, I show my films at private screenings. Except for my three years with Télé-Liban, I’ve had no access to television.”
Soueid sees the logical market for Lebanese film to be the Arab world, but there are cultural and political obstacles to commercial screenings. The Arab countries, he sighs, are simply closed to one another.
“Europe will soon have one currency, a single policy. Europe is united, a community. The Arab world still hasn’t succeeded in creating a commercial system or a policy that even allows people to travel freely, even to move goods. Of course, in the media we say we’re one people, one country, but practically...” He pauses to light another cigarette. “It’s not a divided world, it’s closed. The doors are closed.”
Given these conditions Soueid finds little reason to be optimistic, about the industry or the country. “I’m optimistic about individuals, but not about the industry. The Lebanese have to be done with the silly question of who we are. We’re Arabs. We live in the so-called Third World. We have many people below the poverty line, and many of the same social problems as Africa and Asia. Yet I can’t prevent other people feeling they’re western. I don’t have any complex about this.”
But Soueid doesn’t see himself leaving Lebanon. He considered migrating to France in the late 80s but returned to Lebanon after six months. “I belong in this country,” he said. “I can’t make films in Canada or France. Good film is universal. But you don’t make film about the universal, you must work with the specifics of your own culture.”
Destinée will be shown on Wednesday at 10.30pm at Sodeco Square