Jocelyne Saab is one of Lebanon's most daring filmmakers. In this interview with Élena Eilmes, the artist and director talks about the Beirut-related symbolism of her most recent film, and the themes of violence, reading and love in her artwork
Tell me a little bit about your most recent movie, "What's Going On?" What inspired you to do this film?
Jocelyne Saab: Well, Beirut was World Book Capital in 2009 and people suggested I do a film on the subject. I was really a bit angry, because we were World Book Capital, but there was censorship, and not enough freedom in my opinion, and no money for the arts. So I found the idea absolutely absurd. At times I even think I can't breathe in this city.
There is a popular saying, "We write books in Cairo, we read them in Baghdad, and we print them in Beirut." So Beirut wasn't really the 'World Book Capital'. So I said, okay, let us talk about the writer and his imagination, and so I came up with the idea for this huge book while on a roof above the city. And that is, basically, how the story began.
There are a lot of Surrealist references in the film…
Saab: Indeed, absolutely. Life in Beirut is surrealistic, and André Breton – the French poet known as the founder of Surrealism – says something incredible, he says, "The biggest surrealistic act is to shit in a place and then leave it and go." And I thought that Beirut was so symbolic of this… You make war, and war is what – shit, in a way. And then you leave. And you leave the city by herself to deal with this act. Everything seems to be very surrealistic since the war began. So this gave me the line.
I was telling a love story, and I was talking about the city. So there was something symbolic. This woman, the main character in the film, had a sick heart, and the heart of the city was sick, too. This girl, in the film, symbolizes the city, is an allegory of Beirut.
The heart looks rather realistic…
Saab: What I did was, I bought a cow's heart, cleaned it, fixed it, put it into formaldehyde, and there was the sick heart ripped from the body. And slowly, slowly, I built the surrealistic references to the city.
In the film it is the woman who is giving the impulses, who is really the 'leading character'…
Saab: The situation of women in our country is not like in Europe, and I, as a creator, a filmmaker, I suffer from it, I suffer a lot. So in this film it was going to be the woman that was going to lead the man, the male character… so there were three stories, the city, the love story with the heart, the guy who doesn't know how to love this girl and who needs to get into a state to love her and understand her.
What inspired you to this very particular female character in the film?
Saab: I modelled the female character on the mythical figure of Lilith. In Jewish folklore, from the 8th–10th centuries onwards, Lilith becomes Adam's first wife, who was created equal to Adam, not from his rib. And in the film, you hear Lilith's voice first, like a muezzin's, but here it's poetry coming from above, and it's poetry saying, "I'm Lilith, a woman equal to men, I'm not the devil, I'm just equal."
And her voice is all over the city, and she will lead the male character to many women, to a garden, to this incredible building that has separated Beirut in two, the Burj al-Murr that was used by Syrian troops in the Civil War to position snipers, and this building then becomes a place for reading, a library, with poetry inside. The journey then goes further up to the mountains, to the library in the monastery, where the man sees himself dead because this is what we are afraid of.
After he sees his death, he goes to this place where he reads all the books and remembers that the only thing that is important is his memory, to keep it. So that is the way I kept building this movie, without a dramatic high point; it's just a path you go along, as if you were in a dream or in your imagination.
You have said before, you do not ask the viewer to understand everything, you just want them to dream for a while. So do you see your movie as a retreat from reality?
Saab: Yes, but not in a negative way. It's like I don't want this reality, so I build you another one. The reality we live does not have enough depth, it's very superficial, so what I want is something which has references to our traditions and culture. I am always looking for this part.
So yes, I refuse this reality of money and war, and I try to rebuild life as I knew it when I was very young. First my country was a beautiful garden… but today, there are no more gardens.
With this film I tried to revive the culture we had… this is my refusal of reality, it's not a negative refusal of reality. That's why I ask people to dream.
You mention the garden as a central theme of the film. The garden as a form of art is deeply rooted in Middle Eastern culture – what does it symbolise for you?
Saab: Somebody who was studying my work had said that I have always been looking for the garden of my youth, which is entirely possible. This garden is like my childhood that's been stolen by war, and I am always looking for it.
The garden is the place where opposite things can talk to each other; you have to savage some plants, and cultivate others, you have different trees, everything talks to each other in a garden. But in war, everybody hates one another, no one talks, so I'm always looking for a garden where everybody can talk to each other. That's my garden. Our country is supposed to be the garden of God. But where is that garden and where is God?
You have a background in journalism and documentary film, and it wasn't until the 1980s that you started making films, which was in the middle of the civil war. Was it by accident that you moved from documentary to fiction?
Saab: I finished my studies of economics in the 1970s and I began to work for television here and there. I was a war correspondent in Egypt and South Lebanon. I went to Libya in '71, covered the October War in '73, in '75 I worked for French television… I was a war reporter, basically. And then in '75, there was the Palestinian bus kidnapped in Beirut and everybody killed, the bus coming from a feast and everybody was killed, massacred – and the Civil War in Lebanon was set off. It was then that I decided to make a film on the country, and I made my first documentary film. It was called "Lebanon in Turmoil".
And I haven't stopped since. After two years, I began to give my documentaries a more personal perspective. I stopped doing 'classical' documentaries… And finally I ended up doing fiction films.
That time, it was hard, it was very hard to be in a civil war. I was living there and covering it, going to the frontline, so I needed to dream – reality was too hard to bear. I remember what I used to say at that time, "I need to tell what is in the heart of the people; I don't feel like just showing what is going on anymore". I didn't feel like making documentaries just telling the people to tell me their story. The press was on it anyway…it wasn't my thing.
I had gone a long way into documentaries, I did practically ten or twelve in some years, and I felt the necessity of telling a story, telling what you don't see. I had always dreamed of going to cinema school. My family didn't want me to, so I went into economics and journalism, but if I had done what I wanted to, I would have gone to cinema school. But there was no cinema school in Lebanon. They said, "You study in Lebanon first, then you can go", and then came the war, and instead of going to cinema school I went straight to work. Because I felt it was a necessity to show what was going on. I felt concerned, and I began with documentary. Voilà, that's my story. I didn't choose.
How does the political situation in Syria influence life in Lebanon today?
Saab: Without making a bigger political assessment I would say that we are very linked to the wider context of the region. We have many refugees coming in, and what is happening now in Syria makes us think of what happened in Lebanon at the beginning of the war. It's a different situation, but the suffering is the same, the violence is the same.
People in Lebanon are aware of the situation, but they are blasé about the war. But we can't be blasé about the suffering. Suffering is terrible.
Lebanon has its own history of suffering, but where do you see the country headed in the future?
Saab: We don't know where we're heading, which makes the situation very tense. Well, we will just live… We live very intensely, we suffer, just like in "What's Going On?" You have two themes going together all the time: the major suffering – this girl with the sick heart – but there's a lot of affection and tenderness and love on the other side, with this guy trying to get into it and trying to understand everything.
We don't know where we're heading. The situation is stagnant, but right now there's lots of money in the banks. Because of all these revolutions in the Arab world, because of what's happening in Syria, in Palestine, people come here, as it's still the more "secure" place, between quotation marks.
Lebanon is a country of contradictions… It's a beautiful country, but, excuse my expression, I don't know another word, it's fucked up every day.
Interview conducted by Élena Eilmes
© Qantara.de 2012
Editor: Lewis Gropp