“The public needs fiction, and several of us are moving in that direction”
Interview with Jocelyne Saab
Gaston Haustrate and Corinne McMullin: You’re about to start your first feature-length fiction film as a Lebanese filmmaker. In the past, you’ve made fourteen short “subjectivized documentary” style films. Does moving to feature-length film and to fiction imply a distance from your previous work? What kind of development forms the basis of this second stage of your career?
Jocelyne Saab: This documentary phase wasn’t only linked to my personal history; it was determined by my country’s political situation and Lebanon’s cinema history. My trajectory is a bit like that of other Lebanese filmmakers. If I decided to move to fiction it’s because, after speaking in a “militant” manner, I now want the image to speak as much as possible.
The Schlöndorff experience was,1 for me, a turning point. Before the war, there were hardly any possibilities for us to make films. For an education, you had to either work for Lebanese television or leave. At French television, I found out about the means of filmmaking and discovered that I had a sensibility of my own and an understanding of the Arab world different from that of the West. Thus, I had a particular advantage: a different gaze.
It was an intuitive observation because I didn’t know which way my sensibility was going, but it gave me the confidence to become independent and make my own films. The time of this discovery was the beginning of the war in Lebanon; people talked more about the Palestinian problem than the Lebanese problem. My subject was decided in advance. I joined the wave of militant cinema but tried to distance myself from it, because I didn’t want to make marginal films: I wanted to focus on television.
What was your initial ideological choice?
I wanted to avoid overtly political cinema, propaganda cinema. But, in spite of myself, because of my somewhat “Pasionaria” character, I fell into the trap of activism. Then the problem of Lebanon began to emerge; but as it wasn’t really a cause yet, it was easier to take a step back and tell the story by moving away from direct activism. That was the time of my film Lebanon in a Whirlwind.
To what extent did the war determine your approach and to what extent did you feel capable of translating it?
This event determined the approach of all those who were making films in Lebanon at the time. The political aspect determined our analytical subjectivity; the lack of means and of education determined the rest.
I tried to express myself with my own sensibility, to say what I felt inside. In 1976, the circumstances forced me to make up my mind, to speak as I wanted to.
I made Beirut, Never Again in this spirit, thinking that it didn’t matter if no one else liked it. I didn’t have anything to demonstrate, I just wanted to show what was happening.
Beirut, Never Again seems to deal with reality in a new way. A personal approach establishes itself. Was that the product of a premeditated, theorized development?
It was both instinctive and theorized. My social background played its part. I was born as a Christian in a bourgeois family, and in today’s Lebanon, I was on the fringes of the Islamo-progressive left. I needed to find my place. I used cinema to establish myself in a certain way, politically. Once this personal development was over, I broke away and only spoke cinema.
Did your film practice sometimes transform your awareness of the political problem?
Certainly, and here we’re talking about the role of the image in information. I became aware of the limitations of the field of militant cinema, and of the reversal of meaning an image can provoke. Sometimes the images backfired on me; the established principles and precepts weren’t the ones to follow.
The best example is a short film I made about the Palestinian commandos in 1973. I thought I was defending the Palestinian cause by going to live and film in a suicide commando base.
I approached the situation in a very journalistic way, without any distance towards the subject filmed and towards the image. I thought I had turned this raw footage into a strong film. When it was shown on television, it was a shock because the images were too much and, ultimately, did a disservice to the Palestinian cause.
People said: “Look at this fanaticism, this terrorism.” They were commandos of the Rejectionist Front; they wore balaclavas and swore an oath by extending their arms like the Nazis. Those desperate Palestinians had become Nazis. It would have sufficed if I had filmed them differently, from another angle, in other light. That was an important lesson for me, both in terms of cinema and politics.
What consequences did this experience have on your subsequent films? Did it play a role in Letter from Beirut, in which you suddenly started to address the viewer and entered the scene?
After the experience I just had assisting Schlöndorff, I can say that, in 1978, I thought I was making films when I didn’t yet have the means. But I wanted to capture an atmosphere, tell a story. It was the draft of a fiction film.
You have to remember that we’ve been in a war since 1975. We needed to talk and show this war “on the front page”, and documentaries were the only way to do that. Today, Lebanese filmmakers, and foreign television stations alike, have had as much as they can take. We no longer want to talk about the war because we are desperate, anaesthetized. We haven’t found a solution. We don’t know which way to go; our hands are tied.
There is also a new phenomenon in Lebanon: public interest in Lebanese films. Some commercial films discussed the war: they filled the house, while the theatres showing foreign films were empty.
There is hardly a difference between these films and documentaries. Why do people recognize the value of these films? Because a collective history is beginning to take shape.
We’re a country formed in 1943, with no real past. But the people have suffered a painful and violent history together, and a collective memory has developed. In the images, there’s a desire to find themselves like in a mirror, to situate themselves. Nobody has recognized themselves yet, but everyone’s looking. Faced with a loss of identity, we take refuge in fantasies.
Isn’t it dangerous to present the public with a false image of themselves?
We gave them a flat retranscription, a Polaroid, not a false image. The public needs fiction, and three of us are moving in that direction: Borhane Alaouié has finished his film, Maroun Baghdadi and I will start in April-May. We’re pioneers, strange pioneers, just like our country.
To return to concrete problems, our films are edited with foreign money, because there are only funding options in Lebanon for two-minute films produced by the Ministry of Information about the visits of X or Y. It’s true that Lebanon is a country open to the outside world, shattered, and it’s up to us, filmmakers, to translate a possible balance.
As a person, I no longer have any complexes about this openness to the East and the West; as filmmakers, we are the synthesis of these two poles. If this gets translated into the images, it’s incredible. But it’s dangerous also: when I receive 5 million francs in funding from France, I might have to change my scenario.
At the same time, it reflects a certain reality of our country, our social origins, our cultures. Of the three feature films, one is produced by the United States, the other by Europe, and the third (Borhane’s) by Belgium, but that’s the only one strongly oriented towards the Arab world.
Does this return to fiction have other reasons?
Perhaps an element of fashion. It took a long time after the Vietnam War for Coppola and Cimino’s films to be released. In Lebanon, where the war has a different shape – half-war, half-peace – it took less time.
The other phenomenon is the existence of a fantastical universe that can only be expressed through the fictional image. It’s not a coincidence that Coppola finances Baghdadi or that, in Paris, French funders decide to help me when they see my screenplay.
The country contains a wealth of fantastical elements. It has been glued to reality to such an extent that it now needs to distance itself and talk about the problems that have affected the people.
How to explain that all German films shown at Cannes in 1981 were about the war? Schlöndorff himself says that he rediscovered the Berlin of his childhood in Beirut, the war complexes of his childhood fantasy world.
How do you explain that Skolimowski, who comes and spends ten days on the film set, feels the need to make a prologue in which he takes Beirut as a symbol to talk about Poland and its problems?2 Beirut, today, contains this potential for images, fantasies, projections of oneself and of today’s reality. Besides, Schlöndorff is not alone: Boisset is coming, as well as some American filmmakers.
Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, would therefore be the place where the contradictions of the entire world right now are synthesized?
Certainly. Skolimowski used it that way, but we Lebanese speak of these contradictions by living them from within, by expressing our suffering, the search for our identity. In the film that I’m preparing, I’m going to talk about how we come out of this war; like the Germans did with The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979) or Germany, Pale Mother (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980). We meet on this theme, the difference being that we continue to experience it on a daily basis.
Are you convinced that the more personal and Lebanese you will be, the more likely you are to refer to a universal interpretation of the tragic theatre taking place in Lebanon?
I hope so. I feel like I’m not only telling a Lebanese story, in the Lebanese context, but also a story that touches everyone who’s been affected by war.
For the past seven years, I’ve been living in this half- war-half-peace perpetuated by the world. My protagonist is between sixteen and eighteen years old and she experienced the war at the age of twelve; so I’m not talking about myself but about the next generation, which allows me to “see” the future of the country.
The character facing her is in her forties. They only experience very personal, felt things, things I experienced most viscerally myself in this war state, and which have been transposed. This story is not mine, and I recognize myself in both characters.
In the writing process, when I feel that the character no longer has anything to do with me, that a certain trait is no longer mine but is fully embedded in the logic of the character, I know that it’s good.
My dynamic is a kind of self-confidence, a confidence that prevents me from being afraid, from shying away from “pushing” my fantasies. And if I have this strength, it’s because of having lived this war, and also because of my evolution in relation to the image.
The imaginary is developed to the maximum because we’re deprived of it in Beirut today. This film is a way of allowing me to live in Beirut. Otherwise, I would have no business being in this city.
At the beginning of my experience with Volker (Schlöndorff ), when I saw the walls inside of which I experienced the war transformed into cardboard, this place where I saw people die, I suffered. Two things happened: I took the step from documentary to fiction, and I took a necessary step back. There’s a kind of mourning, a kind of restraint, that prevents you from putting together a story around the death of real people. With the thirty years of hindsight that separate Volker from his history in Berlin, he took his step back, and we can now do the same.
I couldn’t accept the fact that we were recreating the war in the middle of a war. When leaving the shoot by car, I felt like I was going to another city. The people close to me couldn’t make this shift and tried to point out to me that so many people had died in the South.
I no longer read the newspapers because it would have made it impossible to work on this film. It was as if I was levitating, and in order for fiction to hold I had to ignore reality.
It’s a disintegration that Schlöndorff did not experience as such because he came from outside. It’s a kind of schizophrenia. One day, on the clapperboard that normally said “the falsification”, someone had written “the falsification of the falsification”. It was a technician who, like me, couldn’t stand what he was seeing. When he went home, he went back to the real war.
No one really questioned the film; it was an unconscious reaction.
From our unconscious reaction Schlöndorff deduced that we resented him for going off with our oil, our sets, our technical capabilities. But that’s not true. It was only the phenomenon of disintegration that led to these trivial things. Every Lebanese person on set was unconsciously suffering.
Wenders was criticized for using Nicholas Ray’s death to translate his own fantasy world in Nick’s Movie, by performing the beautiful act of allowing someone to direct his own death. But perhaps Schlöndorff allowed Lebanon to direct both its death and resurrection? As with Nicholas Ray, it was a German who, once again, played the role of the catalyst; the bad conscience of a whole generation of German makers pushes them to produce processes of awareness.
That’s exactly the theme of his film. It’s been an enriching but hard experience, a rift, a difficult time of death and war anxieties translated into my country by a foreigner at a time when I had enough of them already. This film made me take a turn.
I first wrote my film in Paris; the ideas came very quickly but in a rather schematic way. Then I went back to Beirut, and I immersed myself in what is my country, with an extended sense of time and a different way of seeing things. Now, I’m back in Paris to work with a professional screenwriter and restructure what I’ve written. Then, I’ll take it up again and add my own personal stamp. I need to go back there for the dialogues, the colours...
Because I was part of Schlöndorff ’s film, writing this script has become a lot easier. There’s a fictional dimension that I didn’t know and that I experienced there, in my own country.
- 1Jocelyne Saab was Volker Schlöndorff’s assistant on Circle of Deceit (1981).
- 2Shot in 1967, Jerry Skolimowski’s Ręce do góry [Hands Up!] was banned in Poland, under the Communist regime, for 18 years because it depicted the Stalinist past. In a twenty-minute section, added by Skolimowski in 1981, he explains how the original was withheld by Polish censors of the time. The introduction includes, apart from some fictional apocalyptic passages, shots of Beirut ruined by the civil wars of the 1970s, where Skolimowski is working as an actor on Volker Schlöndorff’s film Circle of Deceit.
Originally published as “Le publique a besoin de fictions et nous sommes plusieurs à aller dans ce sens” in Cinéma, 278 (February 1982).
Images (1) and (2) from Beyrouth, jamais plus [Beirut, Never Again] (Jocelyn Saab, 1976)