Interview with Jocelyne Saab
Sylvie Dallet: Why make films about wars and revolutionary wars?
Jocelyne Saab: Today, I no longer really know why. I was initially interested in working with images to describe situations. At the time, when I started working as an independent filmmaker, after working for different television stations (French and Lebanese), as a sort of apprenticeship, the Lebanese war began (1975). I already knew then that it was both the end of an era and of a country, and I wanted to tell this story through an absolutely non-militant approach, even if some people said it was, perhaps because of my clumsiness. I don’t believe in militant films because they preach to the converted, and I wanted to speak to a wider category of people. After shooting in Iraq, Egypt and Syria for French television, I made a feature film about Lebanon in 1975, Lebanon in a Whirlwind, with the intention of giving a voice to everyone. I did it without much technical experience because I never went to film school and my work is always very intuitive. After 1968, after the failure of activism, my point of departure had changed. But very quickly I realized that I was involved in this war and that I couldn’t not take a position, without necessarily becoming – and this might sound contradictory – biased. Today, nine years later, I say to myself: “It’s no longer a matter of taking a position.” That’s where my films are headed and that’s what brings me to fiction. I think I’m meeting my time, the wave of complete scepticism, of doubt, which means that in the fiction to come I have completely abandoned any political point of view – even if everything is political. Even if there is no doubt that there has been a political position. The desire I had to be on TV, to reach a lot of people, meant that my work was concerned with the imagery, which was much more powerful than militant film.
How to define this war?
I can’t, and I don’t think anyone can: a civil war, a religious war... in which international forces are involved today, an imbroglio. In my opinion, you better understand what is happening if you describe people and their suffering from within. From there, your account can get through: this is what this war is all about, this is what some defend and others suffer. Rather than explaining to you what some are defending, I will explain to you what others are suffering. Then, it’s up to you. From this starting point, I began to work on the images: never images of direct violence, but counterfilms, unlike the 400 or so film crews on location. You don’t defend a war by showing the guys who shoot and the guns, but by showing the people below.
But the people below are not only defined by their suffering but also by their aspirations...
That’s not my concern. I’ve moved away from that, perhaps because I lived this civil war. But you can defend a cause in many ways. Me, I didn’t want to talk about personal aspirations. The Palestinians wanted to recover their land and live independently. Well, if you show someone who is bombed every day, who is exiled every day, who has fled from one place to another, if you show their situation, you well understand what their aspirations may be. In a climate of war and violence, I have not always been able to express this passion very well.
Did the Palestinians you met think, beyond the recovering of their land, about the creation of a state? Or about other demands?
Yes, of course. We showed all that through the organization of people around an industry, a culture. The film reports I made for television, in order to get them seen by as many people as possible, gradually made me prefer people’s sensibilities over their words: watching them live, watching them go about. I thought the film would be stronger that way; and I was right: I made my last film alone without a cameraman, under the bombs of the siege of Beirut, like a personal experience. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this film. For two months, I took the film camera in hand as if it were a photo camera. I wanted to show the defiance of the inhabitants towards the siege, towards this encirclement: I only showed the solidarity, this euphoria of utopia where everyone is taking care of the essential things, water, bread, electricity, and where people really look each other in the eye. In this film, there are situations, looks, gestures and very few words: one minute of a man speaking, but no interview. The will to survive, this defiance towards the violence imposed on us, the refusal to leave, all this certainly creates something very strong. That’s what I wanted to show.
I would like to discuss your films more in detail. I see there’s a short film called New Crusader in Orient and one called Palestinian Women.
It’s not an important film, Palestinian Women. In Lebanon in a Whirlwind, I met a French mercenary who supported the militias and I thought it might be interesting to study someone who says: “I like to kill, I can’t live if I can’t regularly kill, etc.” I was amazed, and I recorded that. Long after, I saw René Vautier’s film Techniquement si simple, a kind of fiction recreated by an actor, and I was very surprised to see how Vautier had managed to make it, because my mercenary said the exact same things as Vautier’s. (Palestinian Women is another small short film. I think we shouldn’t dwell on specific examples or cases but look at the whole picture.) I repeat: Lebanon in a Whirlwind at the beginning of the war and where I’m still saying: “You, you are wrong...”
Who is “you”?
At the time, the Christian minority that was part of the rightist Phalange. I told them: “You’re a minority, and you behave like a minority. I don’t believe in minorities, nor in confessions, and you risk destroying the country like that.” That’s what happened: ten years later there’s no country left. At the same time, I talked about the Palestinians, etc. Everybody criticized me, both the right and the left. In 1976, I found myself making three films: Beirut, My City, Children of War and South Lebanon, History of a Sieged Village. Beirut, My City is a love song to a city: I believe that we can denounce war with a love song. The text was written by a Lebanese poet [Etel Adnan, eds.], it’s a poem about the city, about a time, written for the film. Children of War denounces the violence imposed on ten-year-olds who can only speak, think or draw in war terms: they mimic the war. The last film was also a counter-subject: it’s the story of a village at the time of the “encroachment on the territory” in which I didn’t want to show the outside aggression but the people inside, anxious at being swallowed up, or no longer being recognized. They were right: their territory is now occupied territory.
When you say “show everything”, do you also show the militants?
What does “militant” mean? I don’t like the word. You’re militant because of your attitude and your behaviour, beyond your words. My own resistance is passive: I don’t shed blood; I work with the camera. I can’t stand violence, and I’m suspicious of declarations. In 1979, I came back to Beirut: Beirut, Never Again. It’s my city. I have a very strong relationship with it, and I wanted to express myself through it: to talk about the city was to talk about the state of things, about the crumbling of everything we believed in politically in the face of the chaos of 1983. Nothing but the cause of all human beings, and not only those who are being massacred (the Palestinians) like in Beirut, My City.
When I took stock of all this through the prism of Beirut (three films), which is the symbol of my country, I was in a period of doubt and travelled to the Sahara, to Iran, to Egypt... I took an interest in these countries to see if I was seeing things clearly. I realized that I intuitively took the same approach: in Iran, I was fascinated by the revolutionary era, by what I knew about it – the man-to-man fighting, the fall of the shah. I discovered the same revolutionary air I had known and supported: the American student movement, Woodstock, May 68. I arrived at the end of the revolutionary era and then everything collapsed. I even tried my hand at impressionism there, indulged in my sensibility. The film is called Iran, Utopia in the Making to underline this passing movement, this new communitarian ideology that was being built and the dangers this country could be heading to. Same thing for the Sahara, I didn’t want to pass any judgements; I was fascinated by the Polisario horsemen in the desert. But I went there without knowing the real situation. I believe in the independence of these people, so I followed them (curiosity to see all sides) and gradually I made a choice.
Why did you choose countries caught up in war?
I’m going to be a bit cynical here: I’m a freelance 16mm reporter, and people are only interested in war. So I go to countries with wars. If I had continued in that direction, I would have probably gone to Afghanistan. But I’m sick of it. My films were expected to be spectacular, but I reported on the lives of people and places, bringing out my culture and sensibility through the images. My sensibility is a medium; I work in order to express myself. Today, in the case of my country, who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s difficult to say. More and more, I have tried to narrate my films like fictions, to make sure there is a story (a city, a person, a letter, a country) through the strong and fleeting impressions of human beings who aren’t shown on a daily basis.
You were Schlöndorff ’s assistant on Circle of Deceit. I met a lot of people in the Arab world who hate this film. How do you feel about it?
Me neither. I don’t like it and don’t agree with him. But it was a good technical experience for me to see the locations of my documentaries perceived as locations for fiction.
The general criticism of Circle of Deceit is that “it doesn’t reflect the situation in Beirut”. Indeed, I believe that, in this film, Beirut only exists in the Weltschmerz of a German journalist. So the criticism is obvious: Beirut is deliberately used as a décor.
No, in fact, it was a film against violence, but it didn’t manage to portray the city: it’s very difficult to describe how war destroys the communication between people. That’s why the filmmakers working there, including myself, are driven to reflect on life, death, violence, love, all those things that are scorned by the superior and limitless violence of war. That’s what fascinated Schlöndorff who, having experienced the destruction of Berlin, wanted to rediscover Berlin in Beirut. But he never left Berlin, nor his dated Camusian apprehension.
Why are the media fascinated by war?
Violence fascinates people... That’s all I can say. I know that people who are living in a war are no longer fascinated by it, but one way or another you’re deceived into watching the violence that destroys you.
We return to journalism...
Television teaches you how to make films about such and such an event; I myself have been practicing anti-journalism because I talked about things no one wanted to talk about — but it was shown on television all the same.
And in Lebanon?
No, my films are distributed in parallel circuits. It’s too much of a burning situation, people are too impassioned, and they don’t want to see films that recount their problems all over again. They prefer fictional films in which they can project themselves and construct or pacify their collective memory. I’m currently preparing a fiction film as if I, too, need to take a step back. You see, it took ten years to make a fiction film after the Vietnam War.
Could you talk about your film?
No, I can only say that it’s a reflection on life and death based on an oriental tale set in Lebanon. Perhaps I’ll return to documentaries afterwards.
Were the people you mixed with similar, either because of a shared Arab culture or because of the crises they were going through?
No, I don’t think so. All people are different, even if I can find common ground with them because of my Arab background.
Have you had any problems as a woman in this profession?
Never. Once you’re holding a camera, it’s your profession that matters. Now you’re reacting as a woman, and I’m not objecting to it, on the contrary... maybe, as a definition, and fundamentally I don’t know, you react with a gaze that doesn’t linger on the surface of things, of guns or armies; I have always preferred getting to know people’s sensibilities in great detail, the children, the women, the men, the daily life of human beings... In this field, people are so surprised to see a woman arrive on set that they make room for her and respect her. The veil is not a problem for me, if we bow out of respect, if we choose not to attack them for being different, for a particular body shape, it will always work... I don’t want to walk into these theories of the underprivileged side of women...
It could also be easier for a woman, there are two theories...
No, I don’t think so.
You refuse to be defined by activism, preferring instead people’s lives, yet, like everyone else, you must have been confronted with structures (Party, Constitution, State). How did you respond to them?
That’s not my subject: I look at them through people. My films are a drop in the ocean. If I believe in them, I give them life, especially when it comes to Lebanon. The drop of water is the presentation I produce; I don’t make choices for other people, it’s up to them to draw their conclusions.
Originally published in Sylvia Dallet (ed.), Guerres révolutionnaires: histoire et cinéma (Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 1984).
Images (1) and (2) from Beirut madinati [Beirut, My City] (Jocelyn Saab, 1982)