Interview with Jocelyne Saab
Jocelyne Saab has directed a number of documentaries on conflicts in the Arab world. The majority of her work concerns Lebanon, her country, but she has also taken an interest in the Saharawi cause, in Egypt’s destitution. Her latest film, Letter from Beirut, tries to give an idea of the underlying violence that has taken hold in this devastated country, in the minds of the disillusioned populations suffering the blows and repercussions of suicidal politics.
Maryse Léon and Magda Wassef: How to explain the fact that you are one of our rare filmmakers showing what is happening in Lebanon?
Jocelyne Saab: Cinema is a passion, and it’s my job. During the war, faced with the impossibility of any real action, I couldn’t take up arms; I’m a journalist, and the role of a journalist is to bear witness. So making a film about the war in Lebanon is a political action. I tried to follow the war closely, first to explain it and then to show my distress in the face of my country’s destruction. The war has been going on for three years, so I have evolved and my films have taken on very different shapes. My journalistic side makes me a go-getter, not that I’m not afraid, but I go to the battlefields, to the more difficult places. But what’s a bit sad is that I’m the only one, during these three years of war, that has been in the field, trying to convey and explain it to people. There have been edited films, like the ones by Randa Chahal and Georges Chamchoum, but they came out after the war. Maroun Baghdadi made a film in 1973 in which he explains the premises of the war and some of the problems that existed then in this country. But it’s a fiction film. He then made a film about Kamal Jumblatt.
If you could talk about your evolution as a filmmaker...
I lived the war as a Lebanese woman, that’s all. I couldn’t talk about anything else, because the subject was so very dear to me, so that’s where I had to start. In 1975, the first step was to explain this war. At the time, I could still go everywhere, the gap between the different political tendencies, the different parties, wasn’t that huge yet. I interviewed the left, the right, trying to make a film that would analyze the ins and outs of this war, obviously showing my own leanings, but giving the floor to each and every one. For this, I was sharply criticized by the way. The left criticized me for giving the floor to the right and vice versa.
In fact, it was a first attempt at explaining an event. I wanted to get away from the classic methods; I had already done several years of reporting. I thought I could describe a short phase of Lebanon’s history without any pretension, as people would describe it themselves. In fact, in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, I fell back into the classical approach, juxtaposing images and interviews... It’s very difficult to explain a country in which eighteen communities are living, and many problems coexist, without making people talk. At the time, one didn’t really understand the situation.
I learned a lot from this first feature-length documentary experience. In my second film, I felt more confident. I no longer tried to explain things; I wanted to express what I felt like expressing. Children of War is a first attempt. I most certainly put my sensibility as a woman in the foreground. I can’t ignore my sensibility towards children. But that could also be a man’s sensibility! I noticed that the public was touched by these children who lived through a massacre. It’s a film that denounces violence and war. It was a first step.
The turning point is the film Beirut, Never Again. It’s a film and a drifting walk around a destroyed Beirut. It contains my entire sensibility towards a country that I loved and that has been destroyed. To express this in the voice-over, I chose the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan. Our two sensibilities met. The voice-over was very surprising as it didn’t respect the rules of reporting. It’s a poem expressing impressions that are personal, but could be those of every Lebanese. Each time I made a film, it was in a given political period; each time I had a political objective, my films couldn’t just be without orientation. That’s not sentimentality. Through a form of sensibility, a political problem emerges. The destruction of Beirut, the children fighting, it means something. I figured this way of showing things could touch people and have a real political impact. People are fed up with the talking. On television, for example, one day they show a representative of the left, the next a representative of the right. Every day, they agree with someone else, and they end up forgetting who’s right or wrong!
At least you show that a people is suffering.
Five years ago, one of my first films, the one about the Palestinian commandos, left a deep impression on me. It was a scoop, a resounding success, but it was a failure in terms of information and public awareness. People are tired of the violence. I had shown the violence and, as this war is only violence, I now refuse to show it immediately, you see it through a destroyed image. I started refusing sensational images and took the opposite side. I bypassed the horrible spectacle and went to see the people, those who were suffering.
I continued along this path with the story of a besieged village in South Lebanon. Nothing happens but everyone imagines they’re going to be attacked. It’s a kind of anti-reporting.
Was your contact with people easier because you were a woman?
Maybe it made things easier for me, but I like to get close to people. I like talking and listening to them. Each time I spend several days with them and I try to become more integrated. As I’m Lebanese, it’s easier. I work from there. When I return, I’m not a voyeur, I’m an insider.
Then you made Egypt, City of the Dead.
I needed to get away for a while. So I made this film about Egypt. Once again, I worked with my sensibility, since the second part of the title, Chaque année en janvier [Every Year in January], is a poem by Sheikh Imam dedicated to suffering Egypt. This film was shown all over Europe, everyone was moved by what they weren’t used to seeing. It had never been shown over there.
The appealing part of my approach is that I talk about a subject from within. I speak the language. I’ve visited the country many times. I feel the problem I’m addressing. However, as soon as you move on to a larger issue, you’re obliged to go back to a more academic style, especially when you only have a miserable camera and a limited format, or a sound engineer that I sometimes need to replace myself. That’s a far cry from the documentaries of American filmmakers; they have three million dollars for one small film, three cameras... Barbara Kopple’s film Harlan County U.S.A. is a perfect example. I’d like to do reporting like that – you capture everything, at every moment, and you don’t need a voice-over! I have very limited means!
And then I returned to Letter from Beirut – it was a new experience. I’m in front of and behind the camera. Maybe I don’t have any acting skills, but the camera films me as if I’m reporting. I don’t have time to compose, to play. It was only possible because I made it in my own country; anywhere else would have been impossible.
What about your experience as a woman, your opinion on women in Arab society?
In Arab society, women have to do everything if they want to lift the veil. If they have to rely on men, if they have to respect social behaviour, they won’t get very far. You have to go for it and open the doors. But I’ve never experienced any problems as a woman. At first, people were surprised to see me, a woman, looking so young. I went for it!
It’s not men who will open the doors!
What country do you live in, France or Lebanon?
I live in Lebanon. I’m only here to show my film. It’s a shame, as I would have liked to do everything over there. Although the country is currently destroyed. Besides, I want to be able to express myself, and censorship exists. My films aren’t shown in Lebanon and there’s no other archive footage on the subject.
Do you plan to make non-documentary films?
As a journalist, I was prepared for this genre. There was a war and I was involved, so I went for it. And, I trained as an economist, so I combined a scientific mind with intuition. I came to cinema without knowing anything about its techniques, and I learned them in the field. The better it goes, the more I’ll turn to fiction. I’m tired of documentaries, especially because I’m doing everything myself.
Could you tell us about the production?
These days, I’m lucky enough to be known by television companies; so when I propose a film, they ask to view it and take it. It’s a sort of purchase guarantee. I have a kind of mini-capital that I use to shoot my films. It’s not even a tenth of a normal budget for a fifty-minute film! I’m lucky enough to have a camera and a Nagra, but it remains a leap in the dark. It’s hard not being entirely sure whether the film is going to be sold or not. You have to do everything: check your equipment, service it, go to the lab, subtitle the film, check the calibration because you can’t afford an assistant, do the communications, announce the film, in other words, do everything a production company does. Ultimately, it’s pretty frustrating to waste your energy like that. I would like to only direct the film!
And your projects?
I’m going to make a feature-length fiction film. It’s going to be funded by the television companies that have been buying my documentaries. So I won’t have to chase after funding! I’ll be able to become better, even as a woman! It should be finished by the end of next year. It’s a new experience, and it might influence my way of documentary making.
What is your relationship with other Arab women filmmakers?
I don’t distinguish between my female and my male colleagues. I think feminists are isolating themselves even more. In Arab society, where women live in ghettos, it can only make things worse. On the contrary, the liberation of women means integrating them into this society of men that rejects them. This doesn’t mean that I’m against information about women, about what they do. The fact remains that men perceive you the way you show yourself!
Among Arab filmmakers, more women are starting to make a name for themselves: Ronda Chahal, Cherine Tannous who was Farouk Beloufa’s recent assistant in Beirut. I am also thinking of “Habiba”, Gladys Abi Gouda.
I repeat: it’s up to women to open the doors! To lift the veil...!
Originally published without title in CinémArabe, 10/11 (August/ November 1978).
Images (1) and (2) from Madina al-mawt [Egypt, City of the Dead] (Jocelyn Saab, 1977)