Conversational: Ayoub and Uja
“I know”… is the phrase that Tarek, the hero of the movie “West Beirut”, said to his mother, who does not know what is happening in Beirut. Its shadows are through the young heroes of his film who are trying to rebel against their reality, and clash with existential questions that they answer with comic situations that reveal the horror of the civil war, and the destruction it left behind in Lebanese society.
Ziad Doueiri succeeded in archiving the Lebanese war, and his work was able to be crowned with the Cannes Festival prize in 1988, and the Lebanese and with them discovered the world; The birth of an international film director with rebellious political tendencies that he revealed since the first scene in his first movie in which the hero Tarek appears, distorting the French national anthem in the school queue.
In 1983, Ziad Doueiri moved from Lebanon to America to study cinema, and worked in Hollywood as a photographer in international works, such as Tarantino’s films “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” before returning to Lebanon with cinematic dreams that began in 1998 with the movie “Pulp Fiction” West Beirut”, then the movie “Lila Says” in 2004, and several films and series for Netflix, then comes the movie “Case No. 23” (The Insult) in 2017, which drew criticism for filming some of its scenes in the city of Tel Aviv.
After a long absence from the dialogues, and the difficulty of connecting with him, Ziad Doueiri returns in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera Documentary to tell about his ideas and cinematic vision:
- You started your career in cinema in the United States, and worked with great directors such as “Quentin Tarantino”, but why did you return to work in the Middle East despite the problems faced by this sector instead of continuing in Hollywood?
I returned to Beirut because of my attachment to my homeland. The more you are away from your homeland, the more nostalgic you are for the country in which you grew up. At the same time, I felt that there are many stories in Beirut that I need to tell and convey on the screen.
We also do not forget that America at that time was aware of a kind of “Islamophobia” after the events of September 11, although I personally did not face any incident of racism or discrimination by Americans, but I felt that it was time for me to change the psychological and personal scene.
In your movie “West Beirut”, you succeeded in documenting the civil war as a side element in the life of the two heroes of the film. Did you try, through the film, to tell us your childhood story during the civil war, and to what extent did the war affect your artistic background?
The story of the movie “Western Beirut” is largely a kind of autobiography, I took into account the dramatic aspect of the story when writing it, but without denying that I recounted an aspect of my childhood.
I have been away from Beirut for a long time, I emigrated from it in 1982, and did not return to it until 15 years later. I did not think of returning because of my professional stability in the United States, but the memories I took from Lebanon were not tragic, but beautiful and nostalgic memories.
When I wrote the story of West Beirut and decided to return to Beirut, it was because I was telling a story, and I believed that the story I was telling should be understood by Western societies as well. I did not want to write a story that only the Lebanese or the Arabs could understand, so I wrote the story in a universal way.
And when you ask to what extent the war affected my artistic background, I think the opposite happened. Through my long work in America, I was able to understand how technology can be used to tell the story and not the other way around, but we must not forget that Beirut itself has a lot of dynamism, and Lebanon A country hot with feelings and disagreements, and all this provides you with a treasure trove of ideas.
In your movie “West Beirut” you used real archive footage of the war in Lebanon several times. What are the technical reasons for this choice?
It’s a kind of technique that I use like Oliver Stone (American director of “Scarface”) that mixes archival footage with video scenes. I like this technique because it gives a bit of spontaneity to the story, and it’s nice to mix them up.
Your movie “Shock” was criticized and banned in the Arab world on charges of normalization with Israel. Did you know before shooting the movie that it would create all this controversy?
There is no director or any creator who knows that he will be accused of normalization if he does something related to Israel, this was of course one of the follies that were taken on me, all fascist ideas accuse you of things that suit their owners.
Many people – especially the Lebanese left – accused me of normalization. For them, I am normalized because of their hysteria, especially on the part of the Palestinian intellectual elite, and I say this frankly, there is a kind of hysteria born out of intolerance and jealousy. I do not see anyone accusing the Palestinian of normalization when he works in Israeli actions, and I am not saying that they should be accused of normalization, but why are the Lebanese being asked to resist the Palestinian cause more than the Palestinians, and I want to ask those who boycotted the film: Did your boycott of my film succeed in serving Palestine?
Do you think that cinema in the Arab world should be a cinema of struggle and resistance?
I do not think so at all, cinema should be for cinema, because you have ideas that you want to address and share with the audience, whether it is an Arab or Western audience.
Indeed, cinema can be used as a tool for struggle sometimes, but I am not a fan of struggle and resistance, you have a position that you should talk about, I do not make a revolution and do not say that I resist and struggle, there are people who want to struggle in cinema, and this is their right, but I do not want that .
A still from the movie “Shock” directed by Ziad Doueiri, where Palestinian actor Ali Suleiman wants to prove his wife’s innocence
Going back again to your movie “The Attack”, which is based on a novel by writer Yasmina Khadra. The movie was banned in Lebanon because some of its footage was filmed in Israel. Do you think that these decisions serve the Palestinian cause?
Taking shots in Israel does not serve the Palestinian cause, nor does it detract from it. I believe that any ban on any film does not and will not serve the Palestinian cause. The film was banned in Palestine, although the Palestinian actor – who is the hero of the movie Kamel Al-Basha – was the first Palestinian in history to win a high award Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival.
I do not understand how it is possible to prevent the film and prevent the appearance of Kamel al-Basha, who was imprisoned in Israel’s prisons, how can this ban serve the cause? Personally, I think this hurts her.
- If we try to make a comparison between the past and present of Arab cinema, we may notice that there is a regression and a regression in the level of freedoms and the ferocity of censorship. In your opinion, why do Arab governments fear art and cinema and seek to stifle it?
Unfortunately, the Arab world is not moving in the appropriate way, there are exceptions, but we believe that freedom of personal expression, whether in the press, literature or cinema, has never threatened the stability of a country. We are living in a dark period in the history of freedoms in the Middle East, unfortunately, after the end of the Arab Spring we have become Now in the Arab Autumn, because you feel that the train is running away from us again, and this is one of the reasons that made me leave the Western world again.
- In your movie “Case No. 23” you focused on the Damour massacre, and you were accused of being biased towards Christians at the expense of the Palestinians whom you portrayed as terrorists. What is your comment on that, are you really trying to send a political message through this film?
This is normal because of the hysteria that afflicts some. The question that those who accused me of this bias are supposed to ask themselves is: Did the Palestinians commit what happened in Damour or not, and not whether I am biased in my film or not?
Of course, when you talk about the massacre committed by the Christians in Sabra and Shatila, no one doubts your bias. No one could accuse me of lying in reporting the events of the Damour massacre, because the research I did was accurate, and I did not even use a large percentage of the photos that I owned Because there is doubt in their reliability, I used only those of which I was confident of their authenticity.
I think it is necessary for us to review ourselves, because documented history cannot be denied, and no one has a pure history. I did not try to convey a political message through this film, but rather I tried to convey a dramatic story of a Christian person and a Palestinian person who fell victim to society.
Fairuz describes the Lebanese people as a stubborn people who succeed in extracting hope from tragedy, and the evidence is that the most famous Lebanese films are based on Lebanon’s tragedies, such as “West Beirut”, “Kafr Nahum”, “Taif al-Madina” and others, what is your message then to the Lebanese creators in light of the difficulties Which Lebanese society is currently experiencing?
I think that the Lebanese society is now going through one of the most difficult stages in its history, because the sequence of disturbances has become horrible, and I do not know a people who have suffered as much as the Lebanese people have suffered, from political corruption to the explosion of the port of Beirut, as if the last concern of the politicians is what is currently happening.
I think that the Lebanese citizen has begun to lose the spirit of love and the spirit of optimism, but despite that, the Lebanese genes contain the love of life. The Lebanese will return to their previous era, although this takes a very long time, because the Lebanese have lost their faith in many things. My message to the creators is to continue their journey.
Beirut, with its inconsistent architecture, as you described previously, is an excellent place for photography and creativity. Would you consider shooting again in Beirut?
Sooner or later I will return to Lebanon, but not for the time being, because my relationship with the state is not good at the present time, and I do not want to be detained at the airport again.
Lebanon is now a prisoner of idle thoughts, and it is not long before I return, I will wait in the West, and complete my work, and within me I am certain that one day I will return to my country.