“So all you did was watch movies?”: A study on Lebanese Cinema and the Civil War

My summer project was most definitely a personal one, that I started from a less-than-objective point of view. Although I could not say that I have grown up watching Lebanese films about the civil war, violence and trauma not being the most suited themes for childhood movies, I remember very distinctively how marked I was by watching Ziad Doueri’s West Beirut: All of the sudden, the stories that my parents would tell me, of how cheerful they were when school was cancelled, of the curiosity about the other side of Beirut that they were not allowed to cross to, even the colourful 1970s clothes that I would see on old pictures, were animated on the screen. Watching West Beirut as a Lebanese person that was born after the end of the war, I did not understand its causes and consequences. But I felt empathy, I felt belonging and I felt like I  could grasp a little bit better what everyday life was like under the war, for a teenager the age of my mother. Hence, this project aimed to analyze the extent of cinema’s ability as a medium to talk about what the Lebanese state all but refuses to acknowledge. Furthermore, in a fragmented society that is yet to heal from the war’s wounds, can cinema bring people a sense of commemoration, and through the latter, actively work towards national reconciliation?

Tarek, Omar and May share ‘riz el banet’ in ‘West Beirut’ (1998)


Upon starting this project, I very quickly realized that most if not all of the information I held about the war and about people’s attitudes towards it stemmed from commonly agreed upon opinions amongst Lebanese people, rather than academic texts. Although these are probably very interesting from a more ethnographic perspective, they presented the problem of being source-less, somewhat mythical, and not exactly reliable: ‘All Lebanese filmmakers do is complain about the war.’ ; ‘The Christians are the ones who protected this country.’ ; ‘The youth knows nothing about the war.’ etc …  The first part of my research then consisted in confirming, disproving, and learning more about my pre-conceived ideas. David Hirst’s Beware of small states was an excellent introduction to the history of Lebanon and the Levantine region in general, and included a clear and concise explanation of the civil war, which allowed me to take a step back and make sense of what exactly was a sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims in the war, and what was a result of external politics, and the key geographical role that the small country plays in the region. Ultimately, I believe that Lebanon’s issue does not lie in its confessional divide, but rather in its difficulty to define its identity. Religion is inherently part of Lebanese politics influences the extent to which Lebanese citizens will consider themselves Arabs or Phoenicians, socially liberal or more conservative, but also on what community can get the upper hand in government, or how their leaders can build power and influence in the country, and within the region. This means that although Lebanese people can indeed be patriotic, their Lebanese identity does not stem from a loyalty to the state, but to their respective religious communities, whether Druze, Maronite, Sunni or Shi’a. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for Lebanon to become a fully-fledged nation, and the ideological and sectarian issues that are in part what triggered the Civil War, almost thirty years ago, remain the source of tensions in the post-war peace that according to some, was never quite achieved.

If we consider that all films are political, Lebanese films, whether they deal with the subject of war or not, then inevitably take on importance beyond that of a work of art or entertainment. When interviewing Lebanese filmmakers, I couldn’t help but notice that they were a little bit defensive, if not exasperated, by the suggestion that the work they were doing was explicitly activist. Cinema is not pedagogical, its is not

An ex-militiaman explains his reasons for fighting in ‘Alone with the War’ (2001)

educational, it does not aim to replace the work of historians or politicians. Films were not made to achieve national reconciliation or to shed light on its unspoken aspect, but rather as a consequence of the lack of commemoration, and the lack of collective understanding of it. On the subject, the filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian told me “This trauma is going to stay with you. And the same goes for a country. We experienced it collectively and individually […] My professional work has been focused on searching for what exactly happened at that time. It’s a human desire no matter where you live to seek out what exactly happened to you and to your loved ones.” Through introspective and personal work, Lebanese cinema nonetheless did its part in providing for people like me and across Lebanon imperfect images of the war, and stories that humanize and victimize all participants of a war that still impacts Lebanese society today. Reconciliation may still not be achieved, but through the construction of symbols that are fundamentally Lebanese rather than sectarian, it is possible for the country’s present and next generations to truly form a nation.

Finally, I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw and everybody involved with the Research and Leadership program for this opportunity. This has been an amazing opportunity to work on what may have been a little too unconventional for an essay, to grow as a person and feel more comfortable in a position of leadership, and yes, to watch a lot of films!


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