Lebanese Filmmaker: Between Beirut, Oscars

In an interview with Al-Hayat, Lebanese filmmaker Lara Saba speaks about the unique contradictions characterizing life in Beirut that inspired her work.

al-monitor Lara Saba's feature film “Blind Intersections” was nominated for an Oscar by Lebanon and toured festivals and won a number of awards, most recently for best movie and best screenplay at the Malmo Festival in Sweden. Photo by Facebook/OssitSawani.movie.

Topics covered

movies, oscars, lebanon, beirut, artists

Oct 7, 2013

In Beirut’s slums, faces do not resemble normal faces and houses look strange. These faces are drowning in solitude and loneliness, and these houses are home to all kinds of vice and degradation. There, dreams are prohibited. On the surface, in the “glamorous and posh” city of Beirut — with its high towers, luxury cars and affluent social classes — dreams know no boundaries. But what if the destinies of these two totally different personalities of Beirut were intertwined?

This is the subject tackled by the first narrative feature film by Lara Saba, Blind Intersections. The movie was nominated for an Oscar by Lebanon and later toured festivals and won a number of awards, most recently the awards for best movie and best screenplay at the Malmo Festival in Sweden.

Al-Hayat interviewed Lara Saba about the film and the Oscars:

Al-Hayat:  Congratulations on your film’s nomination to represent Lebanon at the Oscars. What does this mean to you?

Saba:  I can only express my utmost happiness that my film will represent Lebanon at this unique film event. I hope we will be among the five nominees. One may hope, despite the prevailing doubt. There are 60 to 70 films that are the best in their respective countries and which are competing with us to be nominated among the list of the five films in the competition to grab the Oscar for best foreign film.

Al-Hayat:  The city of Beirut had the leading role in the film, despite the large number of actors and characters. Why?

Saba:  This is true. Beirut is a main character in the film: its streets, colors, rhythm and smell are felt by the audience, in addition to its schizophrenia and the intersections of destinies found within it. All I did in the movie was take a sample of this city and put it under the microscope. I believe Beirut is all about contradictions. This is the impression that not only me but many other people have about this city.

I do not mean here only social contradictions, which range between obscene wealth and extreme poverty, but also the cultural contradictions between ignorance and knowledge, awareness and oblivion. This is a city with a split personality; on the one hand it welcome all kinds of people, while on the other it spews out racism. In short, it is a city with a dual heartbeat. My strong conviction was further consolidated based on the film Beirut, Truth and Versions produced in 2010. This title was based on an expression taken from The New York Times’ Middle East correspondent Bill Farrell, who said, “There is no truth in Beirut, only versions.” In this film I talked with Jocelyn Khoueiri, the famous fighter with the Kataeb, as well as with Ziad Saab, a military official in the Communist Party. Even though these two come from two contradictory fronts, you cannot help but understand their respective perspectives.

Saab told me that in parallel to the bright and dazzling Beirut that never sleeps, there were people who could not afford taxi fares to enjoy the sights of this shining city. He said, “I was one of those people. As a result of our longing for Beirut and a burning desire to have it all for ourselves, we took it hostage. Out of our deep love for it, we killed it.”

In contrast, Khoueiri talked about her intimate relationship with the city, how it represented her whole life and dreams and how she fiercely defended it when she felt that it was being stolen. This image of Beirut was also reflected in the documentary Shattered Memories, which is a reproduction of the city through the archives of Tele Liban. This documentary recalls the golden age during which people were standing in queues in front of social security departments, waiting for compensation — even if only partial — for the medicines they had purchased. I cannot forget one of the scenes where the reporter asks a passer-by about the Baalbek [film] festival. The passer-by replies, “How can you ask me about Baalbek when the price of a bag of bread has gotten this high?” This is the Beirut that I know. A Beirut full of culture, art exhibitions and festivals, and a city that received the Shah of Iran.

Yet, [at the same time], it is a city where people cannot afford a loaf of bread. In my opinion, this is why the war broke out in Lebanon. Before the sectarian problem there was a social problem, and we are unfortunately standing still.

The suffocating class

Al-Hayat:  The duality that you are talking about in Beirut is strongly exposed in Blind Intersections through class inequality between the three main characters: Marwan (from the lower class), Nour (middle class) and Indy (upper class).

Saba:  True! But I did not judge anyone, neither those who belong to the upper class nor those who belong to the lower one.

Al-Hayat:  But it looks like the movie mourns the middle class in Beirut, whose fall is reflected in the tumbling of Nour into the unknown world of poverty?

Saba:  Unfortunately, the Lebanese war stifled and eliminated this class, which is why you find in the movie that Nour’s house is filled with nostalgia for this class.

Al-Hayat: The movie sheds light upon the lower world in Beirut, including the aspects of crime, prostitution, drugs and pedophilia that plague it.

Saba:  I think we have a problem in Lebanon because we often take things personally. In this work, I am not sending a postcard from Lebanon; I am making a movie. I am not making a touristic movie, but a movie that reflects society. It is without a doubt a melancholic movie, but this does not negate the fact that Beirut has another bright and beautiful side that I may highlight in another movie. In this movie, all I did was take a sample of the city and put it under the microscope, especially given that what revolts me the most is the absence of justice and the fact that children are forbidden from having dreams.

This is why it was important to say in the movie that if this class is not given attention, it will one day turn the tables on everyone. I'm not asking for socialist equality, but I believe that a minimum level of protection and knowledge must be secured. One cannot stand idle in front of such suffering. I am from Akkar (in northern Lebanon), a district full of many stories of deprivation. During a seminar, I met two girls who are not allowed to go to school because they are beautiful. Others cannot go to university because they cannot afford the transportation costs. This district is full of similar stories, with hopeless cases and lost dreams.

Al-Hayat:  So you believe cinema is capable of effecting change?

Saba:  Charles Malek once said to me, “I have reached a stage where I do not want to change the world anymore, but I also do not want it to change me.”

For me, there is still a glimmer of hope. When we were little, we used to believe that we could change the world with our movies. Now I have become more realistic, and I know full well that people will not make a revolution after watching my movie. However, change comes little by little, step by step. As someone once said, the world does not change through big events, but through small actions that each and every one of us make.

Al-Hayat:  The movie goes far with the idea of the intertwining of fates and relies on a non-classic style. How was the story made?

Saba:  The main idea upon which the scenarist Nibal Arakji based the movie can be summarized by the following question: “What if?” What if we went right instead of going left? What would have happened, and would our lives have taken a different turn? To what extent can we change our fate, or to what extent would it automatically change if we took one decision instead of the other?

The idea that I wanted to delve into was how much a person we do not know or are not acquainted with can affect our lives, and to what extent we can take matters in our own hands to save ourselves. In a city like Beirut, unlike the Lebanese villages where you are surrounded by family from every side, the feeling of independence grows in you. You reach certain limits where you cannot say you survived because you are just one fish in the sea, and whatever affects the group will affect you too. Moreover, in a city like Beirut, you run into people daily, without seeing or knowing them or even talking to them. It is a place where fates are intertwined in a scary way.

Al-Hayat:  Your movie resembles the films of Alejandro Inarritu, regarding entwined fates and twisting stories. Why did you adopt this style that we are increasingly seeing in Arab cinema today?

Saba:  Perhaps Inarritu is the most popular person who adopted this style, but he wasn’t the only one. As for me, I don’t decide the structure of the movie beforehand, but I believe that the story imposes a certain style. At first, the scenario of the movie was written according to a linear storyline, in which one story starts, then we move to the second, then the third. However, the topic necessitated mixing the stories. The producer, who also wrote the screenplay, had a different point of view. In light of this, we filmed the movie.

Then, as soon as I got into the montage state, I was not satisfied with the results and I became deeply convinced that the movie wouldn’t turn out as I desired if the stories didn’t mix. So, this is what we did after the montage. It is important with such a plot to mix stories, to show the entanglement of fates and the schizophrenic aspect. If you do not put things facing each other, you won’t be able to feel the schizophrenia. For cinema is not an intellectual process, but rather an organic one that has to do with feelings.

In the world of cinema, priority is given to feelings, and the mind comes at a later stage. I believe that as long as you are able to pass on the feelings and emotions in a piece of work, you will succeed. This organic reception and feeling of controversy, injustice and loneliness couldn’t have possibly prevailed over the scenes if we hadn’t made the movie this way. Consequently, this structure imposed itself, and I personally love it. When it comes to cinema, time and space are indefinite and you can play on them, especially since in real life we often ask ourselves philosophical questions about time. What is nice about cinema is that you have the capacity to control time. You can play on time and space in a way that helps you get an intensity of feelings through. I do not deny that Beirut itself imposed this style, with its schizophrenic aspect and coinciding fates. It is a city where coincidences easily happen.

A significant battle

Al-Hayat:  Tell us about some of the difficulties you have encountered, especially given that this is not a standard film.

Saba:  We are currently fighting a great battle for a cinema industry that is far from being common, not only in Lebanon, but also in many other places around the world. Even in France, some are fighting against movie trends that impose themselves on the sector. A French producer spoke to me about how he has suffered from this issue, and about how the current demand for important comedy movies has increased, following the success of Bienvenue Chez Les Chtis and Les Intouchables.

Our battle is harder in Lebanon, because we do not have a cinema industry. Even in America, after some filmmakers spent $20, $30 or $50 million on making a movie, they now aspire to make movies that express what they want at a lower cost. Today, there is a sort of awareness in this field. For me, this awareness affects all levels. We are not required to keep up with trends or to do what the audience expects us to do. There are always those who go first, and the audience will follow us eventually.

Al-Hayat:  The audience is, however, the one that determines whether your movie is a success or failure?

Saba:  There are movies that are similar to a recipe with specific ingredients: a love scene, a blood scene, etc. Yet, if you are willing to make a movie that emanates from within you, and if you want to speak about your pain or about the change you want to bring about, you can only work with honesty and not according to demand.

Art always involves a sense of selfishness. The more the artist searches deep within himself, the more he strives to reach a broader audience. The deeper you go into yourself, the more you succeed in speaking to the other, no matter how far away he may be geographically, culturally or socially.  For this reason I don't focus on the type of audience I am targeting; whether it be Lebanese, Arab or Western. I never do this. I make my movie and I hope it will speak to the broadest audience. I do not pretend to have a particular identity. I am saying that based on the book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, by Amin Maalouf. For this reason, a challenge, for me, is about the extent to which you can be open to the world and bring in others, despite being different from them.

Al-Hayat:  To what extent did you succeed in releasing yourself from the restraints of your identity, given that you live in a country that pushes you every day to be closer to your sect and region?

Saba:  Succeeding in doing so probably goes back to the fact that I was, for a certain time, living in France and got married to a foreigner who believes that these details are obsolete. For instance, in France I met with Jews who were taking part in a protest to support Palestinians. When you deal with this type of people, your perception will be widened and you can’t help but free yourself from all these restraints. There are a lot of restraints in our country that limit us, and from which we must liberate ourselves by resisting ignorance. I read a while ago that a child gets 80% of his IQ from his mother. In my opinion, it is a justification for the violence generated by our societies. When a woman is worth “half a man” in our society, we can never be certain that society will rise up.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Vicky Habib