Mai Masri, daughters pledge to keep alive Jean Chamoun’s film legacy

Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri devoted their cinema careers to the Palestinian cause. A year after Chamoun's death, Masri has started work on a new script for a feature film.

al-monitor A close-up of the face of Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun is pictured on a program held by his wife, Mai Masri, for a commemorative festival in his honor, Ramallah, West Bank, Aug. 28, 2018.  Photo by Filmlab: Palestine.

Sep 16, 2018

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Amid buildings teetering on the brink of collapse under a sky torn by snipers, Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri walks with her husband, the Lebanese director Jean Chamoun, to document the destruction of the 1982 Lebanon War. The couple’s walk, with both carrying cameras, is one of the memorable scenes in a 27-minute portrait of Chamoun. 

The documentary about about the cinematic and personal journey of Chamoun and Masri was screened for the first time at a commemorative festival in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Aug. 28, a year after Chamoun’s death on Aug. 10, 2017.

The festival, organized by FilmLab: Palestine, screened Chamoun's best-known films and included a series of seminars and debates that explored his career, his political views and his stances on the Palestinian cause right up until his death in Lebanon last year. The event featured a number of the joint productions between Masri and Chamoun, including “In the Shadows of the City” (2000), “War Generation Beirut” (1989), “Suspended Dreams” (1992) and “3000 Nights” (1995).

“Preserving Jean’s cultural and cinematic heritage means continuing to work according to the principles we established,” Masri, originally from the northern West Bank city of Nablus, told Al-Monitor.

Chamoun and Masri formed a cinematic duo whose work focused on the Palestinian cause, producing films and documentaries that approached the Palestinian issue from various perspectives. Their collaboration began during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and derived its importance from a “cinematic focus on the Palestinian cause," Masri said.

She said she first met Chamoun in 1980 at the Palestinian Film Institute, which Chamoun co-founded, in Beirut. She went back to San Francisco to complete her studies, and then the couple reunited when she came back to Lebanon, where they lived and worked together. They got married four years later.

Filmed during the invasion of Beirut, “Under the Rubble” (1983) was their first joint work. “We lived through difficult times for filmmaking, especially the 1982 siege of Beirut,” she said. “Yet despite the gravity of events, we continued to focus on our work.”

Chamoun’s association with the Palestinian issue predated his acquaintance with Masri. He participated in establishing the Palestinian Cinema Institute in Beirut and successfully wrote and produced a number of documentaries on the Palestinian cause, including the 1976 film “Tel al-Zaatar,” which deals with the massacre in the Tel al-Zaatar camp in Lebanon.

Chamoun and Masri’s partnership led to a total of 15 films — all conveying the voice of the Arab peoples and disadvantaged social groups. Their work became an instrument of change as well as creativity. The 1986 film “Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon” addressed the role of women in southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, while “Beirut War Generation” narrated the stories of those growing up in a time of conflict. Chamoun also participated in the production of several of Masri’s documentaries that dealt specifically with children, such as “Children of Shatila” (1998) and “Frontiers of Dreams and Fears” (2001).

Masri told Al-Monitor that she is currently working on the script for a feature film about Palestine but declined to reveal the details of the project, which she said was "still crystallizing." She explained that it will be her first movie since Chamoun’s death and confirmed her commitment to continuing the journey undertaken with her companion.

Chamoun’s cinematic legacy provides historical context for a highly eventful era and Masri sees herself as tasked with preserving this cultural heritage. The task will not be left to Masri alone. The couple’s daughters, Hana and Nour, will also share in the responsibility, having inherited a love of cinema. They were exposed to acting, filming and directing as children. At age 6, Hana acted in “In the Shadows of the City” (2000), Chamoun’s only fictional feature movie. She returned to the screen alongside Nour in their mother’s 2015 film “3000 Nights,” which tells the story of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Hana acted the part of a Palestinian detainee who gave birth in prison, while Nour played the role of another prisoner.

“I started my work as a director with Jean, but now I will complete it with my daughters,” said Masri. “It feels wonderful to continue Jean's project and preserve a legacy that they will complete.”

The commemorative event in Ramallah attracted a large audience, especially young people, despite the historical nature of many of the films screened. This impressed Masri. “There is increasing interest in history and memory among young people. So the films we produced also have a heightened interest as a record of that era,” she said.

Masri continued, “After Jean passed away, I felt keenly aware of his value and of people's love for him. His impact was not only in Palestine but around the world. This is because his primary message was about defending humanity and human and social rights, whether through the Palestinian issue, or the great upheavals that Lebanon experienced during the civil war and wars with Israel.”

A joint press release Aug. 27 by the two organizers of the event, Ramallah Municipality and the FilmLab underlined that "honoring [Chamoun] comes from a belief in the importance of his work as an Arab cinematographer who made a great contribution to Palestine, culturally, artistically and cinematically.”

Masri said at the ceremony, “The appreciation from Palestine carries a lot of meaning and significance, because it is the cause Jean defended throughout his life. This appreciation [from Palestinian people] brings me great happiness, strength and pride.”

“The Palestinian tribute is a gesture of affection for Jean's role in supporting the Palestinian cause through cinema,” she continued. “Cinema is a very effective means of expression. So Jean’s films have been disseminated worldwide, screened in cinemas, on television and in international cultural festivals. This has had an emotional, political, cognitive and cultural impact.”

FilmLab:Palestine’s founder and artistic director, Hanna Atallah, told Al-Monitor, “The tribute to Jean is a homage to someone considered to be among the first Arab filmmakers to adopt the Palestinian cause, and a pioneer and founder of the Palestinian Cinema Institution in Beirut, where he first met Masri.”

Atallah further noted Chamoun’s commitment to documenting the lives of Palestinian people and the various milestones of Palestinian history in a positive manner, which differed from the negative image typically promoted around the world. "So he also preserved the culture of the Palestinian people, their identity and their stories," Atallah said.

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