A forgotten chapter of Middle Eastern history is brought to light in docu “The Lebanese Rocket Society.” The pic’s first two-thirds, which trace the strange story of Lebanon’s aborted venture into the space race from 1960-66, prove far more fascinating than the final half-hour, which follows helmers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s co-option of this peculiar history for their multimedia project. Still, bagging the $100,000 prize for best docu at Doha Tribeca should help fuel “Rocket’s” ride to fests, cinematheques and broadcasters.
When the Beirut-born filmmakers discover an old photograph of a Lebanese rocket in flight, they are astonished to learn that their country was the first in the Middle East to launch a rocket. They set out to explore why the rocket program, once the pride of the nation, seems to have no place in Lebanon’s collective consciousness today.
In so doing, they adopt a subjective approach typical of their art-making, filtering the facts through their own voiceover theories about history and dreams. This slightly precious conceptualization won’t be to all tastes, although it brings in a broader sociological context, relating the end of rocket research to the failure of pan-Arabism and other ’60s utopian aspirations.
The key figure in this history is Manoug Manougian, onetime mathematics professor at Beirut’s Armenian Haigazian College and faculty advisor to the science club. Now teaching at the U. of South Florida, Manougian provides a treasure-trove of documents, photos and film footage related to the rocket program, which he founded.
Charmingly matter-of-fact, the prof relates some amusing anecdotes about his students needing to mix their own propellant, and how one launch from a student’s family farm flew frighteningly off-course naturally, the government quickly stepped in, and the military became involved.
Although Manougian maintains that Haigazian College’s interest in rocketry was solely for peaceful scientific inquiry, retired military officers such as Youssef Wehbe and Joseph Sfeir admit that the Army’s interest lay in how to weaponize the rockets.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer as to why the rocket program was shuttered and forgotten. Manougian believes that France pressured Lebanon’s president to back off. The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and Lebanon’s civil war probably also played a part, as the rockets of warfare supplanted those of patriotic exploration in the national memory.
After recounting this history in just an hour, the helmers spend most of the rest of the film documenting a project of their own: the manufacture of a large scale model of the Cedar 4 rocket that they truck from the cliffs of Dbayeh through Beirut to a final resting place in the courtyard of Haigazian College. Concluding moments feature the animation of Ghassan Halawani, illustrating how Lebanon might have looked in 2025 if the space program had continued.
Pic would be more viewer-friendly if the names of the interviewees appeared onscreen. Tech credits are nothing special.