Eleven films focused on Lebanon, screened over the past week at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, conveyed a rich caravan of images and ideas from the war-torn country – many of which presented in-depth looks at life seemingly having nothing to do with bombshells.
The full range of life, art and social discourse was indeed the goal of the section titled Lebanon: Between Ashes and Roses, according to Ji.hlava’s Rene Kubasek.
He explains the section, a first for the fest, grew organically from the body of work Ji.hlava organizers noticed was on the rise last year.
“At our 2017 edition we ended up having five Lebanon-produced films in our competition sections,” Kubasek says, “and we realized that Lebanon has lately been producing a few of the most interesting additions to contemporary world cinema.”
After some organizing and surveying, which also turned up many Czech documentarians working on projects in or about Lebanon, Kubasek says the fest was determined to launch a full tribute sidebar dedicated to the country.
“We decided to have a closer look at the Lebanese documentary scene and indeed found some remarkable titles – mostly film essays influenced by French culture.”
Several of these brought unexpected lightness to screens in Ji.hlava this year, such as “The Disappearance of Goya” by Toni Geitani, a picaresque following contemporary Lebanese characters through a maze of images that play off traditional ones depicting war zones.
The film, which explores battle imagery and takes on stereotypes, plays with perceptions as it first shows a seemingly authentic photo of a military execution, then gradually reveals the scene was staged by actors and burnished by retouched smoke and fake blood.
With a main character resembling a B-movie creature in heavy makeup with a synthesized voice who also turns out not to be what he appears, the film helped kick off the Lebanese section with suitable attitude.
Farah Abou Kharroub, a Lebanese-born Palestinian filmmaker who resides in the Czech Republic, also presented her short doc “Summer,” in the first group of screenings from the section.
A kind of video diary in which the filmmaker reflects on childhood amid bombings, the film focuses on family life as much as war strife. Kharroub confesses guilt at being born in a part of Lebanon that allows her a passport and international recognition to travel, something Palestinians born in Lebanon’s West Bank can only dream of.
The film, which includes footage she shot of the bombing of Beirut’s airport she filmed at age 13 with a video camera given to her by her father, a journalist, “reveals the unbearable length of a conflict that affected two generations,” as Ji.hlava programmers put it.
Another thoroughly unconventional Lebanese film, “Linceul,” a mixture of performance art and nonfiction film by Selim Mourad, which followed an experiment in which three men and two women remain nude for days while living together, was inspired by an article by Roger Salardenne about social experiments in Germany in the late 1920s.
“This Little Father Obsession,” meanwhile, also by Selim Mourad, follows the director’s pursuit of a distant relative as it takes on conventions about homosexuality. Other films that also challenge tradition in the ancient culture were “RIOT: 3 Movements,” a look at garbage service protests by Rania Stephan, and “Resurrection,” a study of the impact of Syrian refugees by Orwa Mokdad.
“Spring – a River and the Raging River” by Rola Shamas, meanwhile, is an Indian-Lebanese co-production centered on life and ritual along the Ganges while “Tshweesh” by Feyrouz Serhal depicts Beirut as a city with its own physical memory in the form of sports iconography. “At Last, a Tragedy” by Maya Shurbaji is also a collage of images showing the contrasting faces of Damascus and Beirut.
“Erased, Ascent of the Invisible,” a look a thousands who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war by Ghassan Halwani, is a sobering study in rewritten history, while “Chinese Ink” by Ghassan Salhab considers the power of cinematic images written in parchment.