BEIRUT — It’s midweek and three people stare at their phone screens as they walk down Rue Liban, converging at the bottleneck that empties onto Gouraud Street.
One of them, Hady Zaccak (b. 1974), has made more than 25 documentaries of various lengths, four of them features. Another, Hadi Bou Ayash, describes himself as a “farmer, actor, filmmaker,” who may be best recognized for his roles in a pair of 2017 titles, Mazen Khaled’s Martyr and Philippe Aractingi’s Listen.
Both, along with L’Orient Today, are searching for the early 20th-century building where a flat hosts Salon Correspondaences. This relatively recent addition to the city’s art scene describes itself as “a peer-to-peer platform for artists and cultural practitioners from Lebanon.”
Next door to a shopfront tattoo parlor the three men find “Correspondaences” written on a white paper sign taped to the stone doorframe.
Correspondaences cofounders Joana Hadjithomas, Sandra Dagher and their collaborators started the initiative in 2021, with the intent to assist members of Lebanon’s artistic community threatened both by the country’s economic collapse and by the destruction of the Beirut port blast. Though created independently, Correspondaences quickly formed a liaison with Nafas, a residency program in France that the French Institute and several partner organizations created for Lebanese artists.
“The idea of Correspondaences is very horizontal,” Hadjithomas says. “The idea that people will ask for what they need. We don't have to decide ‘This is needed,’ or ‘This is what we should do.’ It was very open to artists, practitioners in cinema, music, art, writing, performance, to ask their questions, to express their needs. For the first year and a half we were very focused on that — responding to their ideas and needs and in trying to connect them with other people. We are ready to answer questions, to spend time, to give advice or just to create links between people.”
“It’s not an institution,” says Dagher. “We didn’t do an assessment of the situation and create a structure to adapt. There was a sense of urgency, so it was more like, ‘Okay, we need to help. How can we help?’ Correspondaences' mission has been evolving. At the beginning, we thought, ‘Okay, we're in Paris. There are Lebanese who are friends who are asking us questions.’ We felt, ‘Okay, why do we do it only for our friends? Let’s make it more open and understand what is necessary … We soon realized that the exchanges were happening more often in Lebanon ... We were here to support them if they wanted to go for a certain time by networking etc. We realized after a year and a half that there was something happening here and there was a need [for] something less formal. It’s difficult for us to define exactly what Correspondaences is, because it is evolving all the time.”
“We want to link the different generations and people that we never met, find a way to meet artists of different ages, different experiences, different moments in their lives,” Hadjithomas says. “The idea isn’t to mentor or give advice, or anything like that.”
What to film?
“You’re confronted by many questions when you’re doing film here,” Hadjithomas says to the filmmakers and artists gathered this evening. “Let’s try to share how we do films today, and the way we explore documentary and the fictions of our lives, when everything is a bit upside down and a lot of things are not plausible but are happening.”
There may be two dozen filmmakers and artists in the room, though the numbers wax and wane during the two-plus hours of conversation. Many participants — some closer to Zaccak’s age, others closer to that of Bou Ayash — join the conversation.
Hadjithomas occasionally plays a moderator-like role and Zaccak, who is asked to open the discussion, channels some of his insights through a film he’s just shot in Tripoli. Other contributing artists include filmmaker Eliane Raheb, co-founder of the artist-run film association Beirut DC and the Ayam Beirut al-Cinema’iyya film festival, filmmaker-artist Ahmad Ghossein, whose 2021 feature-length fiction All This Victory is set in a southern village during Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, and artist-filmmaker and Correspondaences co-founder Khalil Joreige, best known for his energetic contemporary art and film collaborations with Hadjithomas, most recently Memory Box, 2021, centering on a Lebanese expat who receives a cache of photos and audio tapes from her adolescence in civil war Beirut.
Zaccak recalls how, after the port blast of August 2020, he and his camera were downtown, standing before the old cinema-opera (pre-2019 a Virgin Megastore) and he recalled filming the same structure in 1995, then a ruin of the 1975-90 Civil War.
“I asked myself, why should I constantly film destruction, with the same places being destroyed?” he says. “What am I still going to film in Lebanon? Personally, I’m looking for a dialogue between the present and the past. We were under a kind of illusion that the past and present were different, but more and more I’m thinking they look similar.”
Zaccak has long been interested in Lebanese history, In 2009 he released a broadcast-length film called A History Lesson, looking into how the discipline is taught in the country’s highly segmented school system. He’s just finished shooting a film that seeks to reconstruct a century in the history of Tripoli through its cinemas.
“I’ve decided to experiment with how to use the writing as a history process,” he says, “and how to use the works of film with how to put this into images and through the collective memory itself.”
Zaccak’s film promises to be unique in that he makes use of still photos in much the same way that conventional documentary uses the moving image.
“You can hear the voices talking but it’s still images,” Hadjithomas says. “You have the impression of being stuck in the past and the present at the same time.”
“I think this is something I felt about Lebanon as well,” Zaccak replies. “I felt we are stuck. So we’re trying sometimes to do movies, but nothing is moving, so why shoot in video? Why not go back to still photography?”
Ghossein wonders whether “stuck” is an accurate way to describe how all artists and filmmakers are feeling in Lebanon these days.
“The way I live it, it’s moving so quickly, so we’re not really stuck,” he says. “Things are collapsing, which is a huge event with a lot of consequences … I can understand this feeling of being stuck, in the sense that we are in a state of crisis all the time, so you feel yourself in a cycle of crises.
“After three years of not being able to digest what’s going on, at a certain point, I felt that I am the film now. Before you were watching, trying to analyze, trying to find a way in, an interesting angle but now you’ve become the film, unable to see anything else.”
“You mean you’ve become the subject?” Joreige asks.
“No. I mean after three years, this catastrophe is entering every detail of your life. You’re preoccupied with everything, overwhelmed. For me the strongest relationship I have in Lebanon is with the generator.”
Laughter rises from the room.
“These questions about the meaning of the image are legitimate — what to do and how to do it and the distance, the time we should take — but the state or the corrupt authorities, whatever you want to call them, they’re moving, finding solutions for themselves, to escape. What does that mean to be stuck?”
“Reality is making me into a historian more than a filmmaker,” Zaccak says. “Instead of dealing with the present, I go back more to the past to understand the present better.”
“But do you feel the past is the past?” asks Raheb.
“No, the past is still alive. This is the problem,” he chuckles quietly. “In Lebanon only the past is alive. We are dead.”
A second's silence, followed by gales of laughter from the room.
“What about the present,” says Joreige. “If we consider that there’s a rupture, a sort of discontinuity — ”
“In my case,” Zaccak replies, “the rupture is that I’m seeing the present more as fiction than documentary. For the first time as a documentarian, I am seeing things only through fiction — specific genres, either black comedy or dystopia, science fiction, horror.”
Invited to comment, Raheb recalls having hosted a film crew in Beirut last winter.
“When I met the director, I asked, ‘What are you coming to do? It was February. There was no electricity. It was very cold. She told me, ‘I’m coming to see what will happen to Sarajevo next.’
“By chance, I went to Sarajevo this past summer, and I realized they are almost [where Lebanon is now]. Then I see that Tunisia has problems, and even the UK because of Brexit. During the Civil War we used to hear all the time that Lebanon is a laboratory for sectarianism and all the other horrible things that can happen to a country.”
“In 2018 I was feeling that Beirut was dead ... I didn’t feel happy. I felt dead. I detached myself from Beirut then, but I never imagined that I could see it in one picture, blowing up. It’s shocking to see it in one shot, to say, I am in this event ... When I see people are attacked, like Nizar Saghieh, I feel ‘Soon it’s gonna be me.’ You feel as though the noose is narrowing around you.”
Raheb is a dogged indie filmmaker and educator. Her self-produced 2021 feature Miguel’s War — a profile of a gay man living in exile amidst memories of coming of age during Lebanon's long Civil War — has had a healthy run of international festivals and brought home treasure.
“What I wanted to say,” Raheb resumes, “is that, before [the port blast] I was imagining how it would be. After the blast, there is no imagination. Imagination is gone.”
“I agree with Eliane,” Ghossein interjects. “I’d like to dig into this lack of imagination, even though reality gives you so much material. When you hear the news about the minister telling hunters to go to the airport to shoot the birds that had gathered there because of the garbage dumped there,” he chuckles quietly. “How could you imagine such a thing?”
“Or rescheduling Daylight Savings Time,” Raheb rejoins, provoking more laughter. “It’s beyond fiction.”
“Whatever we create,” Hadjithomas says, “will be less incredible than what’s happening.”
“The question isn’t a lack of subjects,” Zaccak says. “We have to also mention the role of social media, which took over a role that somehow was played by documentary. If you look at Instagram or Facebook every day you have short moments of reality that are very strong. How is documentary going to deal with the image when we’re surrounded by images? Before you needed a 16mm camera to film. Now we all have a camera in our pocket.
“This is changing the documentary gaze,” he says. “This is why, personally, I decided to archive what’s happening, without making films, and wait as a citizen to have the distance to have something to say.”
“Whether you see it as a rupture or not,” says Joreige, “as soon as you see it, you know you cannot continue and that you have to reinvent yourself, to reinvent your way of dealing with your daily life. There are today in our daily lives things that we are forced to reinvent, that are so singular that they have no tradition.”
“‘Our heritage has no testament,’” Hadjithomas nods, quoting French intellectual René Char. “Everything is new and singular. This relates too to when you’re filming, or archiving, not being able to film. The idea is that when you are thinking of doing something, something else always happens and there’s no time to digest. You are becoming the film, maybe you are the film, but everything is happening to you all the time. So how can you sit in an editing room and cut a film?”
“This is why I stopped doing films that follow current events,” Raheb agrees. “I can leave Lebanon. I have maybe a way to take some time away. I stay because it’s important to witness this moment, to observe. I don’t need to film it. I need to live it, with all my senses, though it is very difficult and very ugly. If I were outside I wouldn’t live it the same way.”
But how to film?
Much of the conversation is dedicated to the question of how documentary filmmakers position themselves vis-a-vis Lebanon’s overlapping crises. The filmmakers also discuss practical matters of how to produce films when the regional and international structures for financing cinema have been upended.
“Since 2019 I’ve been asking myself, can we still produce films in the same way that we used to do?” Zaccak says. “Are our films reaching the local audience — given that we’re talking about our history, our memory. If our work is only screened at film festivals, are we doing something for society? If our films are only for the elite, what are we doing on a bigger scale to tackle our collective memory and our history?”
Zaccak is interested in how to liberate documentary from the financing system that has supported regional film production for the past 20 years.
“Whenever you deal with funding, you have deadlines. I’m thinking about how we can get rid of all these constraints in a country where everything has collapsed, where you no longer have any kind of financial system. How do you build this [independence]?
“The technology itself gives you a lot of freedom. What you need to make a documentary is time. We still have the time, time to observe what’s happening … In my last film, for example, I knew that I was going to film for several years. So this time I shot by myself and recorded the sound myself. Since I also teach, I created a crew from my students. It can be a sort of workshop. So I take and I give at the same time.”
Raheb’s perspective is less sanguine.
“Before we entered this phase,” I was feeling that the classical way of producing films is not sustainable. I never had a producer tell me, ‘Make the films you want. I believe in you.’ I always had to struggle to find a producer. My last two films I produced myself. I have to go to war to make each film happen. When I reach the end of the process I’m exhausted.
“So my main concern after the explosion was to finish the film that I had started before. I couldn’t find the motivation to continue, when you see the reality shift so much in two years. I finished my shoot in 2018 so ’19 and ’20 totally changed. Who wants to hear Miguel’s story?” she smiles. “Is it relevant?”
Raheb feels that the practical challenges of filmmaking in Lebanon have been overtaken by other questions.
“I have to find a form where I don’t feel bad, where it costs less,” she says. “I’m trying to free myself from the weight of classical cinema — big production, coproduction and waiting and markets and pitching and funds and rejections. Today I’m not even able to write a file to apply for financing. I can’t stand it, lying for these questions — ‘Why are you the best filmmaker to make this film?’”
“This is what I feel as well,” Zaccak says. “We are first of all citizens, not filmmakers anymore.”
“We are the film,” Ghossein adds.
“Is it ethical to have a film with a $200,000 budget when your neighbor is dying?” Raheb asks, “and doesn’t have $100 to his name? Can I make a film with that much money when my sister has to deal with what to do now that she’s lost all the money she had in the bank?”
“I am myself a technician,” interjects filmmaker Gabriella Choueifaty. “This is how I make a living. I choose to be a technician and I have gone through shit where I didn’t have any money.
“First of all, I think making a film is always a war, whether you make it with a producer or you make it on your own. Second, if you get the funding and you make it in Lebanon and you get a sound engineer, and you get a camera operator and you get XYZ and you’re paying them money, you’re actually injecting money into the economy. You’re helping real people live.”
No discernible answers arose from this evening at Salon Correspondaences, but the conversation suggests Lebanon’s nonfiction film scene continues to be lively and vital, despite everything.