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The International Restructuring of Post-War Lebanese Cinema. Between the Diaspora’s Legacy and the Transnational Circulations of Films

Le cinéma libanais d’après-guerre recomposé par le rapport à l’international. Entre héritage diasporique et insertion dans les circulations transnationales du film
El cine libanés de postguerra recompuesto por su relación con el ámbito internacional. Entre herencia diaspórica e inserción en las circulaciones transnacionales del cine
Das libanesische Kino der Nachkriegszeit neu zusammengesetzt durch die Beziehung zum Internationalen. Zwischen diasporischem Erbe und Einbettung in die transnationalen Filmzirkulationen
Thomas Richard
Traduction de Jean-Yves Bart
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le cinéma libanais d’après-guerre recomposé par le rapport à l’international. Entre héritage diasporique et insertion dans les circulations transnationales du film [fr]

Résumés

La génération de cinéastes qui arrive à maturité après la guerre civile libanaise fait face à un paysage cinématographique dévasté. Cependant, en prenant appui sur l’héritage de la période précédente, déjà marquée par une forte internationalization, ces artistes vont participer à une recomposition du cinéma libanais qui se restructure via son rapport à l’international. Celui-ci irrigue les enjeux de formation, production, diffusion, ainsi que les thèmes et l’esthétique de ce renouveau cinématographique. Partie prenante des enjeux culturels transnationaux, c’est un cinéma à la fois d’exil et diasporique, aussi bien un « cinéma du monde » célébré par les festivals internationaux qu’un cinéma inséré dans ses pays d’accueil. Le cinéma libanais de l’après-guerre s’ancre dans ces circulations à l’international, et, en négociant les rapports de pouvoir qui le lient aux institutions de financement et à ses publics, il développe une réflexion sur sa propre identité.

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Figure 1

Figure 1

Catherine Deneuve in a scene from the film Je veux voir.

Source: Hadjithomas Joana & Joreige Khalil (2009). Je veux voir, Abbout Productions.

1Founded as a national industry (distinct from the pre-1914 Ottoman productions and the French films shot in the country) during the League of Nations mandate, Lebanese cinema was at an early stage characterized by intense circulation of both directors and works.

  • 1 Films mentioned are referenced in appendix.

2During the prosperous 1960s, the Lebanese cinema industry established itself at the interface of regional and global circulations. On the regional level, Egyptian and Syrian directors came to work in Lebanon, where they enjoyed more freedom of speech that in their own countries. These included Youssef Chahine and Henry Barakat, who came to make future classics (Rings for Sale 1964; Safar Barlik 1967).1 For both men, who had Lebanese roots, this was also a personal journey.

3At the same time, Beirut also became a shooting location of choice for European productions, especially genre films involving crime and spy stories, drawing on opportunities for co-production with local companies. Thematically, these films often used Lebanon’s image of a relatable Orient, touching on the worlds of drugs and Cold War intrigue, but also depicting the “swinging Beirut,” a local, exotic variation on the images of liberation and of young people partying across Western Europe.

4While Lebanon hosted foreign productions, Lebanese artists travelled abroad and, depending on their opportunities and political beliefs, were trained in Western or Eastern Bloc institutions. In the context of the country’s intense politicization in those years, these circulations made the Lebanese film world a space for encounters and confrontations between highly polarized schools and socio-political sensibilities. Combined with long-standing diasporic phenomena, these circulations of artists and works intensified with the Civil War (1975-1990) and the subsequent economic and political crises. While a number of filmmakers who were adults in 1975 were forced into exile by the war, the following generation, whose members were often born or raised outside of Lebanon, has been less openly political. When peace returned, many opted to work both in Lebanon and abroad, which calls for an examination of the connections between the trauma of war and the relationship to foreign countries, beyond the sole question of exile.

5This generation of filmmakers developed a structuring relationship to the world outside Lebanon, especially considering that their works were produced and seen at least as much if not more abroad than in Lebanon, to the extent that they lent themselves to criticism about the tenuousness of their connection to their own country. On a deeper level, these circulations redefined this connection and the very identity of Lebanese cinema, which became part of the international festival circuit and enjoyed recognition from the taste-making audiences of these festivals, while being largely co-produced by foreign institutions, especially in Europe. These modes of distribution and production became increasingly widespread in Western Europe between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, as schemes designed to support cinema from the global South were ramped up, right at the time when the generation of filmmakers who shaped post-war Lebanese cinema came of age. France and its European partners, who at the time made a case for a “cultural exception,” which was then rephrased as support to cultural diversity (Mattelart 2009), played a major role in this process. These policies, indeed, echoed Lebanese filmmakers’ reflections and search for support.

6More broadly, the importance of the relationship to foreign actors in all key areas of filmmaking (the training of artists, funding, distribution, the films’ themes) calls for reconsidering a complex filmic identity, rooted in local film history but reshaped by the war and post-war periods. This lends this research a twofold theoretical dimension. First, it builds on reflection on the transnationalization of cultural phenomena, particularly the research produced by Anna Boschetti (2010) and her colleagues. This approach requires considering power relations as well as negotiations between artists, audiences and funding bodies, as Julien Duval (2020) did, and the impact of these relationships on the themes addressed in the works, depending on the expectations of the respective parties. Also, the circulations of artists and films, both imposed and deliberate, call for questioning the extent to which contemporary Lebanese cinema can be interpreted as a diasporic cinema, characterized by a dynamic of hybridity that it calls into question (Moorti 2012), especially in its relationship to the founding trauma of war. This article intends to show that the relationship to work abroad did not simply turn out to be a constraint or an opportunity; it developed as part of a negotiation game that led to a rethought approach to cinema itself.

7Based on this observation, I have assembled a corpus that reflects the transformations of the Lebanese cinema landscape owing to the Civil War. Regarding the training pathways of filmmakers, the research focuses on two generations. For the generation who were adults at the time of the war, the relationship to the international level was first part of the legacy of diaspora that characterized Lebanese intellectuals, as their work was brutally disrupted by exile and the loss of opportunities for local production and distribution. This generation laid the bases for the construction of the relationship to the international level developed and complexified by the following generation, which is the main focus of this study. By looking at these two generations, I intend to grasp the historical thickness of the restructuring of the Lebanese cinema landscape. The works considered here were picked among the most significant productions of the second generation. Within a much bigger corpus (around sixty films), I have chosen to focus on a few of the films that most directly explore the relationship to the international level. The study accordingly zooms in on the work of some particularly significant filmmakers, who are also particularly representatives of the dynamics explored in terms of trajectory, themes, and public and critical recognition in Lebanon and abroad (Nadine Labaki, Ziad Doueiri, Josef Fares, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, etc.).

8To illuminate the stakes of these circulations of Lebanese cinema, while remaining constantly mindful that these different dimensions are closely combined, I will first focus on the circulation of artists (during their studies and as professionals) and then consider the territories and networks of which their works are a part, to understand how they structure and condition the identity of Lebanese cinema.

1. Artists on the Move, for Training and Fundraising

9The circulation of Lebanese cinema first concerns the directors, who are largely trained abroad, where they forge ties with funding bodies for world cinema—this has been increasingly the case since the Civil War and the rise of these institutions the 1990s. Migration or exile, for academic, political, and economic reasons, shape the experience of many Lebanese filmmakers.

1. 1. An Highly Internationalized Training

10Migration is a very old phenomenon in Lebanon, rooted in nineteenth century population movements (Khater 2001: 48) that led to the establishment of diasporic communities, particularly in Europe and America (Abdulkarim 1994). Intellectuals have been particularly prone to migrate since the early twentieth century (Dakhli 2009: 83) and this has remained the case over the following decades (Kasparian 2010), especially for students and young graduates looking to pursue or complement a higher education. The functioning of educational institutions in Lebanon, where many of the classes are taught in French or English, facilitates access to higher education abroad, as does the existence of family networks.

  • 2 In 1988; it is currently one of the main film training institutions in Lebanon. See the institute’ (...)

11Filmmakers began joining these student emigration networks even before the war, especially considering that film training opportunities in Lebanon were limited; the Institut d’études scéniques audiovisuelles et cinématographiques (IESAV) of Saint Joseph University was only founded in 1988, during the Civil War.2 Destinations were picked based on opportunities and political sensibilities, often leading directors to France, given the country’s presence during the mandate and the connections between the education networks of the two countries, the United States, or more rarely, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. Worth mentioning are for instance the cases of Maroun Bagdadi (1950-1993), who studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris; of Jean Khalil Chamoun (1944-2017), a left-wing activist trained at the University Paris 8, who took part in the May 1968 demonstrations; and of Samir Habchi, born in 1961, who studied in Kiev and at the VGIK institute of cinematography of Moscow. Such cases of training in Eastern Bloc countries were relatively rare in Lebanon; they were part of a broader movement of students who were politicized in left-wing Middle Eastern parties and in states allied with the USSR towards the Soviet space, many of whom were Iraqi and Syrian film students (Alkassim & Andary 2018). This sensibility was, however, present in the Lebanese intellectual landscape of that time, reflecting the debates that preceded the Civil War. Training abroad played a key role in the filmmaking of this intellectually prestigious generation, who, upon returning to Lebanon, attempted to develop an image practice that would have a greater degree of independence from commercial production companies (Rouxel 2016a) and be more political, influenced especially by the filmic experiments made in Europe in the wake of late 1960s protests. These features are found in particular in the work of Maroun Bagdadi, and they would go on to have a lasting influence on the relationship to images and aesthetic reflection of the following generation.

  • 3 Katia Jarjoura, who has crisscrossed the Middle East as a documentary filmmaker for the Franco-Ger (...)
  • 4 Biographies and a list of works are available on their personal website, accessed on 11th April 20 (...)

12The development of film training institutions in Lebanon over the following decades did not end the circulation of filmmakers. The generation born during the war—“the children of chaos,” to use a phrase by Katia Jarjoura (2007)—was actually even more mobile. Jarjoura herself, who was born in Canada to Lebanese parents in 1975, studied there and only partly came back to Lebanon after the war,3 is very representative of this attitude. Training abroad was all the more important for these directors as more generally getting an education in Lebanon had become more difficult during the Civil War. While some did study in Lebanon, many moved for their studies, or were already abroad when the war broke out and decided to stay and pursue their education in a foreign country. This is exemplified by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (a couple, both born in 1969) who have developed a self-taught visual art and film practice since the 1990s after attending modern literature classes at the University of Nanterre. Their filmic work is connected to their research on video installations, combining autobiographical references and considerations on post-Civil War national history.4 Among those who were more specifically trained in filmmaking, the most emblematic cases are those of Ziad Doueiri and Josef Fares. Doueiri was born in Kinshasa in 1963. He studied at the University of San Diego and went on to work as camera assistant for Quentin Tarantino (Castiel 1999; El Khoury 2004). He then undertook a long-term examination of the Civil War, from West Beirut (1998) to The Insult (2017). Josef Fares, who was born in 1977, migrated to Sweden with his family at the age of ten and studied at the Dramatiska Institutet. In his first film Jalla! Jalla! (2002), he depicted the life of the Lebanese community in Sweden; he followed it up with a story on forced exile from war in Zozo (2005).

13For Katia Jarjoura, the choice of training and working abroad was a result of the limitations of the specialized schools in Lebanon; in 2007, she explained that they were too generalist, low-level, and only offered employment opportunities in advertising and video clips. Nadine Labaki, who made a name for herself with Caramel in 2007, was the first director to attain international recognition after graduating from a Lebanese school (the IESAV) (Khalaf 2015).

14This migration of directors also has the particularity of seldom concerning neighbouring countries. While a few actors, like Darine Hamzé,5 have worked in Egyptian or Iranian productions, none of the Lebanese directors listed by Roy Armes (2010: 33) in his dictionary of Arab filmmakers studied in the Middle East. Among the most noticeably absent countries are Egypt, Syria and Iran, which do have high-level training institutions such as the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema (Dajani 1980) and/or strong film industry structures like Syria’s General Organization for Cinema (Boëx 2005).

15More generally, none of the directors were trained in Southern countries, including those with a significant Lebanese diaspora presence. Lebanese filmmakers trained outside of these spaces, and their perspectives have been more informed by the relationships to Europe and North America. This has been the amplification of a reality that already existed before 1975, as economic rationales and the recognition of institutions and of the taste-making audiences took precedence over political affinities in the choice of destinations. Indeed the particular transnationalization of Lebanese cinema reflects the governing logics of introduction into film funding networks.

1. 2. When Filmmakers Seek Out Foreign Institutions

16This circulation of directors has led some to speak by the end of the Civil War of an “uprooted” cinema (Rosen 1989). While the term may seem excessive, it does reflect the restructuring of the filmmaking landscape resulting from the war, opening up a period during which filmmakers questioned their relationship to Lebanon. Some were adults during the conflict and experienced their moving abroad as an exile, like Borhane Alaouié (Lettre d’un temps d’exil, 1988), Ghassan Salhab (Ackerman 2017: 241) or Danielle Arbid, who, in Seule avec la guerre (2001), filmed herself journeying across Lebanon where she could not find the landmarks she was looking for (Yazbek 2012: 35).

17This situation is expressed aesthetically in the form of nostalgia, of a sense of distance and loss, and as a research on the space-time and on the presence of ruins (Maroun 2020 ; Yazbek 2012: 23, 55). Since the end of the war, the idea of returning, particularly to places where the war has left traces, has been a major documentary theme, especially in works that often use a first-person voiceover, in which solitary directors film themselves reflecting on their sense of being foreigners in a country they say they no longer recognize. This feeling is shared by the two generations and also contributes to the transmission between them. It is expressed both in the work of Katia Jarjoura (Terminator la dernière bataille, 2006) and in the output of Jocelyne Saab, who has filmed, both for journalistic purposes and in first-person documentaries, her successive journeys amid the ruins of Beirut since the beginning of the Civil War (Rouxel 2016b).

18Yet, once peace came back, many returns were only temporary, and the end of the war resulted in only a very partial resettlement of filmmakers in Lebanon. Also, the generation born during the war returned with another outlook, that of the artists they had become, on a devastated country that they had left as children or known very little. In some cases, they were forced to reside abroad, like De Gaulle Eid, who survived a massacre and was chased from his village. Having become an adult, he filmed his return in Chou Sar (2010), a film in which he interviews his cousins and uncles exiled elsewhere in Lebanon before he comes back to the site of the killing, in the village that has made him a stranger, on a journey he could only undertake once (Nikro 2014), turning his experience of displacement into a filmic object (Camarena & Hagerdal 2020). Others face a block of sorts, fictionalized by Carlos Chahine in The North Road (2008), which follows the difficult journey of a Lebanese man from Paris who has come to bury his father in the family plot, and for whom the trip becomes an anamnesis. Post-war cinema has grown out of the encounter between very limited material production and diffusion conditions in Lebanon and the outlook on intimate experiences of war-related migration developed by filmmakers. This suggests nuancing Roy Armes’s (2015: 20, 208) inclusion of these filmmakers in a “cosmopolitan” generation of artists, characterized by frequent training abroad, a career split between the country of origin and the country of residence, and a strong presence on the international festival circuit. The Lebanese case stands out in that its filmmakers are acutely aware of this cosmopolitanism, and that it is recast as part of a broader process of aesthetic and identity-oriented research around the trauma of war.

19This cosmopolitanism of Lebanese artists can take two main, not mutually exclusive forms. A possible choice is the insertion of the works into the cinema of the country of residence. The work of Josef Fares, for instance, can be equally described as Swedish and Lebanese. He directed Cops (2003), a police comedy set in a small Swedish town that plays on local stereotypes. This is a cinema of integration: this work, like that of his brother, who has acted in local crime series, only makes sense in relation to the social and aesthetic landscape of the host country. The other possibility consists in situating oneself halfway between Lebanon and abroad, with both artists and works travelling back and forth. This is what Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have done between Lebanon and France. While their output chiefly focuses on Beirut and the memory of the Civil War, they write their screenplays and seek funding from France where they live and exhibit their work for part of the year. This situation is questioned in their work, where the theme of the in-between, of the interstice, is particularly prominent (Noirot 2016 ; Pontbriand 2013).

20These aesthetic considerations are informed by financial constraints that contribute to questioning on the identity of Lebanese cinema. While it has been possible for some films to be made and produced in Lebanon itself, those have been exceptions, the most notable of which was Bosta (2005) by Philippe Aractingi. Due to the weakness of Lebanon’s public aid schemes, which can only attribute a few tens of thousands of dollars to each film at the most (Kassim 2017), and to the absence of sufficiently large local production companies, most filmmakers have to secure funding through their own means, like Michel Kammoun, who mortgaged his parents’ home to produce Falafel (2006) (Jarjoura 2007). To complement an initial down payment, filmmakers often find support in the international art house film funding networks, receiving grants from dedicated funds especially from European countries and the European Union, including Eurimages (Council of Europe), and the Fonds Sud Cinema of the CNC (the French National Centre for Cinema, public organization under the authority of the French Ministry of Culture).

21Alongside German and Swedish institutions, French funds play a significant role that draws on the bonds between the two countries and the connections made during the directors’ trainings, strengthened by co-production agreements signed in 2016. In the European cultural space, this support reflects an institutional effort to back cultural diversity, which partly comes from the “cultural exception” defended by France in the past (Tardif 2008). Upon first glance, this movement can be interpreted as an illustration of what Romain Lecler (2019) has called “audio-visual counter-globalisation,” meaning a strategy of exportation of the “cultural diversity” defined and supported by the French public audio-visual sector in response to the globalisation promoted by Hollywood.

22On a deeper level, however, this also reflects an effort from European institutions to promote cinema from the so-called “global South.” This is yet another manifestation of the implications of cultural “creolization” of diversity-producing globalisation and of the related issues surrounding the ambiguities raised by the concept itself (Mattelart 2008, 2009). Contemporary Lebanese film is the result of the intersection between the artists’ funding needs, their aesthetic research, and the production opportunities offered by the institutions that support this.

23Through its themes and aesthetics, contemporary Lebanese cinema is a good fit for these institutions’ approach to diversity. Its concerns are also the ones that are highlighted in funding programmes (Lecler 2019: 291). They are the key themes of post-war Lebanese film, largely characterized by intimate dramas, where families tearing themselves apart serve as metaphors of the countries’ fault lines, and where the question of war memory is fundamental. Additionally, as Dima El-Horr has pointed out, Lebanese films, which are deeply urban (El-Horr 2014), offers dense explorations of socio-political urban issues, particularly in Beirut, with an aesthetic aimed at rendering the trauma of war, and which matches the expectations of Western taste-making audiences.

24While the match between the cosmopolitanism of Lebanese filmmakers and the institutions’ support to diversity may seem to be beneficial for all involved in these production networks, it can also expose filmmakers to criticism by making them subservient to the institutions, in a “Republic of cinema” where exchanges are unequal due to the fact that the access to resources and the associated prescriptions are conditioned by these institutions (Duval 2020). Some films in fact do bear the mark of these institutional prescriptions. Heaven Sent (Wissam Charaf 2016), which was ten years in the making and eventually completed thanks to French funds at the cost of sweeping changes to the script, exemplifies both the crucial character of these resources and the constraints they can impose on the films they support (E. K. 2017). Paradoxically, the defence of diversity can sometimes be interpreted as a brake on creativity in the name of the Western audiences’ expectations. This may lead to denunciations of a perceived well-meaning Orientalism, called “the postcard strategy” by Wissam Mouawad (2012, 2020), wherein the relationship to the Lebanese audience is neglected as a result of the constraints arising from the funding system. This raises the question of the presence of Lebanese identity of the screen and of Lebanese cinema itself in this context of transnational production (Westmoreland 2009), a question I will now address by examining the circulation of the works.

2. Redefining Relationships to the Territory

25Lebanese cinema’s relationship to the territory is informed by these circulations that have impacts on aesthetic choices and bring constraints in terms of production and diffusion. This situation, which also relates to diasporic dynamics, puts it within a transnationalized cultural space (Boschetti 2010), within which, as distribution is difficult in Lebanon, artists and works enjoy special recognition in internal festivals and among their audiences.

2. 1. A Limited Distribution in Lebanon; a Gaze Turned Outwards

26Just as the identity of some artists is a mix of Lebanese and of that of the country where they have migrated, the filmic identity of their works is itself the result of narrative and aesthetic choices. The sense of nostalgia infused by forced exile described by Hamid Naficy (2010) or Elie Yazbek finds its match in aesthetic choices that turn their gaze towards the host countries.

27In the most extreme cases, the films’ only relationship to Lebanon is the director’s nationality, and a choice was made to blend within the cinema of the host country. This is for instance the case of the films of Fouad Mikati, such as the horror drama of Return to Sender (2015) and the action comedy Operation: Endgame (2010). While the director has contributed to Lebanese cinema by coproducing Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018), his own films fall squarely within the world of mid-range American cinema, with American and international casts (Rosamund Pike, Zach Galifianakis, Maggie Q.) and plots and directions that do not stand out from the standard Hollywood fare. The shooting locations, the language, the references used in the films and their funding make them American works, in the sense that the US film industry brings in foreign directors to produce an American cinema that is distributed as such (Behlil 2016: 31, 55 ; Herbert 2007).

28However, the most emblematic examples are those of filmmakers whose work is suffused by a reflection on the question of the relationship to the territory and to migration. In the case of Josef Fares, for instance, while Zozo is perceived as a Lebanese film (Haugbølle 2011), Cops is identified as a Swedish film (Hogan 2003), and Jalla! Jalla! as a film of the in-between (Alexander 2014), in the sense that it reflects on transnational issues and identity creolization. The national identification of these films varies depending on the vantage point from which critics and scholars are writing, in the context of Scandinavian cinema which is particularly conducive to these circulations (Dahlström & Hermelin 2007), making Zozo the Swedish representative for best foreign film at the 78th Academy Awards. This conversation between territories and personal and filmic identities is all the more apparent as Fares addresses the question of Swedish multiculturalism and of the foreigner status in Swedish society in his films and of the other in Swedish society (Lacatus 2008).

29Ziad Doueiri, a director already recognized for his work on the Civil War, does something comparable in Lila Says (2004). Set in an unprivileged neighbourhood of Marseille, the film follows Chimo, the son of North African immigrants, who is star-struck upon encountering Lila, a sexually liberated young woman, while investigating the character’s relationship to writing. Strikingly here, the themes addressed by the director converge with those of “cinéma beur” (Levine 2008) and of post-colonial issues in France, particularly through the novel he adapts for the screen (Laronde 1999). He questions the relationship to the world outside national borders, circulations of people, but does so in a film that has no relation to Lebanon, is deeply informed by the concerns of French film and of the expression of young people from immigrant families. The distribution of the film reflected this: identified by critics as a “film on the banlieue” and on gender relations in the banlieue, it was distributed primarily in French movie theatres and then on French TV, and released in DVD version by France Télévision (Cardullo 2020), without Lebanon ever being mentioned. Beyond the critics’ perspective, it is possible to see in the approach of these filmmakers a way to escape being pigeonholed as strictly Lebanese filmmakers, to an extent that might lead to overlooking their reflection on the stakes of circulation and cultural diversity. Their insertion into other cultural landscapes can in that sense be understood as a means to reconsider their relationship to the notion of territory as well as a way to reflect on their place within the “Republic of cinema” described by Julien Duval.

  • 6 According to UNESCO data, there were 81 theatres in 2012, i.e., three screens for 100,000 individu (...)
  • 7 It is difficult to analyse salaries in Lebanon given the high proportion of informal work and of t (...)

30In Lebanon itself, the production and distribution of films is limited by economic and political constraints. While the country has a sizeable network of theatres (roughly a hundred as of 2017),6 it consists mostly in mall multiplexes, whose number has considerably increased since the 1990s, along with a few arthouse theatres funded by cultural and educational institutions (Saint Joseph University, Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts) (Caillé & Sfeir 2015). The percentage of ticket sales that goes to directors accounts for a significant part of their pay, given the average price of a ticket of nine dollars, where the average monthly salary was around 630 dollars in 2019, and has dramatically dropped since 2020.7 Considering the price, the theatre audiences are a relatively wealthy class and/or have high amounts of cultural capital. However, the operation of these theatres is dependent on the country’s socio-political struggles and economic fragilities. Additionally, the share of Lebanese cinema on these screens remains quite low, accounting for 11 per cent of films, whereas 80 per cent are from the US, and the rest consists of a few Asian, European and Arabic productions.

  • 8 Series directors, on the other hand, have not made this aesthetic choice, but they enjoy far less (...)
  • 9 Interviews with members of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, 2014.

31As elsewhere in the Arab world, there is a strong segmentation of audiences between highbrow and lowbrow consumers, especially considering that the majority of recognized Lebanese filmmakers8 have turned to art house cinema for aesthetic and financial reasons. Their films, especially the most artistically challenging ones, can only be seen by an extremely narrow local audience, which is often itself cosmopolitan, and includes festival goers and regulars at premieres (in Lebanon and abroad, particularly for members of the diaspora), which further reinforces the intertwining between the Lebanese film world and the world abroad. Comparatively, the majority of Lebanon film audiences focus on the biggest Hollywood franchises,9 a frequent situation in countries where national productions are not protected by a quota policy. This state of affairs is accentuated by the weakness of the connection between the theatres and the TV distribution system.

  • 10 Participant observation, Beirut, Dora, Zalka, 2010, 2014, 2019.
  • 11 Participant observation, Beirut, Dora, Dekwaneh, 2010, 2014, 2019.

32Another challenge to distribution pertains to DVD releases, which are undermined by piracy; buying a new original DVD in Lebanon is an act of social distinction.10 While VOD platforms (Netflix, Iflix) can also now play a role in distribution, many pirate platforms have a well-established role in cultural practices, especially among younger people11 (filmdoo.com and aflamedia.com for arabic films). As in the cases studied by Tristan Mattelart (2013), these pirating practices result in an increase in the circulation of Hollywood productions and big-budget Arab works, especially series and popular Egyptian and North African films, whereas outside of a few classics, Lebanese cinema is only marginally represented. It is the poor relation in the offer of hacked films, just as it only has a marginal place on the shelves of DVD retailers, whether in big-box stores or in record stores concentrated in few neighbourhoods (legal or illegal, and often both, in Dora, Bourj Hammoud and Hamra). State institutions are not able to stop piracy, and only have very small resources at their disposal to promote Lebanese cinema.

33With so few resources for development at home, the place of Lebanese cinema can be interpreted according to forms of international division of cultural labour (Durovicova & Newman 2009: 3, 137), with artistically ambitious films produced and distributed abroad, whereas everyday practices in Lebanon, with the exception of box-office hits and classics, fall within the globalised “mainstream culture” studied by Frédéric Martel (Martel 2020: 160). In particular, it is only after gaining recognition abroad (from Western and/or diaspora audiences) that a film can in turn enjoy recognition in Lebanon and hope for increased distribution, through legal avenues or otherwise.

  • 12 Participant observation, Beirut, 2014, and interviews in Hamra DVD shops at the same date. This is (...)

34Lastly, it should also be noted that censorship prevents certain films from being shown in Lebanon. While it is possible to access banned films through pirate networks,12 this underground distribution, which does not pay the filmmakers and brings them only limited recognition, cannot be considered as actual recognition when they make plans. For political or moral reasons, some Lebanese films are denied distribution. This was for instance the case of Beirut Hotel (Arbid 2011), produced by the Franco-German TV channel Arte, on the grounds that it mentions Rafic Hariri’s assassination and contains nudity. Likewise, Ziad Doueiri’s adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack (2012) (Suzanne 2016), because it was shot in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, was censored in Lebanon—Israel and Lebanon have been at war since 1948, and any form of relationship between the two countries is forbidden (Korkmaz 2018). These two films met with critical and box-office success abroad; they aroused curiosity in Lebanon, but censorship made any type of more significant or formal recognition impossible.

35Post-war Lebanese cinema partly fits within the film industries of the filmmakers’ host countries, and in doing so it has questioned its own identity. This is also a way for filmmakers to cope with the economic and socio-political struggles of production in Lebanon, and to compensate for the limited distribution of their works there. This opposition is, however, complexified and enriched by the embedding of filmmakers within the international festival network, and by the ways in which their works address this situation.

2. 2. Inclusion in the International Festival Network: New Identity Perspectives

36While except for the occasional hit or for works that share references with television (featuring actors that also star in series, or containing allusions to entertainment shows), the audience of Lebanese cinema remains limited in Lebanon itself, it does enjoy a significant degree of international recognition. The relatively high number of Lebanese productions (31 films in 2017) reflects this state of affairs in which the relationship to the international audience is a structuring principle both in terms of production and of aesthetic reflection.

37Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have given this situation the meta treatment in Je veux voir (2008) (Silverman 2014). A guest at a Beirut festival, Catherine Deneuve asks to “see” (in her own words, without further specifications), and is taken for a drive towards the south and the Israeli border. Seeing and making audiences see have been central concerns for the two filmmakers, especially when it comes to the traces of conflicts (the Civil War and the 2006 war) and religious divisions. Here, they follow the gaze of an award-winning French actress that is identified with art film, and to whom her driver (Rabih Mroué, himself a Lebanese actor and intellectual) recites lines from Belle de jour translated into Arabic. With this framing, the filmmakers place their film in the lineage of Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’s work in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) (Barakat 2016). Through this journey, they consider some of the key questions related to the circulation of Lebanese cinema and their own position within it. They broach the relationship to international art house film festivals, the necessity of translation/mediation to touch the taste-making audiences in these festivals, and the transformation of cinematographic work required by the war. The film’s own trajectory doubled down on these interrogations: it premiered at the Cannes Festival and was subsequently shown in Toronto and Namur, where it was presented as a Francophone film.

38The circulation of post-war Lebanese films thus outlines a map of international, European, American, and since the 2000s, Persian Gulf festivals. West Beirut for instance won an award in Cannes; The Insult (2017) was shown at the Mostra in Venice, where The Kite (Randa Chahal Sabbag, 2004) had received an award. Likewise, The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, 2013) was shown in Toronto after Every Day is a Holiday (Dima El-Horr, 2009), and later in Dubai. Beyond the cases of these seasoned filmmakers, this circulation is also observed for debuts, whose directors follow this movement that allows them to find the necessary recognition and funding that they are unable to secure in Lebanon. This is the case of Falafel, which won awards in Namur, Dubai, Lille, Alexandria, Muscat, Rotterdam, Annonay and Valence. For filmmakers looking for a first recognition, in light of the sizeable investments made as part of the cultural policies of Gulf states, which readily highlight the regional provenance of their award winners, the festivals in these countries (Doha, Dubai) (Turnbull 2017) are particularly appealing. There is also a multitude of smaller festivals, often Francophone, dedicated to Arab, Mediterranean or world films, allowing for a broader circulation of these films (Farine 2015). On the other hand, large Eastern European festivals are ignored, and the other Arab festivals, including long-standing prestigious institutions (Cairo, Tunis) (Frodon 2013), are also less favoured outlets, as they do not ensure comparable levels of recognition and funding.

39Through this circulation, post-war Lebanese cinema has been restructuring by drawing on its foothold in international cinema networks and ties to Western audiences and institutions. As it is partly seen as a cinema of the global South by these actors (Falicov 2010) and distributed as such, Lebanese artists have been repositioning on the international cultural stage. This situation, which results from the material limitation inherent in filming and distributing a work in Lebanon, places festivals at the heart of the system. They are the producers of “world cinemas” (Ostrowska 2010), especially Film Festival Rotterdam and the Hubert Bals Fund (Steinhart 2006), which has supported Je veux voir alongside the CNC, as well as venues for diffusion and for encounters between artists and institutions. Fundamentally, these festivals are the spaces where the recognition of artists and their works as well as of their identity is at stake.

40The introduction of Lebanese cinema within the international festival circuit reflects the broader role played by these festivals in the emergence and viability of independent film scenes, while politically and economically, the situation of Lebanese artists is arguably close to that of Iranian arthouse filmmakers (Deraeve 2015), even though the Lebanese state is less interventionist than its Iranian counterpart in cultural matters. Most importantly, beyond the dichotomy between opportunity and constraint, this situation within the festival network and the associated recognition are conducive, as Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have pointed out, to a cultural negotiation process wherein new identity perspectives are opened up for this cinema. In the case of Falafel, beyond the expected themes of the city and of the legacy of war, the director questions the identities of Lebanese youth and reflects on the very meaning of public space in Lebanon; in a roundabout manner, he deals with political questions that are very sensitive in Lebanon.

41In this sense, Lebanese cinema has been asserting its specificity within the broader category of Middle Eastern art house cinemas. Lebanese films are part of networks in which they rub shoulders with other works from Palestine, Syria or Turkey, produced in the same circuits. Each of these cinemas has its own relationship to the outside world, but it is always an important one, just as the inclusion in the festival circuit is, if only for economic reasons. These relationships to cultural globalisation are part of what Kay Dickinson (2016) has called the “Arab cinema travels”. However, within that subset, Lebanese cinema stands out through its unique understanding and interpretation of this notion of travel and relationship to transnational circulation, making the limitations inherent in the country’s situation a part of its aesthetic.

Conclusion

42Structurally, Lebanese cinema is highly transnationalized in many ways, including in the training of directors, the production and distribution networks in which their films are included, and of their relationship to the international art scene (De La Garza, Doughty & Shaw 2020: 13, 34, 53). Yet, this transnationalization is a selective one, which relates to the structuring role of a Western prism in the production, aesthetic and distribution of cinema, that Lebanese films attempt to reflect and convey on screen. This state of affairs comes from a legacy of circulation related to diasporic phenomena, particularly where the training of artists is concerned; it has been amplified and restructured by the Civil War and the ensuing economic crises. While the question of the search for funding and distribution opportunities obviously plays a key role, a specificity of Lebanese cinema is these circulations have been embraced as a major theme in films. This has breathed new life into post-war Lebanese cinema, which has pursued a global reflection on aesthetics that goes beyond an examination of Orientalism, i.e., the imposition of filmic forms and motifs by Western industries and art worlds, to reconsider its own identity while at the same time rethinking the implications of the representation and memory of war (Nikro & Hegasy 2017: 55). In turn deeply embedded in the film landscapes of the host countries and finding a place in international festivals, dependent on foreign resources but affirming a singular identity, Lebanese cinema is constantly redefining its relationship to space and identity. While the risk of being pigeonholed by funding institutions and their approaches to global cinemas remains an important concern, the work of Lebanese filmmakers cannot be reduced to that sole question. The relationship to the world at large has been an important influence on post-war Lebanese art, on the training of artists, their place within global cinema and their aesthetic choices. A cinema of travel, which has developed by questioning its own nature, post-war Lebanese cinema seeks to examine its own relationship to the world, and comes across as a deeply reflexive art.

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Resnais Alain (1959). Hiroshima mon amour, Argos Films.

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Notes

1 Films mentioned are referenced in appendix.

2 In 1988; it is currently one of the main film training institutions in Lebanon. See the institute’s presentation (in French) on the university website, accessed on10th April 2021.

3 Katia Jarjoura, who has crisscrossed the Middle East as a documentary filmmaker for the Franco-German TV Channel Arte and worked at the Cinémathèque française, has homes in France and Lebanon.

4 Biographies and a list of works are available on their personal website, accessed on 11th April 2021.

5 Source: Darine Hamzé’s personal website, accessed on 10th April 2021.

6 According to UNESCO data, there were 81 theatres in 2012, i.e., three screens for 100,000 individuals, with tickets priced at an average of nine dollars in 2017. Source: UNESCO Institute for statistics, accessed on 27th July 2020.

7 It is difficult to analyse salaries in Lebanon given the high proportion of informal work and of the huge pay inequalities in an economy that is also highly dollarized. The minimum wage is officially 675,000 Lebanese pounds per month, i.e., around 450 dollars at the official rate. As of March 2021 (and the situation has worsened since), this actually amounted to 72 dollars according to the newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. See Abboud Magaly, “Le salaire minimum au Liban désormais inférieur à ceux du Bangladesh et des Philippines”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 2nd March 2021, accessed on 11th April 2021. By way of comparison, in February 2021, bread, whose price is set by the authorities, costed 2,500 pounds for 930 grams.

8 Series directors, on the other hand, have not made this aesthetic choice, but they enjoy far less artistic recognition.

9 Interviews with members of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, 2014.

10 Participant observation, Beirut, Dora, Zalka, 2010, 2014, 2019.

11 Participant observation, Beirut, Dora, Dekwaneh, 2010, 2014, 2019.

12 Participant observation, Beirut, 2014, and interviews in Hamra DVD shops at the same date. This is the case of the two examples cited here.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Catherine Deneuve in a scene from the film Je veux voir.
Crédits Source: Hadjithomas Joana & Joreige Khalil (2009). Je veux voir, Abbout Productions.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/2828/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
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Thomas Richard, « The International Restructuring of Post-War Lebanese Cinema. Between the Diaspora’s Legacy and the Transnational Circulations of Films »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 13 | 2023, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2023, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/2828 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/bssg.2828

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Thomas Richard

PhD in political science, université Clermont-Auvergne, Centre Michel de l’Hospital

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