Friday,14 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Friday,14 December, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mortuary chronicles

Obituary: Jean Chamoun (1944-2017)

Mortuary chronicles

Jean Chamoun passed away this week after a struggle with Alzheimers, a tragically ironic affliction for a director who became famous as the chronicler of civil war (1975-1990). Together with Maroun Bagdadi and Burhan Alawiye, Chamoun belongs to a generation of Lebanese filmmakers whose emergence coincided with the outbreak of the war. They lived and worked against a backdrop of huge political conflicts and day-to-day challenges. Chamoun, whose background kept him close to the pulse of the street, may have been the most political filmmaker of his generation.

Chamoun studied theatre at the Lebanese University, travelling to study cinema at the Sorbonne at the end of the 1960s. It was the perfect time to be in France. On the one hand there was 1968 and all the insurgent and rebellious energy of the students revolution, and on the other there were the Cahiers du cinema and the New Wave, with directors like Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy and François Truffau making their mark. Thus formed, Chamoun returned to Beirut just in time for the outbreak of war. There he could see the intellectual conflict between the right and the left turn into blood on the streets; the Arab-Israeli conflict, a cause championed by the left, thus became his trigger as a filmmaker; and it would remain the central subject in most of his works.

At the start of the war, in 1975-1978, Chamoun worked with Ziyad Rahbani on the musical radio comedy We’re Still Alive, Say Allah! which sought to transcend violence through absurdity and humour. But, eager to engage in visual self-expression, Chamoun also resorted to the documentary format as the form most appropriate to the unfolding horror. In January-August 1976, working with Palestinian filmmaker Mustafa Abu Ali and Italian filmmaker Pino Adriano, he made an 18-minute film documenting the Siege of Tel Al-Zaatar by the Phalanges and other anti-Palestinian forces backed by the Syrian army, which eventually resulted in the death of over 3,000 people. 

This might have been the experience that solidified Chamoun’s political views, which were never to alter again. In 1978 he directed Unshoudat Al-Ahrar (The Free Folk’s Anthem), which dealt with various peoples struggling to attain national liberation and self determination. He was remarkably fearless when it came to throwing himself into the thick of battle for a shot or a sound bite. He was abducted at a Lebanese Forces checkpoint and was not released until the then president Camille Chamoun intervened in person. He also documented the Israeli invasion of 1982, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre. His notion of documentary work transcended recording to contributing a subjective standpoint and formulating a narrative of events. 

Mortuary chronicles

Palestine brought him together with the Palestinian filmmaker Mai Al-Masri, whom he married and began working with. Together they made Under the Rubble (1982), Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon (1987), War Generation (1989), Children of Fire (1991), Suspended Dreams (1992), Hanan Ashrawi: A Woman of Her Time (1995), Children of Shatila (1998), Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), Women Beyond Boundaries (2004), Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videos (2006), and 33 Days (2007). 

His only full-length fiction feature, Tayf Al-Madina (In the Shadows of the City), was made in 2000. It relies heavily on documentary techniques, utilising the testimonies of people who lived through the Civil War and whose family members remain missing. The tragic, human issue of “the disappeared” may have been what drove Chamoun to fiction. Be that as it may, Tayf Al-Madina was the subject of my conversation with him, back in 2000.

Tayf Al-Madina is the story of Rami who, at the age of 12, flees Israeli bombardment in southern Lebanon only to encounter the outbreak of war in Beirut, which separates him from his girlfriend. When next we meet Rami, he is a 27-year-old ambulance driver getting ready to join a militia organisation following the abduction of his father. Rami’s voyage — frequently interspersed with the memories of his post-militia companion, Siham — becomes an increasingly inconsequential framework for revealing the horror and absurdity of war. To what extent must post-colonial film be a rendition of the nightmares of history? In sheer numbers, the war has been the most frequent, if not the only topic tackled by Lebanese filmmakers. And here as elsewhere in Lebanese film there is a sense of overpowering weight, an inescapable burden.

“I feel it is only natural for any person,” Chamoun retorts. “If you lived 16 years of Civil War and saw your country so divided that people began to imagine a group of statelets rather than a single future state — if you witnessed your country going back in time, literally, by the decade, and one third of its population emigrating all at once — you too would go on making films about the Civil War for another 50 years or more. And this is not specific to Lebanon, it’s true of any country that goes through the horrors of war. So it’s not so much whether you deal with the war as how you do it.” Speaking of which, should films uncover potentially destructive tensions or reopen barely healed wounds? “The wounds are open anyway, it makes no sense to pretend to forget them. And this is what the heroine of the film, Siham, says to the militia commander Abu Samir. Pretending to forget is not the same as forgetting. It’s important to expose the mistakes so they can be avoided, particularly by the younger generation. How sectarianism eventually leads to war. And sectarianism still exists.”

Post-colonial reality is constantly in the process of being reinvented. What is it like trying to recreate war-torn Beirut amid the current rebuilding and rehabilitation programmes? As a gesture against pretending to forget, this is a remarkable feat. But one can imagine the nitty-gritties of the task proving a tremendous annoyance. “There are two levels,” Chamoun reflects. “The first is the present location of the scene. All I did was look for the remains of places that were destroyed during the war. They too still exist: houses that have been in ruins since then, full of barricades, piles of cement, snipers’ paraphernalia and bags of sand. Sometimes we found a house in ruins, then made additions to it, parking a Jeep where a wall used to stand or creating barricades to replace the ones that are no longer there. One day we started filming in a house, and the next day the construction workers came and started to rebuild it.” But what about the second level? “Archival material, used in moderation, can enhance the flavour of all that.”

Chamoun’s many documentary scores (including his collaboration with Palestinian filmmaker Mustafa Abu Ali on Tal Al-Zaatar) testify to his abiding commitment to the post-colonial cause. His own archival material is an abiding source of pride: “At the outbreak of war, when I started working on these documentaries, I used to think there would come a day when all this footage would be used in many films. That day has come many times.” However impressive the footage, though, it is Chamoun’s ability to transform his understanding of complex events into an articulate parable that earns him a special place among contemporary filmmakers. This parable is simple enough to be understood instantly by everyone, and yet profound enough to stir the viewers’ deepest fears. At the end Tayf Al-Madina (and the end of the Civil War), the two militia commanders who had fought on opposite sides wave respectfully to each other from the ritzy car each is driving before blissfully going their separate ways.

“Those,” Chamoun adds, “are the individuals who used people during the war, who destroyed so much, who put up barriers and forced people to pay before letting them through. They played the part of the state but in a terrible way, because where the state has services and institutions to offer they had only debris. And it is not untrue that members of the aristocracy committed massacres during the war. Christine Choueiri’s part [Siham] is a perfectly realistic instance of the woman whose husband was abducted. She wants to submit the individuals who during the war committed such crimes against humanity to the International Court of Justice. In fact the character was inspired by a real woman who actually participated in the film’s women’s demonstration scenes. She came to the set with the other women whose husbands or other male members of their families were abducted.” Chamoun ponders for a moment, then motions nervously with his arms. “During the demonstration scenes, they paraded actual photographs of real abducted people.”

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