Tribute to Jocelyne Saab
In 2017 the Essay Film Festival invited Jocelyne Saab to present her extraordinary trilogy of films about Beirut shot between 1976 and 1982. These are personal and political film essays in which the filmmaker tries to come to terms with her experience of the civil war in Lebanon. Initially a journalist and war reporter, Saab became a central figure in Arab cinema, documenting intrepidly the transformations brought over by the war and multiple social and political conflicts in the Middle East in the late 1970s and 1980s. Saab’s commitment to those mauled by the war and to those that resist, to the exiles, the dispossessed, and the poor, was manifested throughout her vast filmography of over thirty films. Her curiosity and relentless enthusiasm for the culture and the people of the countries where she filmed extended to the fiction films she directed after the 1980s, and to the photographic works she did as well as the installations she created in the later years, before her death in 2018. The Essay Film Festival celebrates Saab’s work once again with a selection of her films and a presentation by researcher Mathilde Rouxel, author of the first monograph dedicated to the filmmaker and the person responsible for the preservation and distribution of Saab’s films.
Children of War (Les Enfants de la guerre), Lebanon, 1976, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 10′
A few days after the Karantina massacre in a predominantly Muslim shanty town in Beirut, Jocelyne Saab met a group of children who had witnessed and escaped the fighting and the killings. She offered them crayons and encouraged them to make drawings. She filmed them as they played games for the camera, re-enacting with toy weapons the violent war-like scenes they had witnessed.
The Ship of Exile (Le Bateau de l’exil), Lebanon, 1982, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 12′
This rare and exceptional document was filmed after the end of the Israeli Siege of Beirut in 1982, which led to the forced departure of the members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Jocelyne Saab was the only filmmaker authorised on board of the Atlantis, a ship chartered by France to take Yasser Arafat to a new exile in Greece and then Tunis. Arafat talks about his future and that of the PLO and the film is the record of the fate of a man who bears the responsibility for a whole people, and who, in the middle of the ocean, changes from a warlord to an apostle of peace.
Egypt, City of the Dead (Égypte: cité des morts), Egypt, 1977, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 37′
At the same time as she was directing her harrowing trilogy of films about Beirut, Saab made the first of a series of films shot in Egypt about different political, social and cultural aspects of the country. In this film she creates a portrait of Egypt’s culture and society two years after the introduction of Anwar Sadat’s economic liberalisation policy, and directly after the so-called Bread Riots. The affluence of the upper class is contrasted by the lives of the million inhabitants who live in the midst of the City of the Dead, a vast graveyard. Famous blind singer Sheikh Imam functions in between like an oracle. The film is both a surrealist take on the harsh reality of these people living in the City of the Dead and an indictment of the modernisation policies of the Egyptian government.
The Ghosts of Alexandria (Les Fantômes d’Alexandrie), France, 1986, 16mm/digital, Arabic and French with English subtitles, 18′
Commissioned by French television, The Ghosts of Alexandria is an evocative city symphony dedicated to this Egyptian city, long at the heart of the Arab world, at once Hellenistic, Greek, Roman, Coptic, the ‘little Paris’ of the 1930s. Saab draws a portrait of the city in dialogue with the literary texts of Laurence Durrell and Constantin Cavafy and the memories of witnesses, originating from the bourgeoisie, who reminisce about the grand past of the city. But the film goes beyond nostalgia and the idealised image of the literary city to reveal the energy of the living place, celebrating its culture and the diversity of its people.