Essay by Hady Zaccak (Filmmaker and Professor-Researcher)
On the morning of September 9, 2021, my friend Naja al-Achkar, who had lost his father the night before, called me to tell me that Borhane Alaouié had also passed away. It felt as if all our fathers were gone, leaving us orphaned in a country where there is no father figure to unite and take care of citizens, and prevent them from turning into the living dead of a George Romero horror movie.
It’s fitting to describe Borhane Alaouié as a father, and more specifically as the spiritual father of modern Lebanese cinema that emerged in the seventies, and alongside alternative cinema, engaged with reality and steered clear of superficial entertainment and imitation. Borhane pioneered this field alongside a generation of filmmakers that included Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab, Heiny Srour, Randa Chahal, Jean Chamoun among others.
The cinema of Borhane Alaouié started in the post-1967 defeated Arab world that was witnessing, the rise of the Palestinian resistance, and military coups. Borhane’s cinema searched for Arab identity and roots all the way from Syria to Egypt. But the Lebanese war that erupted in 1975 heralded the end of the great dreams of change, a return to entrenched tribal fanaticism, and the disruption of the image of the united progressive city that was Beirut.
Starting in the 1980s, Alaouié’s films centered on the Lebanese capital, in a set of cinematic letters that narrated the history of Beirut from the 1970s up to the 21st century. The films followed in succession: Beirut, The Encounter (1981), A Letter From the Time of War (1984), Letter From a Time of Exile (1988), To You, Wherever You Are (2001), and Khalass (2007).
Alaouié’s cinema was unique in marrying the fiction film to the documentary in a poetic approach. It reflected the filmmaker’s concerns and views, which grew pessimistic over time: The young man, who witnessed the student revolution in 1968 France and the rise of the global left while studying at the Film Institute in Brussels, was then witness to the Lebanese, Palestinian and Arab defeats.
When the so-called Arab Spring broke out, it was the first time I saw the dear Borhane regaining hope in the possibility of change. But the dreams quickly disintegrated, driving Alaouié back into exile… until the end.
We encounter Borhane at various cinematic landmarks, as he takes us on a journey of more than 30 years to witness Arab transformations and listen to messages exchanged between Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan; between East and West Beirut; between Beirut and the South; between Beirut, Paris and Brussels; between day and night; between the past and the present…
Kafr Kassem: A pivotal letter about Palestine
Alaouié understood how to tackle Palestinian reality and how to portray the effects of Israeli occupation on Palestinian society and structure. Kafr Kassem (1974) was one of the first prominent Arab films that elevated the Palestinian cause from the bazaar of propaganda and stiff discourses. Kafr Kassem was not the first film that tackled the Israeli occupation and its massacres, but its importance lies in how it engaged with the issue.
In contrast with the dominant nationalist discourse in the village of Kafr Kassem, Alaouié takes us back to the land to hear the cry of the ordinary Palestinian who has lost his family members during the Nakba in 1948, and relatives who have spread to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. There is the tragedy of those who remain and the tragedy of the diaspora. Every family is torn apart. Some even resort to changing their name: Abdullah, who works in a cafe in Tel Aviv, goes by Eli to avoid provoking Jewish customers.
It is a complete process of erasure that does not end with the theft of the land or the fragmentation of society. It even turns the original citizen into a mere souvenir sold to tourists, a doll that one can play “hang the Arab” with.
Alaouié’s film explores daily life in the Palestinian village of Kafr Kassem at the pace of a documentary film, as if the camera were roaming among the original inhabitants of 1956. The town of Sheikh Saad in Syria, near the city of Tartous, stands in for Kafr Kassem in the film. With the occupation of Palestine, the stolen lands were cinematically recreated on other Arab lands, until directors from the interior started depicting Palestinian reality in the 1980s.
An area is chosen that bears similarities to Kafr Kassem and the camera captures the lands from above as if it is reclaiming the confiscated surfaces. The depiction of a street in Tel Aviv appears closer to the period of film production, i.e. the 1970s, in terms of costumes and accessories. But in any case, we are in a strange western city.
As the Israelis prepare to attack Egypt and impose a curfew on Arab villages, we see the impact of the occupation on the details of daily life and on the relationship between individuals before the mass killing order is issued.
As the criminal chain of events unfolds, affecting one group after another, the film introduces the military officials responsible for the massacre, whom Israel will reprimand or imprison for a short while before they resume their posts. We are not confronted with a caricatural portrayal of the Israeli army, which was common in commercial Lebanese movies of the late 1960s that tackled the Palestinian cause. Rather, we are faced with an embodiment of real people with real names.
The film doesn’t content itself with mentioning the number of victims. Instead, it is keen to mention their names and ages while steering clear from the style of the news bulletin, where the number of victims is a mere arithmetic calculation.
The film ends on a message of resistance typical of committed cinema, which takes on many forms in the 1970s. But Kafr Kassem is undoubtedly a more masterful film in its deconstruction of the event, highlighting the effects of the occupation without resorting to melodrama or the preaching rhetoric that often accompany torture and massacres. More importantly, Kafr Kassem proves that a feature fiction film can be as effective as a documentary in presenting living men and women who are not mere numbers or pictures, but people who deserve a dignified life.
And so, Borhane Alaouié’s first letter comes from a Palestine (cinematically) recaptured on Syrian soil and with a Syrian production. This film enshrined Alaouié’s position as a director on the Arab scene, particularly after it won the Golden Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival.
With his next film, It Is Not Enough for God to Be with the Poor (1978), Alaouié goes to Egypt with Lotfi Thabet to film a portrait of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. The documentary explores the Arab city that is taken over by cement and modernity, thus losing its identity and specificity. Hassan Fathy explains that architects have been cut off from their heritage and have become attached to what the West taught them. They have drifted away from all that Egyptian lands gave them, whether in terms of local materials, methods of cooperation, or architecture that interacts with its environment. Cairo has become a cement jungle like many Arab cities, including Beirut.
But where did Alaouié stand on developing events in Lebanon, while his young colleagues portrayed the war and its repercussions on society in Lebanon in Turmoil, Tall al-Zaatar and The Most Beautiful of All Mothers?
A Letter from the Time of Exile: The trilogy of Beiruti letters in a time of war
Borhane Alaouié returns to Beirut with Beirut, The Encounter (1981). This pivotal Lebanese film starts a correspondence with the city in the 1980s that continues with A Letter From the Time of War (1984) and Letter From a Time of Exile (1988).
Beirut, The Encounter (1981) appears like an integrated cinematic project around the city, turning Borhane into an architect not unlike Hassan Fathy, searching for the soul of Beirut as it falls apart, fragments, and disappears.
Beirut, The Encounter is considered one of the first Lebanese feature films shot during the civil war. It tells the story of two university colleagues, Haydar and Zeina, as they try to meet in a city divided into western and eastern halves during the 1977 armistice, at the end of the so-called Two-Years War (1975-1976). Will the young man from the South, displaced from his village, be able to meet his Christian friend, the young woman from Ashrafieh, who is preparing to emigrate to America?
The film successfully portrays the difficulties of wartime daily life (garbage collection, food supply problems, difficult border crossings, traffic jams, poverty, the dominance of militias) and delves deeply into the two characters and their attempts to meet.
A feeling of alienation characterizes the two characters. Zeina (Nadine Aqouri) is in constant conflict with her right-wing militia brother, who represents what was known at the time as isolationist thought. Haydar (Haytham al-Amin) meanwhile, is repulsed by party practices and national movements that have lost their way.
The film offers remarkable documentation of the city’s landmarks, its chaos, and its vacant and destroyed center, which was a meeting place in the recent past.
Haydar tries to get through to Zeina by telephone and by attempting to cross the border dividing the two parts of the city, before resorting to recording voice messages on tapes that are eventually trampled by cars.
These voice messages form the backbone of the film (screenplay and dialogue by Ahmad Beydoun), where each character reveals their thoughts on love, life and death. Haydar says: “Maybe we all died a little. Some people were killed more than others, but in the end they killed us all.” Loneliness dominates, as well as the conflict about staying or leaving. The film ends on a Middle East Airlines plane taking off from Beirut airport, with only the roar of its engine stripped of any soundtrack.
Everything alludes to endings.
Beirut is no longer the city where romantic relationships blossom, as depicted in Egyptian films. Has it become a city of death?
The answer arrives promptly in A Letter From The Time of War (1984), which reveals the destruction and displacement resulting from successive wars, up to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Actor Rafiq Ali Ahmed moves from one witness to another, listening to tales of torment, observing the “ruins” of West Beirut and its southern suburbs, meeting displaced people and victims of massacres, before the people of Nabatiyeh in South Lebanon rise up against the Israeli occupier. The documentary film is based on archival material, and for the first time lacks Borhane Alaouié’s clear cinematic vision. This letter looks more like a news report, gathering interviews and archives, and ending on the awakening of the so-called Shiite genie in a film produced by the Islamic Society for Specialization and Guidance and Sanabel for Social Development.
Staying in Beirut is clearly impossible and Haydar has to follow Zeina’s path, even if he is not emigrating to America but to Paris or Brussels. This is the fate of Alaouié, who reproduces his new reality in Letter From a Time of Exile (1988).
This time, it is not Haydar’s voice we hear, but the voice of Borhane Alaouié discussing the noise of war that has not stopped for 15 years. Alaouié depicts the hustle and bustle and traffic jams of Paris in the same way he portrayed Beirut, transforming the French and Belgian landscapes into a space where the film’s characters remember the homeland.
Here is Abdullah, a former fighter approaching the metro from the point of view of the Lebanese war. The metro has trenches, barricades, and frontlines. It’s as if every character carries the war within him, even if he has moved far away. Karim, on the other hand, believes that the metro eliminates frontlines. It is urgently needed in Beirut, should the city rise up again.
From Beirut’s “hypothetical” metro, we move to Brussels, passing by two Lebanese cedar trees. We meet Rizkallah, the car dealer who has a comfortable life and wants to bring his brother and family from Lebanon, while Nassim buries his father in Strasbourg, far from home.
The film engages in a thrilling cinematic game, adopting the language of documentary films while using actors, and mixing their voices with the sounds of foreign soils, as if Beirut itself has been exiled.
There is love, connection and a smile. A father becomes friends with his foreign daughter-in-law, who is no longer the “stranger.” There are elements of life that Haydar and Zeina had lost in Beirut, The Encounter.
These films succeed each other but are not released in Beirut, too preoccupied as it is with its battles. The war ends abruptly two years after the production of Letter From a Time of Exile, at the end of 1990. Is the war really over? Have we entered a new era? Will those who left return? Will Borhane Alaouié return?
To You, Wherever You Are: A letter from a time of reconstruction
The 1990s arrive, and a new reality unfolds in the Middle East. The Lebanese war ends with an American-Syrian-Saudi agreement. Peace talks between the Arabs and Israelis resume after the Gulf War, which Alaouié explored in The Eclipse of a Dark Night (1991), part of the Tunisian-produced collective film The Gulf War…What Next? Rafik Hariri becomes the prime minister of Lebanon and launches the Beirut reconstruction project. An ambiguous phase begins in which many warlords turn into businessmen and political leaders under the tutelage of the Syrian regime.
The main concern is the reconstruction of buildings and the removal of all traces of war in the shortest time possible in order to refurbish the image of the city and attract Arab tourists. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in the South continues its resistance to the Israeli occupation until liberation in 2000.
But many questions remain, and existential angst is never far, as the past continues to haunt daily life despite all the quick touch-ups.
This period marks the return to the country of the war filmmaker generation who seek to portray the new reality. The first to return is Maroun Baghdadi, who accidentally falls down an elevator shaft during a power outage. It’s as if the city devours the filmmaker of Little Wars, taking him Out of Life, and later his colleagues Jocelyne Saab, Randa Chahal, Borhane Alaouié…
I was in my early twenties, working on a book about the history of Lebanese cinema and interviewing male and female directors of all generations. This is how I met Borhane Alaouié. He invited me to attend meetings he was organizing to establish a support fund for film production in Lebanon. I went to these meetings and witnessed his great enthusiasm. Soon our relationship grew, especially after Borhane became my professor at the Institute of Cinema Studies (IESAV), at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. He was my supervisor and the supporter of my short film 1000 & 1000 Nights (1999), which he urged me to film in 16mm. He insisted on having the university produce the short, and on me going to Belgium to finalize the film in the same laboratory that worked on his productions.
After the film’s first screening, he told me, “The time has come for you to decide whether you want to be a film director or a critic.” I replied that I wanted above all to be a director and maintain my critical sense. A session with Borhane Alaouié always delighted the mind, as he constantly analyzed and deconstructed reality, posing the most fundamental of questions. It was cinema going back to its roots, before it got distracted by techniques and muscle-flexing.
1000 and 1000 Nights tackled the Palestinian cause through the world and characters of One Thousand and One Nights. I continued on my path with Borhane and decided to document his encounter with Beirut in my subsequent film Beirut… Points of View (2000). I felt his pain as he was confronted with a city he no longer recognized and asked him about the fate of his characters in present-day Beirut. He replied:
“I can talk about my characters in Beirut. Yes, they still meet the same fate. Beirut remains a place where people get separated and do not come together. People are, like shrapnel, growing further apart. Anyway, when people meet in Beirut, they do not do so for human reasons, but for purely material reasons. Friendship, love, normal relationships, relationships of passion or desire, human relationships… All these have a very narrow space to exist in, in Beirut. One really has to struggle to maintain a human relationship in Beirut.”
I reminded him of Haydar’s words in Beirut, The Encounter, “Beirut this time is different. It is not a prison, but it is a place I have no reason to get out of.” Borhane replied, “Today, Beirut is also a place where I don’t have a reason to stay. Perhaps there are people who don’t have a reason to get out. But in either case, it’s a prison or something similar to it.”
In To You, Wherever You Are (2001), Borhane documented his disappointments and his vision of post-war reality. The film comes as a letter at the start of the 21st century in reply to the messages of the 1980s.
Alaouié begins by addressing his letter to Karim, one of the characters of Letter From a Time of Exile, to tell him of his decision to return to Beirut. Today, he has been residing in Beirut for five years.
Borhane returned, but Martyrs’ Square did not return. The old buildings went and threw themselves into the sea. The spaces look empty, not unlike the vacant city center that Alaouié depicted in Beirut, The Encounter, but with even more missing landmarks.
The void undoubtedly disturbs the man returned from exile. So he goes to meet different characters, as he did during the days of war and exodus.
Ounsi al-Hajj notes the importance of Beirut as a space in which encounters happen, while Ahmad Beydoun says that Beirut has lost its old age. Marcel offers one opinion after another, saying there is no future in this country, before moving on to women who live at night, while the ghosts of the past do not leave the city.
Here is Umm Adel who only sees men and machine guns, and Umm Ahmed who sees her missing son everywhere. Here is Ahmed Yassin, the candidate for the parliamentary elections, shouting that the Lebanese people need “mind-drilling,” while Joseph, the so-called king of the night, roams the city streets, and the fighter Muhammad Atwi eagerly awaits the imminent return of the war.
More and more, we appear to be in a city from a film noir, where God is dead, corruption has taken over, and all hope is lost despite the illuminated streets and the many reconstruction projects.
Alaouié found Beirut in Paris and Brussels, but could not find it later where it was born.
Despite the dense content and the integrated communication with his previous films, To You, Wherever You Are is lacking in its cinematography, in an age of artificial video effects. The film’s image resembles television footage and is less effective and impactful than the director-poet’s text. Flat lighting dominates scenes with interviews of “witnesses.” But the documentary proves that Alaouié has not told the city all he has to say and that he needs to go back to the feature film to finish what he began 20 years ago with Beirut, The Encounter.
Khalass: The end of the journey
In 2003, I visited the set of the movie Khalass in Ashrafieh, to film Borhane Alaouié again for the documentary War Cinema in Lebanon. As usual, Borhane’s answers fascinated me, particularly when he recalled the filming of Beirut, The Encounter, and wondered if it had been worthwhile to endanger the lives of actors in order to portray fictional film characters in wartime.
We walked through one of the movie sets, the hero’s room on a rooftop that overlooked Beirut and the construction site of a commercial complex that occupied the center of Ashrafieh.
Borhane noted that his new film takes place in the 1990s, a stage that he says represents the second post-war devastation. After the destruction of buildings and people came the destruction of relationships. The individual is no longer a citizen, but a slave to consumerism
Alaouié gives shape to these concerns in Khalass (2007) through Ahmad (Fadi Abi Khalil), Robby (Raymond Hosni), and Abir (Natasha Achkar).
In Ahmad and Robbie’s room are pictures of old Beirut and of martyred comrades who once dreamed of a different homeland. Outside, construction sites are scattered amid the invading concrete, the growing number of mendiant children, and cats constantly searching for leftovers. On a wall, Ahmad wrote, “No entry allowed to women, dreams and illusions.” He can’t accept the loss of his beloved Abir, who chose Raymond (Rifaat Tarabay) over him because of his wealth. He is another one of the country’s thugs turned businessmen.
Faced with this alienating new reality, Ahmad and Robbie attempt to clean up this artificial society, like heroes of a 1970s New Hollywood movie, where similar concerns prevailed in light of the Vietnam War.
Ahmad and Robbie rob a drug dealer, take their revenge on a corrupt hospital owner, play with dollars, and in turn live the lie. Ahmad declares, “Beirut lies and believes its own fabrications.”
Life in Beirut takes on the aspect of a masquerade party par excellence. Fighters take off their “revolution” and resistance masks to put on the suits of businessmen who diversify their activities between real estate, stone crushers, and the opening of television stations.
Ahmad and Robbie disguise themselves as Arab men from the Gulf to enter a hotel in a city where the reconstruction project caters to Gulf investors instead of focusing on local and sustainable economic solutions to rebuild a country and a people devastated by war. It is the age of rampant consumption.
To settle accounts with former “revolutionary” played by Hamza Nasrallah, Ahmad and Robbie put on a Che Guevara mask, after so many people from the left turned to greedy capitalism, and from secularism to sectarian parties.
Amid all this decadence comes a pivotal scene: Ahmad and Robbie invite the city’s cats to a sumptuous dinner with musical accompaniment, in the ruins of downtown Beirut, where reconstruction is taking place.
This scene encapsulates the reality of the city: Stolen money and modern fortunes spent in vain, cats devouring food and fleeing as dogs bark in a community that is being eroded. Ahmad declares, “I am now a thief, and it’s OK.” As for the money made from gambling, it goes toward producing a movie starring Abir.
In contrast with this bleak image, Borhane Alaouié’s personal appearance as Ahmad’s father is moving. He appears like a mirage from the past. He is the dead father. He is the emotion that is no more.
As love disappears, the characters must reestablish normal relationships outside Lebanon. Robbie travels to Tunisia with his daughter to rebuild his family. Ahmad migrates to Australia, leaving behind him this country surrounded by the Arabian desert, which has turned into an emotional desert. Abir remains alone, realizing too late the importance of love and choosing instead to connect herself to money.
When I watched the premiere of Khalass and in subsequent screenings, I had mixed feelings about it. I felt that the film’s execution, in terms of character building, dialogue, and the performance of actors in general, failed to communicate the strength of Borhane Alaouié’s thinking.
Khalass instilled a sort of distance from its characters and did not include the masterful blending of the documentary and fiction that Alaouié had so effectively employed in his previous films. so My feelings toward the film remained lukewarm.
But screening Khalass today takes on another dimension. The film covers a pivotal period of our history that allows us to understand our present tragedy and the complete collapse that has befallen us. The film confirms that the war and its daily manifestations depicted by Borhane Alaouié in Beirut, The Encounter never really ended. Instead, it took on different shapes in a masquerade based on lies and denial.
The film is the testament of a pioneering Lebanese filmmaker who saw the Arab world through a wide lens, before the image crumbled, the letters ended and he went back into exile.
Borhane used to tell me, “Don’t forget to tell your students about my films.” For more than twenty years I have not stopped transmitting the experience of this pioneering generation. Borhane left us to reunite with Maroun, Jean, Jocelyne and Randa. It’s as if the departure of this founding generation coincides with the demise of a homeland.
With Nadi Lekol Nas (A club for all people), Naja al-Achkar preserved the legacy of Borhane Alaouié and other pioneers of this cinema that inspired us. Today we are reliving what he talked about, and it is difficult to meet in Beirut while exile calls to us. How we would like to shout “Khalass!” (Enough!) with you, Borhane, and have our screams shatter the windows of tyrants’ palaces, and flow into their halls.
Script by Borhane Alaouié, based on a story by Assem al-Jundi, dialogue by Issam Mahfouz.
Kafr Kassem is a production of the Syrian General Cinema Organisation
In the context of the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt by Britain, France and Israel after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956.
Prior to that, we mention The Shelter (1980) by Rafik Hajjar, noting that one of the first and most prominent feature films about the Lebanese war was Nahla (1979) by Algerian director Farouk Beloufa.
The Gulf War… What Next? (1991) produced by Bahaadine Attia (Tunisia), includes 3 short films by Nouri Bouzid (Tunisia), Borhane Alaouié (Lebanon) and Elia Suleiman (Palestine).