Beats and Breath presents this interview with Lebanese filmmaker Wissam Charaf soon after the Lebanese premiere of his documentary film It’s all in Lebanon. With a chronological view of the Lebanese psyche from the end of the Civil War to the present, Charaf’s film is a romp through the competing media narratives of the country’s three H’s – the pop lust culture of Lebanon’s video world represented by mega-sex kitten pop star Haifa Wehbe; the media gamesmanship of the slain prime minister and billionaire (Rafik) Hariri and his enduring empire after his death; and the power of the propaganda coming from the Lebanese resistance – Hezbollah – as typified by the media stardom of its leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.
BEIRUT – “The politicians in Lebanon terrify me. They terrify me with their irresponsibility and their inability to achieve any real progress,” says Wissam Charaf, director of It’s all in Lebanon. “You know I don’t think we need to count on this generation of well-paid warlords to achieve something for Lebanon.”
Never one to mince words, Charaf is a thirty-something post-war generation filmmaker that is compelled to ask existential questions about why Lebanon and its people continue to run on a treadmill of internecine antagonisms – political, religious, and economic.
It’s all in Lebanon, is an hour long assault of pop music video clips, Hezbollah video anthems, and fascinating social commentary, is uniquely Charaf’s take on the ills of his generation and their inability to deal with the memory of the Civil War 1975-1990 that claimed upwards of 300,000 lives and did inestimable societal damage beyond that. It’s a problem he says his peers have inherited and passed on through video culture specifically.
“In this film I put the finger in a very simplified manner on the questions that we Lebanese don’t like to ask because of our amnesia,” he explains from Paris, “It points to my generation’s failure to transmit to the following generation that they have the right to think for themselves. And they have the right to put the nation above the ethnic, religious, tribal, familial belongings.”
Charaf’s sense of nationalism is not extremist, as he stays, it’s just a first step to seeing what dosage of nationalism would be right. It obviously implies that all of the 18 confessions that make up Lebanon have to, like the esteemed Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi says, come up with a common version of Lebanese history – particularly where the civil war is concerned.
I’ve known the filmmaker for nearly 5 years, and unequivocally I see in Charaf a consummate journeyman and alpha multi-media story-teller who is literally a one-man production crew for his day job as a reporter for Arte. What’s more, when he’s not reporting he’s making films, and balancing with that a life as father of two. In fact, it is his job as a reporter -in an increasingly devalued profession I might add -that keeps him bounding back and forth from his home-base in Paris to Beirut -and many hot spots in between: Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and of course Lebanon during the 34-day Israeli offensive in the summer of 2006, the Nahar al Bared Palestinian camp seige in 2007 and the fierce street fighting in 2008.
It is why he of all people is uniquely qualified to bring a fair and balanced look at Lebanon’s media propaganda war. Charaf explains, “I’ve been covering stories in Lebanon as a journalist since 1998. So there was the 2000 Israeli withdraw from South Lebanon and there was the 2006 War with Israel. And between those events there was a lot of propaganda that I was able to watch on Hezbollah TV – Al Manar. And I found this propaganda fascinating. It was unique,” and it was the inspiration for the film.
It’s all in Lebanon is a study on the collective amnesia fostered by Lebanon’s monolithic pop culture video clip market with its flesh driven, apolitical flights of aesthetic decadence that has served to wash away the post-traumatic stress of the war generation and their heirs.
When you add that to a barrage of images and archival footage shot over the last 25 plus years, and then spice it up with well shot footage of two separate groups of men sitting in Beirut cafes providing commentary about Lebanese society, and about video stars like Haifa and Nancy Ajram – you realize the added ingredients that make It’s all in Lebanon a gem of a film whose timing couldn’t be more perfect. [Note* – I liken these two groups of men to the Greek Chorus in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The characters ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) giving all the right touches to the street perspectives that are on the block.]
My one major criticism of the film are the sequences in which Charaf is sitting in his living room controlling the TV – and thereby the narrative – with his remote control. The scene acts as a vehicle to advance the story, but the production values here cheapen the film when viewed in comparison to the film’s precious archival footage, well shot street and cafe sequences, solid interview segments, and slick editing. I understand the intent behind the living room footage here – I just don’t think Charaf pulls it off to the benefit of the film.
The following was an interview conducted with Charaf from his home in Paris via Skype on the eve of his films screening at the Frontline Club in London.
JACKSON: So triple H rules Lebanon. That would have been a great name for the film. But I have to say that It’s all in Lebanon is an incredible name for a film. How did you come up with that?
WISSAM; I hijacked that. It’s all in Lebanon is the official slogan of the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon. They use it in their videos to say, you know, it’s all in Lebanon – the mountains, the sea, the water skiing and the snow skiing. The mosques and the churches. It’s all in Lebanon. They describe the mix of the cosmopolitan aspect – the multicultural Lebanon. And I hijacked it just to say that, “Yeah. We’re multicultural. But we’re also multicultural in our catastrophes. We’re multicultural in our opposing philosophies.” And in fact we’re too multicultural. We’re so multicultural that we can’t come up with a common idea. That’s our problem.
Some countries have an excess of nationalism. We have a lack of nation. At least let us get a nation, and then we can see how good the dosage of nationalism is.
JACKSON: Talk to me about about amnesia and tell me how your film relates to the concept of amnesia.
WISSAM: The problem with Lebanon is…listen I come from a generation that witnessed the war and that had many aspirations after the war. One of them was the idea that there would be accountability, that we would punish, at last, the people who were responsible for all of our suffering. And after the war we noticed that nothing like this was done. We saw with horror – my generation of conscious people – you know of people who gave a small thought – we saw with horror the same faces of war taking power again and sharing the cake. Then telling us “War is over.” Point. Forget it. Do something with your lives. Live normally, as if nothing had happened.
JACKSON: Tell me about how you developed the critique of the use of propaganda and media by Hezbollah.
WISSAM: By opposition to how the pop music has become propaganda, the propaganda of Hezbollah has become pop music in the minds of the Hezbollah supporters. You know when you see those girls and those young boys in a Hezbollah gathering singing songs of war and acting as if John Lennon was on stage, you can measure the scope of the impact on the youth of Hezbollah.
JACKSON: “It’s all in Lebanon” is quite prophetic with questions like “who was responsible for the Civil War,” and “how can one prevent it from happening again?” What do you want by asking these questions?
WISSAM: If I can bring the viewers to open their eyes up to these questions and to take a step back from the massive amounts of propaganda that they absorb everyday, then maybe the film can achieve something.
I want the audience to ask themselves, “What do I want as a citizen? Not as my master’s voice or my political leaders voice? And what’s good for my country and not just for me and my political and/or religious affiliation?” Only then will this film be really useful.
But I think we have to start back from the base and educate every Lebanese how to be a responsible citizen. Counting on the politicians won’t do. They have had enough time and enough salary to prove that they were useful people, and unfortunately they’re not. What’s happening today proves that they have failed dramatically.