October 2019, arsenal cinema

Once Upon a Time in Beirut – Homage to Jocelyne Saab

DUNIA – KISS ME NOT ON THE EYES, 2006

“Jocelyne Saab placed her entire artistic career at the service of the disadvantaged – from displaced peoples to exiled fighters, cities at war, and a Fourth World without a voice. Her oeuvre draws on the violence of history and an awareness of the actions and images necessary to document, reflect upon, and counter this violence” (Nicole Brenez). Lebanese artist Jocelyne Saab is a central figure in Arab cinema. Saab was born in 1948 in Beirut and died at the start of this year in Paris; in the 70s, she was one of the first and few female filmmakers working in the Middle East. She began her career as a journalist and war reporter, including for French television, and worked in nearly all the trouble spots of the time in the Middle East and North Africa. Saab’s essayistic portraits of her home city of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war are regarded as outstanding works of both Arab cinema and cinéma engagé. From 1985, she also enjoyed success as a director of fiction features and later as an artist. Saab always strived for a utopian moment in her filmmaking: “My country used to be a beautiful garden – there are no longer any gardens here. I tried to revive the culture that we had in the past which is where my rejection of reality comes from. And for this reason, I call upon people to dream”. To coincide with the acquisition of three of her features as 35mm film prints, Arsenal is dedicating a homage to Saab which encompasses the key works of her filmography.

GHAZL AL-BANAT/UNE VIE SUSPENDUE (A Suspended Life, Lebanon/France/Canada 1985, 4.10., with guest Volker Schlöndorff & 9.10.) 14-year-old Samar, a child of war, lives in a Beirut whose streets are marked by the civil war and an all-encompassing melancholy. One day, she meets an old painter named Karin, who, disillusioned by life, has given himself over entirely to his calligraphy. “A confrontation between two worlds in surreal images. Samar’s dream-like love for the now-cynical Karim appears as timeless and irrational as the city which surrounds them” (Blickpilotin e.V.). Jocelyne Saab’s feature debut, which she developed with famous screenwriter Gérard Brach, received its world premiere at Cannes and is seen as a milestone in Arab filmmaking. Her meeting and subsequent lasting exchange with Volker Schlöndorff played a key role in her move towards fiction work. In 1981, she was assistant director and production helper on the shoot for the film he made in Beirut, "Die Fälschung". Schlöndorff and his editor Suzanne Baron also advised Saab in the editing of GHAZL AL-BANAT/UNE VIE SUSPENDUE.

KANYA YA MA KAN, BEYROUTH/ IL ÉTAIT UNE FOIS BEYROUTH (HISTOIRE D’UNE STAR) (Once Upon A Time: Beirut, the History of a Star, Lebanon/France/Germany 1995, 5.10., with guest Myrna Maakaron & 10.10.) Saab was a passionate cineaste her entire life and initiated a project to rebuild the Lebanese film archive at the start of the 90s. This entailed collecting prints and fragments of works from Lebanese film history over a period of years, which were in a desolate archival state due to the civil war. Saab’s second feature emerged from this project, weaving together a fictional plot and archive material in unique fashion to create likely one of the most beautiful declarations of love to cinema as a medium for dreaming. Two young women named Yasmine (Michèle Tyan) and Leïla (Myrna Maakaron), one Muslim, the other Christian, would like to recreate their home city of Beirut’s legendary former beauty. By coincidence, they gain possession of two film rolls that they have screened for them by old cinema owner Farouk. In a wonderful, half run-down movie theater, he carries them off with his stories and the projected images into a time when Beirut was a “film star”, location for French colonial romances and spy films as well as for shoots by Werner Schroeter, Gordon Hessler, and Henry Barakat.

A documentary film program with essay films about Beirut (6.10.) collects three of Saab’s piercing reflections about the war and its perpetual repetition. After taking on a typically sober style of reporting for television in the previous years, Saab gradually developed her own film language. It is characterized by a virtuoso blend of unflinching images (of war) with a lyrical voiceover and personal impressions. In BEYROUTH, JAMAIS PLUS (Beirut, Never Again, Lebanon 1976), she wanders through the bombed-out ghost city of Beirut just one year after the beginning of the civil war, the “most absurd of all conflicts”. LES ENFANTS DE LA GUERRE (Children of War,  Lebanon 1976)mingles with carefree girls and boys in Beirut, who use toy weapons to simulate the terrible war actions of tomorrow. At the start of BEYROUTH, MA VILLE (Beirut My City, Lebanon 1982), Saab herself stands before the burned-out house of her parents and tries, close to tears, to describe the loss with as much journalistic objectivity as possible. There follows an inventory of sorts of the conditio humana in Beirut during the siege by the Israeli army in July 1982 as well as after seven years of civil war.

DUNIA – KISS ME NOT ON THE EYES (Egypt/Lebanon 2006, 7. & 11.10.) After completing her studies in literature, 23-year-old Dunia wants to become a dancer, following her mother’s example. Full of hunger for life, she is at the same time fascinated by Sufism and its poetry. With writer Beshir (Mohamed Mounir), she discovers the pleasures of sensuality, while also learning how to deal with an injury stemming from her childhood. Due to its controversial themes, above all that of female circumcision, which had actually been banned in Egypt since 1997, Saab’s film had difficulties receiving financing. In its passionate portrayal of female sexuality and emancipation in particular, Saab wanted to speak out clearly against the conservative tendencies in the Muslim world that could already be felt back then. Shortly before the planned cinema release in Egypt, DUNIA – KISS ME NOT ON THE EYES was banned by the authorities and Saab received death threats from fundamentalists. The ecstatic, musically rich film could, however, be seen at festivals worldwide and made Saab’s name known to a broader audience.

A further documentary film program (8.10., with an introduction by Viola Shafik) collects two documentary works by Saab made outside of her home country and underpins how her view of people and societies shows such disregard for borders. Whether in Iran, Algeria, Egypt or the Sahara – she sees the similarities between the fates and hopes of people everywhere. In ÉGYPTE, CITÉ DES MORTS (Egypt, The City of the Deaths, Egypt 1977), she creates a portrait of Egypt’s culture and society, the “mother of the world”, two years after the introduction of Sadat’s Infitah 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 a vast graveyard. Famous blind singer Sheikh Imam functions in between like an oracle. LE SAHARA N’EST PAS À VENDRE (The Sahara Is Not For Sale,  France/Morocco/Algeria 1977)  documents the desert life of the Sahrauis and the struggle of the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara. Despite all her obvious sympathy for them, Saab succeeds in creating an impressively all-encompassing depiction of the conflict, which also allows the opponents of the Frente to have their say. (gv)

With thanks to the Association des Amis de Joce-lyne Saab and LSP Medien, Uelzen.

arsenal cinema: Films by Wolfgang Höpfner and Peter Goedel

07:30 pm Cinema 2


Vor 4 Jahren – vor 2 Jahren

*Vor 4 Jahren – vor 2 Jahren
Wolfgang Höpfner, Norbert Weyer
FRG 1977–79 16 mm 103 min

Wolfgang Höpfner in person
arsenal cinema: Once Upon a Time in Beirut – Homage to Jocelyne Saab

08:00 pm Cinema 1


Beyrouth, jamais plus

Les enfants de la guerre

Beyrouth, ma ville

Documentary film program
Beyrouth, jamais plus Beirut, Never Again
Lebanon 1976 DCP OV/EnS 35 min
Les enfants de la guerre Children of War
Lebanon 1976 16 mm OV/EnS 12 min
From the archive of the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
Beyrouth, ma ville Beirut My City
Lebanon 1982 DCP OV/GeS 36 min