Images: Maroun Bagdadi; Hors La Vie (1991) title sequence;
scene from Hors La Vie with Hippolyte Girardot; Bagdadi;
Soraya Bagdadi in a scene from Little Wars (1987); another scene from Little Wars
This is the slightly longer version of an article I wrote on the brilliant Lebanese documentary and feature filmmaker, Maroun Bagdadi (1950-1993).
You’ll find the link to the published article at the bottom.
Maroun Bagdadi in the Limelight – When filmmaking overlaps with life
Maroun Bagdadi worked with the cream of Lebanon’s actors, local cinema industry professionals and musicians, some of the biggest names in French cinema stood in front of his camera, he’s won numerous awards, notably in Cannes, made a big impact on Arab cinema, worked with Coppola and Scorsese and was himself filmed by Wim Wenders. It is in Wender’s film Room 666 that Begdadi said: “filmmaking overlaps with life…”
Twenty years after his untimely, tragic death it is a near impossible challenge, to find one of Bagdadi’s 40 feature and documentary films, more so, when looking for subtitled versions.
Maroun Bagdadi in the Limelight taking place from 10 to 15 June at the Madina Theatre, is the result of a significant effort, a labor of love, undertaken by Bagdadi’s family, friends, colleagues as well as community and industry organizations Nadi Lekol El Nass and Fondation Cinéma Liban, joining forces to celebrate and share this hugely important oeuvre.
Nadi Lekol El Nass has restored Bagdadi’s films and transferred them onto DVD, adding French and English subtitles. It furthermore has produced 20 minutes of bonus supplements for each film, including interviews with actors, screenwriters and friends. This will enable audiences to (re)discover Bagdadi, a director local filmmaker, author and lecturer Hady Zaccak refers to as “father”.
Born in 1950 in Beirut, Bagdadi studied political sciences and law in Beirut, before moving to Paris where he changed to cinema. After graduating from the IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques), he returned to Lebanon in 1973 and started working at Télé-Liban, directing documentaries with Fouad Naim for Sept et demi (Seven and a half), a series that focused on everyday life in Lebanon.
Bagdadi subsequently embarked on his first full-length documentary, Beirut O Beirut (Beyrouth, ya Beyrouth), screened on the eve of the civil war, foreboding for future projects as much as his country’s future. This symbiotic connection between the director, his oeuvre and country, would remain throughout his career. Bagdadi’s films have become more than mere cinematographic works, they are the needle of the compass, the pulse of a nation, often struggling between life and death. This phenomenal director, however, also knew how to capture Lebanon’s defiant spirit and to shine a light on nuances and contradictions and cherish and live life to the fullest.
Bagdadi adapted the story of French journalist Roger Auque, kidnapped and held hostage for a year by Hezbollah in 1987, for Hors la Vie (Out of Life). The film was awarded the Jury Prize in Cannes, tying with Lars von Trier’s Europa in 1991.
The film gives a harrowing insight into the 1975 to 1990 Civil War and Beirut’s destruction. Bagdadi, together with Didier Decoin and Elias Khoury, wrote some memorable characters into the screenplay:
Patrick Perrault, the photojournalist is portrayed by French actor Hippolyte Girardot who gives a solid performance, though at times, he lacks the composure one would expect a lensman who’s witnessed a grueling war to have. It might be why Perrault, albeit often harsh and brutal circumstances, succeeds in keeping what many lost in the war – their dignity. There are plenty of grey areas and blurred lines in this war, in which a photographer at times needs to carry injured civilians to a car and the nearest hospital, where militias, cocked guns, demand their portrait taken next to the body of a hanged man.
After Hamza Nasrallah who impersonates that famous Taxi Driver scene (“Are you talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me???”), Perrault calls him “De Niro”. De Niro is unpredictable; he jumps at Perrault and wants him to ”Karate with me”. In one key scene, he tells him he is there to protect him, drags him to the frontline, and has a white horse run the gauntlet, crossing the frontline, telling him that: “This is Lebanon, man, don’t trust your eyes, things are never the way they look. There’s always a snake behind the rock,” before speeding off in some stolen BMW with a bunch of militias, armed to their teeth.
Perrault nicknames another guard “Frankenstein”. Ahmed aka Frankenstein, played by Hassan Farhat, tells Perrault he hopes to be chosen to kill him. Perrault tells him off and that his ear hurts, he suspects having an infection. A little while later, Frankenstein gives Perrault medicine…
Frankenstein pursues to lie down on Perrault’s bed and opens up, telling the hostage that he grew up in a poor village in the South.
“I fought the Israelis there (in Aitaroun)… with the Palestinians. Then I fought the Palestinians… in Beirut. But first of all, I was with the Communists…. Then the Mounazammé… then Amal…. Then… I forget. Today with Islam… we’ll change the world.”
Perrault: “You change a lot.”
Frankenstein: “That’s true, I do change a lot.”
With Ali (Habib Hammoud) whom he calls Philippe, Perrault has a relationship that comes close to friendship. They play domino – Perrault is blindfolded and feels the dominos – Ali reads in French to Perrault who corrects him.
Hors la Vie was the second film Bagdadi presented in Cannes. In 1987, Little Wars (Houroub Saghira) had been featured in the Un Certain Regard section.
In Bagdadi’s own words, Beirut is a delirious city. “You’ll find war and death and they’ve become banal, normal. It’s an unhealthy situation. My three characters [in Little Wars] resemble all Lebanese but each one has their own specific way. At the age of Talal, everybody dreams of ‘killing the father’. To be mythomaniac like Nabil is, means playing your part in life. Soraya [played by Bagdadi’s wife] is a bourgeois woman, who’ll never – just like the Bourgeoisie – have her place in the war.”
Much of Little Wars takes place in buildings and flats that are still homes and safe havens. The war seems to affect and disrupt more than it destroys. Hors la Vie, however, has an intensity to it that is only comparable with mythic anti/war films such as Apocalypse Now. From the opening scene, which provides viewers with the vital war statistics (number of dead, internally displaced, in exile, injured, disappeared) the film’s pace and the imagery, reflect the frenzy, omnipresence and mercilessness of the war.
Nadi Lekol El Nass, a youth initiative, founded in 1998, aims to enrich both individual and collective culture. Together with Fondation Cinéma Liban, Soraya Bagdadi, friends and former colleagues, theirs is a timely and highly pertinent undertaking, to value this great filmmaker and visionary. It provides an opportunity to revisit Lebanon’s history, omnipresent but unspoken “little” and horrible wars.
Little Wars was filmed in Beirut in 1981 and completed shortly before the Israeli invasion – a feature film with documentary value. Bagdadi’s films often bear witness to people and places that are forever gone. Whisper (Hamasat), features the poet Nadia Tueni in the lead role, viewers get to see Hajj Daoud, the old seafront café in Beirut, the Tyr’s souks, the destroyed old city center in Beirut.
Bagdadi’s lifework was honored at the Cannes Film Festival this year during the Maroun Bagdadi, au printemps du cinéma libanais (Maroun Bagdadi – the spring of Lebanese Cinema), the DVD box set launch event, highlighting the fact that he ushered in the new wave of Lebanese cinema. “Time, this old enemy, gnaws at the traces of our passage on earth, exempted from this are the creators. Maroun, you will live,” were Festival director Gilles Jacob’s words.
“These films portray the fears of people struggling to make sense of the events and coming to terms with their own national identity amidst a fratricide war and sectarianism gone awry,” Nadi Lekol El Nass stated in their press release. “We hope these films will open a portal into our no-so-distant history, raising issues that are still eerily present in our lives today.”
Tom Luddy, producer and Telluride Film Festival co-founder, related meeting Bagdadi in California in 1978. “He was charming, well-dressed and I liked the fact that he wasn’t scared of criticizing Arab filmmakers and censors. I introduced him to Coppola and I had the privilege of watching his documentaries and two of his features. This DVD box set is a real gift made for a new generation of Lebanese filmmakers and it is very important to discover his work as a documentary filmmaker, which has not been seen yet.”
In a moving statement, interwoven with many of Bagdadi’s film titles, Darina el-Jundi, Lebanese actress and director made in Cannes, she recalled how Maroun coming back to Lebanon to make his movies, “was like a breath of fresh air, it was the only way to tell us that we were still alive, we were not entirely dead, with films that he made around us, with us, about us, because Maroun used us, he used his country, the lives of those who surrounded him – watch his movies and you’ll feel it, sense the smell and the beat of the heart of all those people who are in the frames Maroun put on the big screen – it was the sign that we were still alive.”
Maroun Bagdadi in the Limelight starts 10 June and runs until Saturday, 15 June 2013 at the Madina Theatre in Hamra.
Events consist of two screenings and panels about Maroun Bagdadi‘s work with his friends and collaborators. Tickets cost LL10 000 (per day); Festival pass LL45 000.
Another exhibition will take place during the Beiteddine International Festival.