Docudays in Beirut is arranged in December for its 10th time. As the first festival for documentaries in the region, it has created an enthusiasm for independent documentaries in its Lebanese audience. Interestingly enough, the festival is financed privately by Mohamed Hashem, who calls this his “very expensive hobby”. As he and his sister Abir who directs the festival tell me, being Lebanese he has to work in Qatar, because what he would get in Beirut would just cover a little more than the rent. In Qatar he gets 10-20 times as much. On my question about governmental support, he smiles and says the Cultural Department once gave them 1000 Euros … They had to survive on a low budget.
The winner of the feature-length docs in the festival is Tahrir 2011, The Good, the Bad and the Politician. The internationally acclaimed film was the first serious film on the revolution in Egypt. I am impressed to witness how Ayten Amin – one of the film’s three directors – got two police officers to disclose how prisoners were tortured. They cared little about citizens’ lives – they could easily get rid of someone. Ayten tells me that they worked hard to find anyone willing to talk …
The price for the medium-length doc went to Laith Al-Juneidi for The Invisible Policeman, quite another type of police officer, a Palestinian working in the Israeli-controlled Hebron. The conflict between stubborn Palestinians who want to stay and Jewish settlers is tense. His children get arrested: the lieutenant is the father of nine children, and we see the tenth coming. Another remarkable doc is Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise on Syrian storytelling, and also Gaza Shields on computer gaming, playing on screen to prevent Israeli bombs killing children. The Middle East region is well represented here at the festival in the Hamra district of Beirut.
Beirut was bombed only six years ago, where 20,000 people were killed and 30,000 injured. This is where violence thrived in a 15-year civil war until 1990. This country has its Hezbollah who fought the long Israeli occupation in 2000, and also made them withdraw when attacked six years later. This is the city or country of 18 different religious groups – violence can surface again anytime. As Michael Azar wrote in Death in Beirut, Lebanon is marked by “death politics … an arena for phantasmal discharge.” Young men are drawn to opportunities that life in peacetime doesn’t offer. The workless feel the power of a Kalashnikov. The emptyness of poverty and people’s powerlessness are in the heat of war replaced with heroic bravery and manhood. Accumulated frustration, aggression and fear are released on whatever “enemy” they can find. As Azar writes: “A compensation for all the humiliations that life has accumulated: unfulfilled expectations, unrequited love, humiliating defeats.”
Anyway. Today’s revolutionary spirit has changed mentality in The Middle East region: Docudays’ closing film is from the Tunisian revolution which provoked a lot of debate. Neither Allah nor Master (2011) made by director Nadia El Fani was boycotted in Tunis last autumn when her film was shown at a local cinema – Alawits came in and smashed up the whole cinema with sticks – and frightened the audience. That cinema is now closed. I ask Mohamed if he is afraid of the same thing but he tells me not to worry. But Nadia’s liberal criticism of Muslim Ramadan and the Hijab, the differences between Christians and Muslims, made a lot of women in the audience react with hesitation. They felt that this half-French, visible lesbian woman was imposing her values on them. After a while Nadia also had to shout loudly from her Q&A on the stage that she had as much right to express her point of view as others did – and that the audience can always walk out if they don’t like the film.
Nadia lives in danger today because of this film, that fight for freedom of speech and tolerance. This time she was met by arguments – who knows what will happen next time she meets frustrated people …