Lebanese cinema has garnered international recognition since the 1970s. One of the most prominent Lebanese filmmakers of that generation was Borhane Alaouié, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 80. Together with Maroun Baghdadi, Jan Shamoun and Randa Chahal, Alaouié began making films in the midst of the Civil War (1975-1990).
Born in 1941 in Arnoun, southern Lebanon, Alaouié studied filmmaking in Brussels, graduating in 1970. At that time, the political scene was escalating as a result of dramatic changes in the whole of the Middle East. In September 1970, clashes erupted between PLO militants and the Jordanian Army which led to the redeployment of the former to Lebanon and, soon after an Arab summit held to contain the situation, Gamal Abdel-Nasser died. On the other hand, A state of rebellious euphoria took hold of the Arab intelligentsia at that time, perhaps influenced by May 1968 in France. This no doubt contributed to Alaouié’s sensibility.
In 1974 Alaouié made his debut narrative, Kafr Kasem, which won not only the Tanit d’Or at the Carthage Film Festival but also a Diploma from the 1975 Moscow International Film Festival – a more important destination for left-wing and South filmmakers than the three big ones (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) during the Cold War – which made Alaouié an important figure indeed. It was a rare collaboration between the Syrian General Organisation for Cinema and the Lebanese Cinema Establishment, with Belgian funding.
Shot in a village near Tartus in Syria, the film tackles the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre. This involved the killing of 48 Palestinian civilians, including six women and 23 children aged 8-17, by the Israeli Police in the village of Kar Kassem (located within the Green Line, 20 km east of Tel Aviv) following the curfew declared on the first day of the Suez Crisis or the Tripartite Aggression. It features the response of Palestinian villagers working for Israeli businessmen – and otherwise obedient to the Israeli authorities – to Nasser’s 26 July speech, in which he declared the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Alaouié implicitly shows the effect of the speech on the workers who will begin to rebel against low pay and harsh conditions under military authority.
In 1978 Alaouié made It Is Not Enough for God to Be with the Poor, a documentary in which he interviews the legendary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi on his concept of modernising the architectural traditions of each region by using local construction materials, giving poor communities humane shelter.
The tragedy of the Lebanese Civil War was nonetheless at the core of Alaouié artistic project. In 1981 he made his second long narrative Beyroutou el lika (Beirut the Encounter), about the love of a couple on either side of the demarcation Green Line in Beirut. Perhaps Alaouié was influenced by Alain Resnais’s iconic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, which shows what happened to the doomed Japanese city through the eyes of two lovers. Resnais uses a poetic language in both the dialogue and imagery, but Alaouié is rather more true to life and closer to documentary.
The film opens with a Shia man, Haydar, displaced from his village in southern Lebanon to Beirut, and the first thing he does after the return of phone lines between east and west Beirut is to call Zeina, his Christian girlfriend, whom he met at college and who is leaving for the US a day later. The film focuses on their attempt to meet at the airport, which they never manage. In the meantime, as per Zeina’s suggestion, they record cassette tapes for each other, which provides Alaouié with a brilliant device: cutting from one to another as they speak into the cassette recorder. The filmmaker shows the destruction of both the buildings and the mentality of people as a result of the notorious war. He managed to shoot the film without showing any violence or fighting, but the war is omnipresent throughout.
Alaouié’s concern for Lebanon and the Arab world is the main focus of his films. In his last narrative, Khalass (Enough), he discusses the frustration and bitterness of the Civil War generation many years after the ceasefire. The film won the best screenplay and best editing prizes at the Dubai Film Festival in 2007. Although Alaouié’s films were few, they made a significant impact in both the narrative and documentary realms.
Not only Lebanon but the Arab world has lost a towering talent, one that managed to combine true art with the fight for humanity and justice.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly