The Between Women Filmmakers Caravan, a festival that between 3 and 13 October screened more than 20 films made by female filmmakers, has hosted numerous round tables via Zoom including one discussing “The role of women in the reconstruction of the Lebanese memory.”
Founded by acclaimed filmmaker Amal Ramses, the Caravan which already took place in a number of countries across the globe, this time was held fully online amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the roundtable dedicated to the reconstruction of the Lebanese memory, the panelists tried to define the relationship between cinema and national identity leading to the recognition of this formidable, albeit overshadowed notion. The panel discussion featured Amal Ramsis, founder of the festival; Lebanese critic Hoda Ibrahim, and four women filmmakers Arab Lotfi, Rana Eid, Sarah Francis and Rania Rafai.
"In this edition, we have made a sort of panorama of Lebanese films from 1977 until 2019, belonging to different periods, these films bear witness to the changes experienced by the country and its inhabitants," said Ramsis opening the discussion.
The memory of historical facts evolves over time as it corresponds to the perception of the past, in a present which affects representations.
“Lebanese documentaries all have a human dimension where they represent the journey of memory in a country that has suffered so much and this memory has suffered all kinds of distortions,” explained critic Hoda Ibrahim, before giving the floor to the Cairo-based Lebanese-born director, Arab Lotfi.
“The idea for my documentary Al-Bawaba Al-Fawqa came to me because of what I experienced following the Israeli invasion. It was a way of confronting the occupier's attempts to destroy the memory of an entire nation; psychotherapy... perhaps," said Arab Lotfi, who in her film shed light on the history of her hometown Saida, through the stories of its inhabitants.
One would ask, does memory influence representations?
"Effectively! As I was filming my documentary, I was surprised to see people rediscovering their own memories. They are the victims of systematic attempts to distort their memory. Films, photos or documents, become elements of historical testimony,” Lotfi pointed out during the round table.
In addition, Rana Eid, director of Panoptic, discussed a portrayal of the turbulent Lebanese past and the way in which society copes with trauma.
"Panoptic goes underground in Beirut to explore the schizophrenia of Lebanon: a nation that seeks modernity while, ironically, it ignores the vices that stand in the way of the realization of this modernity," said Eid.
While the Lebanese population has chosen to close their eyes on these vices, Eid wanted to explore the paradoxes of her country.
“Applying amnesty after 15 years of civil war is only a decision to hide all vices. We decided to bury all the violence, corruption, etc.," said Eid, affirming that the cinema makes it possible to raise awareness, especially in a context of the many defeats. According to her, triumphant societies are always those which have succeeded in protecting their memory.
Fragment of the poster for Between Women Filmmakers Caravan
The city through its inhabitants
This opinion was shared by Rania Rafai who together with her brother Raed, chose year 1974, for their documentary titled 74 -The Reconstitution of a Struggle. It was at this time that the students occupied the American University of Beirut for 37 days in response to a 10% increase in tuition fees.
"Originally we began working on a documentary on student movements, but the 1974 occupation raised our interest in particular as it kept being mentioned by numerous interviewees we had approached," Rafai told the panel discussion.
Sarah Francis approached memory differently. In her film Birds of September, a van travels through the streets of Beirut, with a camera inside. Along the way, several people are invited to share a personal moment. Their confessions are honest and intimate.
“It was a way to read the city through its people. It was an experience rather than a film going in a specific direction," said the director.
During the round table, a questioning of the relationship between gender and reconstructed memory could not go unnoticed.
"A person's education and history certainly influences how they approach a given subject. Having said that, my memory as a woman could influence what I will be dealing with; but I am not going to assume that I am a woman because that limits the horizon,” stated Lotfi.
Rana Eid reiterated the same idea adding that: “when it comes to dealing with such a subject, the stereotype of male-female separation must be eliminated, the division takes us away from the subject in question."
Sarah Francis underlined that “each person has his/her specificity. Memory is a kind of return to the past because the present is bland, and therefore incomprehensible. Going back to the past becomes a way of looking for keys, making it possible to understand the incomprehensible."
Arab Lotfi concluded the panel on an optimistic note saying that "the collective memory leads to hope and provides a force for confrontation."
The Between Women Filmmakers Caravan's online edition also held online master-classes alongside roundtable discussions.
With a focus on Lebanese filmmakers, the 2020 edition hosted important long and short films from many countries, including Algeria, Greece, Germany, Canada, Tunisia, France, Spain, Ireland, the US and Switzerland.
This article was originally published in French in the 21 October 2020 issue of Al-Ahram Hebdo.
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