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Tuesday, 09 March 2021

INTERVIEW - Souraya Baghdadi on late Lebanese director Maroun Baghdadi: A free man with a critical mind

Maroun Baghdadi's legacy lives on as wife Souraya restores his films for a new generation to experience

Nahed Nasr, Friday 19 May 2017
Maroun Baghdadi
Lebanese director Maroun Baghdadi (Photo:
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Views: 5908

Souraya Baghdadi visited Egypt for the Cairo Cinema Days Festival (9-16 May) hosted by Zawya Arthouse Cinema, to celebrate the festival’s tribute to her husband Maroun Baghdadi (1950-1993), the prominent Lebanese director who ushered in the new wave of Lebanese Cinema.

His films were the voice of a whole generation torn by civil war and left to struggle with its identity. His film Out Of Life won the jury prize at Cannes in 1991.

Souraya Baghdadi is a Lebanese actress and choreographer who launched her dance career in 1975 with Caracalla Dance Theatre, an Internationally renowned company based in Beirut.

She joined the world of cinema in 1981 when she played the lead role in Baghdadi’s film little Wars, also selected at Cannes.

After the film, she married Maroun Baghdadi. The two were together until his tragic death in December 1993, a few days before she gave birth to his third son.

Ahram Online talks to Baghdadi about her husband, the restoration project of his films and her own artistic career.

Ahram Online (AO): It has been almost 25 years since your appearance in the cinema world. Why did you halt your career as an actress after Little Wars, given that you were a big success and the film went to Cannes?

Souraya Baghdadi (SB): Little Wars was my first experience as an actress. Maroun wanted to introduce an unprofessional actress in his film and I was selected for the principal role in casting.

It was a turning point for me on a personal and artistic level and I wished to continue as an actress, but Maruon had his own plans for me. When we got married he told me that he wanted to have a family, a wife and a mother for his children. He could not imagine it would be possible for a couple working in cinema to have a suitable family with all the tensions of the career.

His idea was satisfying for me since I was not that confident about acting as my career of choice, and I wanted also to take a break from dancing after ten years of being a professional dancer.

Souraya Khoury (Baghdadi) in Little Wars (Photo: still from the film)

AO: What was attractive in Maroun Baghdadi as a husband?

SB: In my opinion love comes when a person meets someone who makes a big difference in his life, and opens a new world for him. Maroun was that ‘someone’ for me. He introduced me to a totally different life. I knew him and cinema at the same moment. It did not take much time to fall for him.

AO: What do you think your influence on Maroun was?

SB: It is like the influence of all women on all men. Men are made of anxiety. Maroun was very anxious and I helped him to be more calm and more confident in the future. I was his source of comfort. It is very important to find a person that helps you to be comfortable, confident and calm. I believe I was that person for Maroun.

AO: Now, two decades after Maroun’s death, you returned to cinema as an actress in several short films, in addition to your work as a choreographer since the late 90s. How did that come about?

SB: I had forgotten all about acting and was totally involved in my new life with Maroun, but a few years after his death I came back to my first love, dancing and theatre.

In 2006, when we started the project of Maroun’s films restoration and archiving in cooperation with Nadi Lekol Nass (an independent film club and association) in Beirut, people started to watch Little Wars again, and some of them from the young generation were watching his films for the first time.

Some filmmakers, after seeing me in Little Wars and some other documentaries about Maroun and his works, approached me to take roles in their films, and I welcomed the idea. All of the sudden I found myself again as an actress in up to five movies. One of them was ‘Kelthoum Voyage’ (2017) by the Algerian director Anis Djaad, for which I won Best Actress in the Maghreb Film Festival of Oujda (2017).

maroun posters
Posters of films by Maroun Baghdadi

AO: Is it different when Maroun Baghdadi is not the one behind the camera?

SB: I like to think that although Maroun is not with me now he still introduces me to new opportunities. The re-appearance of his films gave me new chances to return to Cinema exactly as he did three decades ago when he introduced me to the cinema for the first time. He is very generous even in his absence.

AO: The restoration and archiving project of Maroun’s films took place in 2006, nearly 10 years after his death. Why did it take such a long time?

SB: In 2005, a film festival in France, where I live now and where Maroun used to live for years, asked me for a DVD copy of Maroun’s film Beirut Oh Beirut (1975) to watch because they wanted it to be screened in a special program about the Lebanese Cinema.

Unfortunately, I did not have it on DVD so they did not screen the film. I felt very disappointed, because Maroun was one of the new-Lebanese-cinema pioneers and his film could not make it to the festival. At that moment I thought it was important to collect all his films, because I could not locate many of them, and restore them and re-produce them on DVD.

I received some proposals but when ‘Nadi Lekol Nass offered to take on the mission, I accepted the cooperation especially because the same association had already taken on a similar project to reproduce the films of the late, prominent Lebanese director Burhan Alawia.

With limited resources it took a long time and a lot of effort to find Maroun’s films and restore them. Sometimes we even lost hope, but at last we have almost all his works, especially those about Lebanon, restored and on DVD.

AO: Now, when you see the younger generations having the chance to watch Maroun`s films, what do you think the is a message that Maroun wanted to deliver to them?

SB: Maroun was asking questions to stimulate a dialogue. He did not have a one-sided message or point of view. He was introducing different characters who were representing Maroun himself and the debate in his mind.

But he definitely was against the futility of war. He believed that war and violence take us to nowhere but loss. Maroun had his own political and social views and it was very clear in his films. He was a free man with a critical mind. and I believe that this is his message to everyone: You should have a free mind to be free.

Souraya Baghdadi in Keltoum Voyage (2017) by the Algerian director Anis Djaad (Photo: still from the film)

AO: Once you said that you re-discovered Maroun after his death. What did you mean by that?

SB: Each time I watch his films I discover new dimensions. I keep asking myself am I really rediscovering Maroun, or am I actually rediscovering myself? I do not have an answer.

I was very young when I lost Maroun but now I am more mature and have more experience so I understand what he was saying in his films in a different way. Maybe now I understand him more.

AO: Maroun loved Egypt a lot and he wanted to make one of his films in Cairo. How do you feel as you are here now introducing his films to an Egyptian audience in Cairo?

SB: I am among the legends of the Egyptian cinema: Yousef Shahin, Yousry Nasrallah, Samir Nasri and all. Some of those prominent filmmakers and movie stars in Egypt were friends of Maroun, who used to visit Egypt many times without me.

Now I am here without him to introduce his films. This is my first visit in 26 years and I feel as if I am here to continue what Maroun started. It is like a part of my journey of re-discovering myself as well.

AO: Do you plan to continue with your career as an actress?

SB: In 1981, I was part of Maroun’s cinema, but now I am exploring my own voice and my own cinema and I am open to all the options and potentials. Some of the potentials could be directing films, not only being an actress.

AO: You have passed through many hard times after Maroun`s distressing death in 1993 (when he fell from the stairs of his mother’s house in Beirut). What was your motivation while tackling all of these difficulties?

SB: Maroun passed away a few days before I gave birth to my third child Kamal. Certainly, the incident was a disaster but I wanted to protect my baby. It was as if someone’s death gives a life to another, or as if the birth of Kamal was our salvation from misery and sadness.

To face the hard times you need to pull yourself out of them. You have to have your own vision and your own dreams and your plans, and there should also be lots of love. You should love your life and the people around you and not fall into isolation.

It does not mean that everything went smoothly, but those were my tools to overcome all the difficulties. Maroun was there all the time, for when you lose a beloved you create his existence in your life and you invent a space for him inside you. Only when I was able to reintroduce the legend of Maroun Baghdadi to the people, I felt like at last I had survived it all.

cairo cinema days maroun
Maroun Baghdadi (Photo: part of promotional material for Cairo Cinema Days festival)

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