The Lebanese challenge

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

Soha Hesham seized the opportunity of El Gouna Film Festival to quiz Lebanese filmmaker Wassim Geagea on his work and its wider context

Wassim Geagea
Wassim Geagea



Lebanese filmmaker Wassim Geagea, who was a member of the short film competition jury at the sixth El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) this year, is among a coterie of inspired young Arabs bringing a fresh, witty storytelling to the short film genre. His 2011 short My Grandfather’s Photo was widely acclaimed and Omé (My Mother, 2019) received the El Gouna Silver Star in the third GFF. The remarkable 17-minute film was the story of a nine-year-old, Elias, reacting to the death of his mother by stealing the Virgin’s statue from church and telling Jesus he wouldn’t give him back his mother until his own was returned to him. As Gaegae explained to me in 2019, the film was inspired by his own true story. Aside from festival awards and honours, it resonated widely with audiences all over the world.

Geagea studied at the Lebanese University, earning a masters in film at St Joseph University in Beirut, where he is based. Horrified with the state of the Lebanese economy, which has been in free fall for several years, he fears for the future of the film industry in Lebanon. “Still,” he told me, “even taking this horrible situation into account, cinema can be born of painful experiences the way it was born of the war, giving us filmmakers that peace could never produce: Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab, Ziad Doueiri, Samir El Habashy and even Nadine Labaki, who was born during the war. The era of war produced good cinema, but unfortunately, today in Lebanon, everybody’s main concern is how to secure food for themselves and their families and nothing else. People don’t have any hopes or dreams or anything to look forward to, and no one can begin to think about things like film production; everyone is racing to secure their daily needs, that’s it.”

“Today, if a producer can find a [streaming] platform that admires a given screenplay, then the project can resume and come to fruition but if not, then there is no project. There are a huge number of producers who are used to targeting specific funds and those were an addition to the film industry, but after the pandemic even those funds are limiting their sources of money and accordingly supporting fewer films or projects. In such bleak times and under such harsh circumstances, something very true and genuine can shine through in a film. That belief might be the only thing that’s making me endure and not give in.”

Perhaps short films are easier to produce during an economic slump, I hazard. “People are always busy. They watch quick things on Facebook or YouTube, so perhaps the idea of the short film is more appealing in practice.” He paused. “In my opinion if a filmmaker can tell his story in 15 minutes then why take two whole hours. So, this is a good opportunity for short films in my opinion. The short film is a delightful thing on its own and my belief is that the full-length feature film cannot be a short film and the short film cannot be a full feature.”

“If you have a big screen at home and one day you watch a short film, or four, it’s easy to see how refreshing it is: the snappiness, the diversity, the various ideas from various places in the world. It’s very different from the concept of the series or soap opera, designed to make the viewer attached to a show.” He laughed, saying it must seem as though he is always defending the short film regardless. “Of course, I encourage the production of short films, but I also believe that full-length feature films remain irreplaceable. They are the core of both film festivals and the commercial industry.”

But why can’t short films be screened commercially? “Culturally, people are not used to this in commercial cinemas. It will take some effort to work on it, to make people familiar with something like this or get them used to the concept of watching short films in general. It needs the encouragement of the marketing people to market the concept and the idea of short films. But that means they too have to believe that it will bring them money, which they still don’t.”

Be that as it may, Geagea is working hard: “I’m in the process of developing my debut feature film. While the idea draws loosely on my previous short film Omé, exploring similar themes, for me this is less about repetition and more about advancing what I am most compelled to explore through cinema. There are certain topics and subjects that preoccupy my mind and soul, that I have an urgent need to examine in greater depth. My short films touched on these ideas, and my feature aims to delve further into them. As a filmmaker, I have a topic that truly concerns me. If I am unable to explore and elaborate on the subjects so central to my creative interests, I am left feeling emotionally and artistically unfulfilled. There is an urgency driving me to more fully express these ideas and concerns through film.”

But isn’t the prospect of having his debut feature produced daunting? “Given the challenges of Omé, which critically engaged with religious themes, I don’t necessarily expect a producer to support my next project in the blink of an eye. I’m not obsessed with finding a production instantly though of course I’m not making a film to keep on my shelf at home, but everything will come in its own time. Honestly, the drive to craft this film doesn’t only come from commercial concerns, but from an inner creative urgency to delve deeper into the ideas that are most meaningful to me. My aim is to craft a work people will appreciate, one advancing my vision through engaging characters and narrative. If done well, all art finds its public eventually. For now, I stay focused on the craft, trusting that completion alone will open doors. Cinema is a collaborative medium, so producers play an invaluable role. But they will come, in time — or they will not. And I have the issues and themes that concern me, I don’t follow some specific prize hunters’ agenda or theme.”

“The craft behind a work like the TV series Betlou Al-Rouh (Backbreaking, 2022), whether it’s the script, techniques, lighting or shooting creates  great quality that for me all these elements make it feel more like a film than many projects primarily shot to screen in cinemas. I’ve found the short film programme at the GFF to be one of the strongest sections, featuring a thoughtful selection of works from festivals around the globe. While watching short films, it’s important to consider the experimental nature of the form. Filmmakers are still developing their craft.”

“Even if a film doesn’t appeal to me personally, I can appreciate the creative risks taken and the lessons learned. Ultimately,” he says, “what matters is whether the filmmaker succeeded in communicating their intended message or theme. The awards we grant are simply one perspective among many possible readings of these diverse films. Overall, the GFF short films showcase intriguing visions that push artistic boundaries, and for that the programme deserves praise.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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