A Week of Lebanese Cinema 

Under the Shadow of Darkness: the Postwar Cinema of Lebanon


In one of the most telling scenes in Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut, Riad, the patriarch of the family at the center of the story, attempts to calm down his son and wife when violence suddenly erupts at the beginning of what turns out to be the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), telling them it’s a conflict “between Palestinians and Israelis, nothing to do with us.” As Beirut is divided between the Christian East and the Muslim West, as sectarianism gradually and savagely ravages the country, as Lebanon becomes a shadow of its former self, all pre-held conceptions, images, impressions and even memories of the “pearl of the Middle East” collapse, casting a foreboding shadow over a place and people that have lived in self-delusion for decades.

Post-Civil War Lebanese cinema is cinema of confrontation; a series of diverse records that strive to recall an era when civilization and humanity failed; a bold and honest cinema that has succeeded where other Arab film industries have struggled: in re-examining its dark history and audaciously facing its ambiguous present.

Lebanon boasts one of the oldest cinemas, if not film industries, in the Middle East – the first Lebanese film, Jordano Pidutti’s silent feature The Adventures of Elias Mabruk (Mughammarat Elias Mabruk) was released in 1930. The French Mandate and the subsequent outbreak of World War II prevented the incipience of the industry, leaving Egypt to grow into the biggest cinematic force in the region. The rise of Lebanese cinema to prominence didn’t begin until the 1950s with the emergence of the first generation of Lebanese filmmakers that included Georges Kahi, Mohammed Selmane and Georges Nasser, who made history with Ila Ayn (Whither?, 1957), the very first Lebanese film selected for the Cannes competition.

The nationalization of Egyptian cinema in the early 1960s forced throngs of Egyptian filmmakers such as Youssef Chahine and Henry Barakat to relocate to Beirut, paving the way for the establishment of a robust film industry that rivaled Egypt at the time. Boundaries were pushed in the 1970s as Lebanon started to position itself as the Arab world’s haven of liberalism. Samir A. Khouri’s cult sexploitation classics The Lady of the Black Moons (Sayedat al akmar al sawdaa, 1971) and Wolves Don’t Eat Meat (Zi'ab la ta'kol al lahm, 1973) were the apotheosis of an era during which "anithing goes" was the slogan. Myriad documentaries tackling the Palestinian cause by the likes of Rafic Hajjar and Samir Nasri among others were produced at the time, but they were merely footnotes to a popular culture defined by effervescence and hedonism.

The images carried from more than 20 years of filmmaking were those of a blithe, liberal land that prided itself on its free-spiritedness, captivating landscapes and financial might. The hugely popular Rahbani brothers’ folk musicals along with Mohamed Selmane’s musical comedies were embedded into the national psyche of thousands of Lebanese – like Riad from West Beirut – who couldn’t bring themselves to see the sinister reality of a nation bent on self-destruction.

As the Lebanese Civil War raged on in 1975, the local film industry would soon collapse. As the war progressed, a new generation of filmmakers arose to document the ongoing conflict. Almost overnight, the Lebanese cinematic landscape changed for good; gone were the freewheeling rhapsodies of yore, replaced by sober, anguish-filled dramas struggling to elucidate a turmoil with no end in sight. Rafic Hajjar’s The Shelter (Al Malja, 1980) was the first feature to deal with the Civil War, followed shortly by works from Borhane Alaouié (Beirut, the Encounter, 1981), Heiny Srour (Leila and the Wolf, 1984), Jocelyn Saab (A Suspended Life, 1984), and, most eminent of the bunch, Maroun Bagdadi (Little Wars, 1982).

An apprentice of Francis Ford Coppola, the late Bagdadi was the first Lebanese filmmaker to achieve international recognition, reaching a peak with 1991’s Out of Life (Hors la vie), which earned Cannes’ Jury Prize in the same year. A searing account detailing the kidnapping and torture of a French photographer by the Lebanese militia in Beirut, Out of Life was shot during the waning days of the Civil War and represented the conclusion of Bagdadi’s studies of war and masculinity. While Little Wars showed a society trying to adapt to a volatile and somewhat incomprehensible situation, Out of Life depicted a nation descending into madness – a horrific, apocalyptic view of a place without salvation where men fight for the sheer sake of fighting. And while he doesn’t touch upon postcolonial relations between France and Lebanon, Bagdadi offers a very subtle commentary on the questionable role and nature of journalism in times of conflict.

Out of Life marked the beginning of Lebanon’s post-Civil War cinema, which continues to be defined by a conflict that left thousands dead and displaced. The absence of local funds was an impediment, yet technology allowed young filmmakers and artists to present their perspective on the recently concluded war. Documentaries and video art started to proliferate, while foreign grants (despite restrictive stipulations) boosted production.

The resultant films varied in points of view and narrative approaches, from Jocelyn Saab’s deconstructionist Once Upon A Time, Beirut (Kanya ya ma kan, Beyrouth, 1995) – a provoking assessment of the country’s mythical collective memory that was cultivated by cinema – to Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields (Maarek hob, 2004), a coming of age story that probes class tensions during the war.

A number of films tackled sectarianism head-on, such as Jean-Claude Codsi’s Time Has Come (An al awan, 1994), Jean Khalil Chamoun’s In the Shadows of the City (Taif Al-Madina, 2000) and Randa Chahal Sabag’s The Civilized (Mutahaddirat, 1999).

And then there was West Beirut, Ziad Doueiri’s blockbuster comedy-drama that took Arab cinema by storm. Contrary to its predecessors, Doueiri’s debut feature adopts a lighter tone in portraying the war without airbrushing out the ugly tint of sectarianism that took over the country almost overnight. Doueiri zeros in on the daily predicaments of the time while meticulously recreating the details of the 1970s (music, fashion and pop culture). Its top-notch production values aside, what sets Doueiri’s picture apart from films that came before and after is its pointed comedy, which imbues the narrative with a touch of absurdity that reveals the illogicality behind sectarianism. With their affinity for movies, its three young heroes – two Muslim boys and a Christian girl stuck in Muslim West Beirut – exemplify the stubborn, carefree spirit of Lebanon that carried its people through this strife.

West Beirut remains one of the most critically and commercially successful Lebanese films of all time; it was also the first Lebanese film to gain a theatrical release in the US.

For almost a decade, West Beirut reigned supreme atop the Lebanese box office. As stability returned to the country, numerous media channels began springing up, and by the mid-noughties Lebanon was officially the hottest spot for entertainment production in the Arab world. The most prominent filmmaker to emerge during that stage was Nadine Labaki, an illustrious music video director who would finally unseat West Beirut from its perch to become Lebanon’s most commercially successful filmmaker of the new century.

Her two features – Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011) – exhibit a distinct style characterized by garish colors, jovial ambiance, gentle humor and, most imperatively, strong female characters. Both films broke box-office records at regional art houses, winning multiple awards from Cannes, San Sebastián and Toronto and watched by thousands across the world.

Winner of Toronto’s 2011 Audience Award, Where Do We Go Now? takes a somewhat fantastical approach to dealing with the Civil War. The director sets her story in a fictional land ruled by hot-headed men constantly jumping into bloody clashes with each other. The broad comedy and catchy musical numbers ultimately take a backseat to the anguish of the grieving mothers who bear the brunt of this tragedy.

Prior to Labaki, a number of directors dabbling in mainstream filmmaking took local productions beyond cultural centers and festival halls and into the multiplexes. Chief among this small group was Philippe Aractingi, who scored a major hit with the 2005 musical drama Bosta, starring Labaki. In 2007, he changed gears with Under the Bombs, one of a handful of features to deal with the 2006 war. Shot at the actual bombarded locations in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli strike, Aractingi blends reality and fiction, using non-actors alongside his established cast to capture the devastating impact of a new war Lebanon was unprepared for. Aractingi does not subscribe to a specific political position, delivering a visceral, emotional experience that condemns the death and destruction brought by the war rather than blaming a particular party.

Sectarianism remained a central theme for post-war cinema, but a few years into the century more filmmakers began to focus on Lebanon’s situation. Joana Hádjithomas and Khalil Joreige are prominent figures in this group, and the versatile pair regularly alternate between non-fiction, video art and feature narratives. Their breakthrough work was A Perfect Day (2005), a moody, contemplative piece reflecting the overwhelming sense of unease seeping through the cracks in present-day Lebanon. The shadow of the Civil War looms large in the film’s opaque, elliptical narrative, preventing the possibility of an ordinary, tranquil life. The shiny new façades epitomizing the economic boom and subsequent gentrification are built upon corpses of the war’s victims, vainly attempting to conceal a sinister ever-present past. The sense of loss defining the story’s frayed relationships is a byproduct of a torn generation grappling with its vague identity.

The same sense of loss imbues Corine Shawi’s e muet (2013), an intimate documentary focusing on the love lives of two young twenty-something women in Beirut. In a series of audaciously candid confessions, the two lay bare their souls, conveying their fears, disappointments, confusion and regrets. Shawi’s camera is compassionate rather than probing, accompanying her two friends on their journey toward self-definition. Devoid of national or even gender politics, Shawi offers a snapshot of a side of Lebanon rarely seen in international arenas.

As narrative fictions began to move away from the Civil War, documentaries rose to the fore. Various accomplished works such as Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero (2011) and Hady Zaccak’s Marcedes (2011) shed light on different aspects of the war’s legacy. A standout entry among this group is Eliane Raheb’s Sleepless Nights (Layali Bala Noom, 2012), one of the most comprehensive documents of the Civil War released to date. Raheb slices the war wounds wide open, exposing the lingering animosity, inner torment and hypocrisy of a society that hasn’t finished burying its dead. With remarkable clarity, Raheb unveils the political and tribal motives that ignited the war, revealing that the roots of sectarianism go back beyond 1975. She does not judge her protagonist, former Christian militia intelligence officer Assaad Chaftari, yet she also can’t bring herself to absolve him of his heinous crimes. Notions of forgiveness and reconciliation are rendered fanciful – polished tools employed by politicians to steer the country away from its gory past without ever granting the families of the victims the justice they achingly need in order to achieve closure.

The post-war cinematic landscape in Lebanon has expanded considerably, encompassing a wide array of filmmaking that ranges from the overtly commercial (Daniel Joseph’s Taxi Ballad, 2011; Layal M. Rajha’s Habbet Loulou, 2013) to the strictly experimental (Sarah Francis’ Birds of September, 2013; Akram Zaatari’s Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2015), and touching upon sundry themes such as arrested male development, class disparity and the subjection of women.

The constant threat of another standoff between Israel and Hezbollah, the influx of Syrian refugees and the general atmosphere of disquiet brought on by the ISIS threat has left Lebanon on the edge, wrestling with ghosts of the past while anticipating the dread of an uncertain future.

All of these fears are perfectly articulated in The Valley (Al Wadi, 2014), the latest tour-de-force from veteran director Ghassan Salhab, whose 1998 Phantom Beirut is one of the key films of the Civil War. Salhab’s pictures primarily expound on the existential dilemmas faced by individuals in precarious environments. The Valley is a prime example, a thriller about the search for identity, tribalism and the lurking violence behind the stable façade of post-war Lebanon. Salhab imbues Lebanon’s mountain topography with mystery and tension, producing a pared-down impressionistic allegory of a place shattered by insecurity and an impending sense of doom.

The specter of the Civil War may always haunt Lebanon, but in their resolve to persevere in the face of adversity, in their decision to hold a mirror of honesty up to their country, in their recognition of the moral duty of remembrance, Lebanese filmmakers may have finally found that long-coveted sense of regeneration.

Joseph Fahim, film critic

  • e muet e muet / e muet
    Directed by: Corine Shawi
    Lebanon, France, 2013, 52 min

    A five-year documentary portrait of three young women in contemporary Beirut conveyed through words and expressions. An extremely intimate record of the search for the form and foundation of love.

  • Out of Life Mimo život / Hors la vie
    Directed by: Maroun Bagdadi
    Belgium, France, Italy, 1991, 97 min

    A suspenseful drama based on the actual experiences of a French photographer kidnapped and held for nearly a year during Lebanon's Civil War. Jury prize (ex aequo) at the 1991 festival in Cannes.

  • A Perfect Day Úžasný den / A Perfect Day
    Directed by: Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige
    Lebanon, France, Germany, 2005, 88 min

    Malek tries to persuade the attractive Zeina to give him a second chance. It’s also an important day for his mother Claudia because she has finally allowed her son to convince her to go and declare his father officially dead – fifteen years after the man disappeared. The third protagonist of this somber picture is chaotic and charismatic Beirut, in which past and present intermingle with painful intensity.

  • Sleepless Nights Probdělé noci / Layali bala noom
    Directed by: Eliane Raheb
    Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, France, 2012, 128 min

    In her celebrated Lebanese documentary, the filmmaker brings together a former high-ranking intelligence officer who feels guilty over his part in the Civil War (1975–1990) and a mother still searching for a son who disappeared during the bloody conflict.

  • Under the Bombs Pod palbou / Taht alqasf
    Directed by: Philippe Aractingi
    Lebanon, 2007, 94 min

    Dubai resident Zeina sends her son to stay with her sister in southern Lebanon just a week before the outbreak of war in 2006. Now she must rush back to her war-torn native country in order to find him. This gripping road movie blends fiction with documentary elements of the most authentic kind.

  • The Valley Údolí / Al Wadi
    Directed by: Ghassan Salhab
    Lebanon, France, Germany, 2014, 134 min

    An unknown man survives a car accident in the middle of the Bekaa Valley with just a few scratches and the loss of his memory. Soon after he meets a group of people who take him to a closely guarded farm. This complex, disturbing mystery, conveying its own message on the state of civilization, is so far the most ambitious picture by the renowned Lebanese director.

  • West Beirut Západní Bejrút / West Beyrouth
    Directed by: Ziad Doueiri
    Lebanon, France, Belgium, Norway, 1998, 105 min

    The Lebanese capital, April 1975. Open conflict between Muslims and Christians breaks out: the Civil War has started and Beirut becomes a war zone. But affable, 15-year-old scamp Tarek and his friends don’t succumb to skepticism. This humor-tinged look at a trying time that the director himself experienced is considered by many the best Lebanese film ever.

  • Where Do We Go Now? A co teď? / Et maintenant on va où?
    Directed by: Nadine Labaki
    France, Lebanon, Italy, 2011, 110 min

    The audience hit of the 2011 Toronto film fest was a satirical, over the top comedy-drama about Muslim and Christian women living in neighborly solidarity in an isolated mountain village. Together they strive to maintain peace in the face of their husbands’ politico-religious discord.


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