Myriam el Hajj
The Lebanese director and comedian, Myriam el Hajj is winner of the 2020 residency programme of the Institut Français at the Cité internationale des arts. While there she is writing her first feature-length fiction film, Commedia, in which she tackles several of her preferred subjects: the private and social realms and the troubled political history of Lebanon.
Why did you look to the residency programme offered by the Institut français?
I haven’t filmed anything since the release of my first feature-length documentary, Trêve (Truce), in 2015. I was too busy teaching cinema at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA) in Beirut, and with the social movements in my country, so I wasn’t able to take the step back necessary to develop a film. This residency offers the ideal opportunity to focus on a new project.
Do you plan on working on a specific project during the residency?
I’m writing Commedia, my first feature-length fiction film. The story is about a young woman doing theatre in France, who decides to return to Lebanon, her home country, to understand why her father has carried out an attack. It’s about a quest for liberation from the father figure and from Lebanese history. I applied for the residency with an eye toward this project, and hope to finish it having written a developed version of the screenplay. I plan to begin filming Commedia in 2021.
How did you get a taste for the cinematic art?
Lebanon isn’t really a cinema country. Our film culture is linked to the wars that tore the country apart: pre-war cinema, war cinema, post-war cinema. There isn’t much choice. As a child I watched a lot of Egyptian programmes and films that made me want to become an actress, before I turned towards directing. I got a bachelor's degree in cinema in Beirut, then I came to France to do a Masters at Paris 8 University. While there I made several student short films, then I went back to Lebanon in 2013 to film Trêve.
This first feature-length film was a documentary. Why are you moving to fiction with Commedia?
I like to juggle between media and approaches. Besides my activity as a film-maker, I’m a comedian and if a subject grabs my attention tomorrow, I could create an installation to explore it in depth. I don’t define myself as just a documentary maker. Besides, I had first conceived Trêve as fiction. But what’s on-screen - my uncle, in his firearm shop, talking with me and his friends about the civil war they had taken part in - was so compelling that I had to make a documentary out of it. Things are different for Commedia. It’s a story about love, about the awakening of a personal political consciousness. It has to be fiction.
The issues of memory, war, and Lebanese politics are leitmotifs in your work. Why is that?
I was born in Beirut in 1983. In other words, I don’t really have a good recollection of the civil war that tore my country apart between 1975 and 1990. I belong to a generation affected by a conflict whose story hasn’t been told very well. Because there was no victor and no vanquished, no one has the final word on it. Everyone is seeking to impose their own version. I questioned things while growing up, then I rebelled. Were the members of my family who took up arms the good guys or the bad guys? This civil war represents a past that refuses to move on within the privacy of the home. But it is also political since today’s rulers are yesterday’s warlords. We need to get rid of this political class to open a new page in Lebanon’s history. It’s important to understand our past to be able to imagine the future. In this context, my role is not to pronounce a truth or to choose between a multitude of opinions. I’m neither a historian, nor a journalist, let alone a politician. Taking family privacy and emotional intimacy as a starting point, I simply examine the mechanisms for transmitting past violence.
Are the subjects that you tackle taboo in Lebanon?
If politicians feel that a film digs up stories that they’ve buried, they’ll censor it on the grounds that it would disturb a hard-won and still-fragile peace and national cohesion. I don’t know if my next film will be censored. I try not to think about it. Trêve wasn’t, in any case, since we were able to show it.
There were a lot of young people at the first screening in Beirut, as well as the film’s protagonists. My uncle, his friends... During the post-screening discussion, someone asked them if they would take up arms again if a new war broke out. They said yes. Some applauded, others booed. Then there was a general debate. This episode sums up how impossible it is to have intergenerational dialogue on the war, sometimes between members of the same family. The purpose of my films is to plant the seed of these discussions, where confusion reigns.
Do you consider yourself a politically engaged artist?
Insofar as I was on the streets in Lebanon in 2015, then in 2019, I am politicised. Even so, I don't mean to create politically engaged films. What interests me are the links between the private and political realms. But my works feed on current affairs. I filmed a lot of the 2019 demonstrations, for example, and these images will be used as a montage in my next documentary. My project will focus on this second documentary, which I started filming in 2018, and which will be called Suspendu(s) (Suspended). It will bring to the screen the story of three characters who tried to make things happen in Lebanon. A young activist who almost found herself at the head of the movement in 2019. A politician ousted by fraud when she had been elected to the legislature in 2018. And an instigator of the civil war whose name has been forgotten because it was hidden. I hope to be able to finish filming by the end of 2021, but no one knows yet what will come of the 2019 protests. New events could disrupt this calendar.
Myriam El Hajj is in residency in Paris, at the Cité internationale des arts, to work on her first feature-length fiction film, Commedia.
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