Through a Lebanese lens

By Nick Johnstone, March 13, 2008
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In 2006, after Hizbollah provoked Israel into conflict in Lebanon, director Philippe Aractingi shot Under The Bombs, a part-documentary, part-fictionalised road movie set in the midst of the chaos.

Three days into the second Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, an idea came to 43-year-old French-Lebanese Christian film-maker Philippe Aractingi. He would head out to the war zone with a small camera crew and two actors, and direct a film that was part documentary, part fiction — a slice of cinema verité.

Having lived through previous wars, he had been back in Lebanon for only five years, after a decade of peaceful living in Paris. And now, here he was, once more having his life turned upside down by war. In response, he conceived Under The Bombs.

“The film came as a reaction,” he explains from Paris, where he and his family are once more living since fleeing Beirut on a French ship, a week into the conflict. “When war starts again in your life, you feel like destiny is giving you this thing to live again and again and again. Either you have to cry or you have to take your camera and do something.”

Before jumping on that ship, he called actress Nada Abou Farhat, who starred in his 2005 Arab-cinema hit, Bosta. He proposed that she play the lead part of a wealthy Lebanese mother, Zeina, a Shiite Muslim who lives in Dubai. In the throes of a messy divorce, she and her husband have earlier sent their son, Karim, to stay with relatives in the southern Lebanese town of Kherbet Selem.

When war breaks out, she cannot return to Lebanon until the UN-brokered ceasefire has come into effect. Once there, she hires taxi-driver Tony (played by celebrated Lebanese comic actor Georges Khabbaz), a Christian, and together, they embark on a road trip in search of her son. In tandem with Zeina’s story, Aractingi also returned to Beirut the day the UN ceasefire came into effect, having secured in France a producer for his film-in-progress. Within hours, he too was on the road south, with the two actors and a small crew.

“It was still very tense. You could see the dust, the destruction everywhere.”

They spent three days filming people amid the devastated infrastructure, capturing the aftermath of the war.

“I always say we were not doing this film, we were living this film, feeling it. People we met on the street, in the refugee camps, we spoke with them, we told them we want to film you in a feature film. They understood. And at the same time, when they were crying, we were crying with them. I remember that lady who speaks about the 11 people from her family dying in a strike, she was crying and I was crying at the same time. It’s not as though you’re asking her to play a role; you’re just living with her and trying to be a witness of what she says.”

Back in Beirut, Aractingi co-wrote a script with Jewish screenwriter Michel Leviant, which embellished the existing footage and story.

They hired a further two actors and shot the rest of the film. During editing, they added news-archive footage of the war. By then, Aractingi knew the film would not take sides, only strongly condemn war.

“I have been through many wars, so I know it’s nonsense to say this is the wrong guy and the other is the right guy. A war is people that don’t know how to talk to each other. They have a logic which is not mine. I’m against war, whatever it is. Of course, I’m hurt when I see the shellings of the Israelis. But then I condemn also the Hizbollah, who did start this thing.”

It is above everything a human story, that of a mother desperately seeking her son and, all the while, fearing the worst. By adding this fictitious heart to what is essentially an old-fashioned road movie, Aractingi knew he would steer the film away from the clichés of war documentary.

“You touch people through their emotions — not through the mind, not explaining who’s against who and what is happening and when it started.”

He was also careful to ensure that Under The Bombs did not end up tagged as a “war” movie. He dealt with this by avoiding any scenes of soldiers, militants, shoot-outs. Stock footage of Israeli air strikes in Lebanon, snapshots of hideous propaganda by Hizbollah, television news reports of rockets showering down on Israel and real-time scenes of levelled Lebanese villages, bridges, roads, are the only actual signs of the conflict in the film.

“Most of the time, people who do war films talk about the people who do war, the fighters. Very few speak about the victims. A million people in Lebanon were refugees; 700,000 in Israel. All these people had their lives completely changed. Who talks about them? Most of the reports and documentaries that were being done when we were filming were talking about how many victims, how many bombs, how many bridges were destroyed, who started it, who sent the bomb first, who answered the bomb second.

“I would call it cold information. It makes you interested in that moment. But it does not stay there in your heart and soul as the stories of those who really suffered.”

The film has many scenes of real-life grief captured in the moment, Aractingi stumbling across grieving men, women, children, in villages, eager to air their feelings. Surprisingly, the outpourings are not political. They are simply expressions of human loss. The film is not, as one might fear, fiercely anti-Israel. If anything, it is fiercely anti-Hizbollah. Bearing this in mind, how was the film received when it opened in Lebanon?

“People understood its human message. There weren’t many discussions about the politics. Because they can automatically see that I’m against both. It’s obvious, there’s even a sentence in the film, Zeina says at one point: ‘Hizbollah I don’t give a damn, Israel I don’t give a damn, I’m looking for my child’. Most of the people in Lebanon are the same way this character is. They are victims. They didn’t expect this war.”

The film has fared well on the international film-festival circuit, picking up the EIUC Prize at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. It has also led to moving encounters with Israelis who have seen the film. Aractingi says: “One Israeli came crying to me in Venice and he said: ‘I want this film to be shown in Israel. Thank you for this film.’”

That man’s wish is soon to be reality, since the film is set to show at the 2008 Jerusalem Film Festival. In the meantime, Aractingi is cautiously planning a move back to Beirut, where Under The Bombs continues to ride high in the box-office top 10.

“Lebanon is still shaken by this war. Whatever problems we are having now are an effect of what happened in 2006. And what the film does is show the war very quickly to those who’d just lived it. And it helps somehow to release the pain.”

Under The Bombs premieres in the UK at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London on March 16 (www.hrw.org/iff), before going on general release on March 21

    Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014