Following a recent screening at ArtHouse Crouch End, we chatted with ABOUT A WAR (2018) co-directors Daniele Rugo & Abi Weaver about their film, its origins & its future in the UK & Lebanon. Here’s our RADIANT CIRCUS interview.
By RADIANT CIRCUS
ABOUT A WAR is a 2018 doc by academics & filmmakers Daniele Rugo & Abi Weaver. It looks back at the 15-year Lebanese Civil War from the perspective of three ex-combatants – Ahed, Nassim & Assad. You can read our RADIANT CIRCUS writeup about the film when it screened at ArtHouse Crouch End here.
How did you both arrive at telling this story?
We were looking at how infrastructure – power, water, bridges – was used as a target by state and non-state forces during the 15-year long Lebanese Civil War. The infrastructure project brought us into contact with a number of former combatants, because these were the people who were actually involved with disrupting infrastructure. They were the ones who cut off the power and phone lines and we wanted to understand why they got involved. As we talked to them we became increasingly interested in what had happened after the war was over, and the amnesia around the Civil War.
The film focuses on the stories of 3 main protagonists – what did your search for subjects involve and how did you settle on these three?
We interviewed and filmed with over 25 people, ranging from a former President of the Republic to militia leaders, aid workers and survivors from the 1982 Sabra & Shatila massacre. We also shot a lot of observational material in a health centre and in Shatila camp.
The three men featured in the film are the ones whose stories come across more clearly in terms of what one can do with a single film. They are different from each other – one is born a refugee, one came to Beirut’s slums from the country and one was a university student when the war started – and yet they share many experiences. This balance between individual specificity and a universal experience of war allows the film to speak on a wider level of what motivates people to fight.
Given the official silence around the war, how did you get their stories flowing?
There is a corpus of Lebanese films made during and about the war by people like Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri, Jocelyne Saab, Maroun Bagdadi and Borhane Alaouié. However the silence around the war is still a very problematic issue, it is not easy to find people willing to speak and in particular to speak on a personal level.
There are still many taboos around the conflict due to the sectarian divides within the Lebanon. Ex-fighters are afraid to speak out in case by doing so they upset ‘their’ group. We filmed with the three men a number of times and the stories came out slowly. The fact that we were willing to give them time made a big difference and helped get the stories out.
The film largely eschews dramatic devices to focus on the men talking. How did your story-telling approach evolve as the film was being made?
We started wanting an observational film and we did shoot the first part of the material that way. We then realised – a year into filming – that language was going to be the key storytelling engine of the film. In the cutting room our editor and co-producer Masahiro Hirakubo confirmed this and we started to build a structure to accommodate the conversations (he’s a master of structures).
When you deal with memory and with a form of avowal or at least acknowledgment, language plays a crucial role and there was no point us trying to deny that and impose dramatic devices. The fashion in documentary form today – Errol Morris aside – is to move away from the ‘interview’, spoken word and dialogue, trying instead to replicate the style of fiction dramas, even when this is unnecessary. We knew we were going against the grain here, but regardless of current trends this is what the film demanded.
Landscape was also very important because the material fabric of Beirut – the traces of the war, the state of the camps, but also the reconstruction of downtown – feeds and keeps alive much of what the characters say.
Balance is obviously important – but this must have been difficult given some of the personal histories involved. How did you stay true to their accounts?
Maybe balance isn’t the right word here. The film is not partisan because as authors we are not judging the testimonies, but the differences between a Palestinian refugee and a Christian middle class teenager come across quite clearly. We tried to work according to a principle of asymmetry, which means that there are many parallels between the three, but they didn’t fight for the same reasons nor do they face the same situations today.
It feels as if the editing must have been an uncomfortable experience, particularly when it comes to your choice of archival footage. What rules did you set about what to show? Where did the archive material come from?
When we started discussing archive with Masahiro, he had just finished editing the Oscar-winning WHITE HELMETS so he had come up against a similar problem. In general we wanted the film not to sensationalise the war and eschew as much as possible graphic details. We left out much more gruesome images than what you see in the film. At the same time you cannot completely avoid showing, so we imposed the rule that if we couldn’t watch then we couldn’t impose it on the audience, whilst at the same time not acting as if the war had been ‘clinical’ and ‘intelligent’. The Israeli bombardments in 1982 in particular caused a great deal of destruction and human suffering.
We spent a lot of time researching archives because we didn’t want to use material shot by news channels and because we didn’t have the resources to pay for that. We looked for individuals, people who were recording the war – even the most mundane aspects of it – and we managed to find quite a few people. This approach in our view really helps the film. We were also helped by filmmaker Monica Maurer who spent years during the war working in Beirut and allowed us to use some of her images.
How have you found the process of exhibiting your film – in the Lebanon? – in the UK? What kind of response is it getting?
The film has had a good run in cinemas in the UK, with some sold out screenings in Curzon Cinemas, HOME in Manchester, ArtHouse and others. We have also done more specialised screenings in places such as Chatham House. So far both reviewers and audiences have responded very well and the Q&A are always very interesting.
We have screened the film in Lebanon in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon and have engaged in some very long post-screening conversations there. We have worked with partners including Fighters for Peace, MARCH Lebanon who work in peace-building and conflict resolution to bring the film to those who need to see it. Fighters for Peace in particular has picked up the film as part of their peace building activities. It is also being shown in schools in Sidon. Teachers found the film extremely helpful because the Lebanese Civil war is not part of the curriculum and the film becomes for them a pedagogical tool.
What happens next for you and for this film?
We hope to be able to bring the film to more audiences in the UK. The film is also now starting to do festivals and will be screened in France.
We have another 80 hours of material from this project that we would like to shape into a film. We have many partners in Lebanon and we are determined to keep working with them. We need to find the resources, but we hope there will be a follow up to this project.
As to the future we have a new film project – a landscape film shot entirely in the UK – already financed which we are starting work on this spring.
ABOUT A WAR (2018)
- Find the film on IMDb, online & on Twitter @followingwires.
- Read our writeup of ABOUT A WAR (2018) when it screened at ArtHouse Crouch End in Part One.
ARTHOUSE CROUCH END
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