Jocelyne Saab, the Stars of War
Reporter, photographer, screenwriter, producer, director, visual artist, founder of the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival, Jocelyne Saab was born and raised in Beirut. Her work has been devoted entirely to underprivileged populations, displaced peoples, exiled combatants, war-torn cities, and those in the fourth world without a voice. Her creative journey has been one of the most exemplary and profound, rooted completely in historical violence, the multiple ways in which one can participate in it and resist it, and the awareness of the gestures and images needed to document it, reflect on it and remedy it.
After being hired as a journalist by her friend Etel Adnan in 1973, Jocelyne Saab became a war reporter. In this respect, her work belongs to the great literary tradition of Albert Londres or Ernest Hemingway, as well as other great poets and filmmakers such as Peter Whitehead, who got his start on British television, or Dick Fontaine, who never stopped working for it. This anchor in the here and now of a situation determines the principle characteristics structuring her practice: a demand for factuality, relevance, clarity and speed with respect to the practical and stylistic decisions one takes. However, such an emphasis on current events, for Jocelyne Saab, is systematically linked to the political analysis that flows through her films.
Jocelyne Saab’s art thus engages in a profound relationship to images: a relationship that consists in understanding at the outset who will participate in constituting collective history, in evaluating the importance of images for constituting its memory, and in filming and editing them in a manner that is equal to the historical stakes of their task. On all these levels, her films raise cinema to the fullness of its responsibilities. This is most evident in the fresco she painted of her country, Lebanon. The New Crusaders of the Orient (1975), Lebanon in Turmoil (1975), Children of War (1976), Beirut, Never Again (1976, with Etel Adnan), Letter from Beirut (1978), The Ship of Exile (1982), Beirut, My City (1983), What’s Going On? (2009), One Dollar a Day (2016, on Syrian refugees) … to which we can add the fiction films A Suspended Life (1985, with Juliet Berto), then later Once Upon a Time, Beirut: Story of a Star (1994, a cinematic fable on the visual memory of a city in ruins) together form the panels of one of the most remarkable frescoes in the history of cinema, not simply regarding Lebanon but as far as all relationships between an artist and a nation are concerned. Jocelyne Saab documents her country’s bruises, the terrible wounds, the divisions, the aporias, the poetry and the formidable energy that is always reborn. We may compare this lengthy enterprise, which offers an account of events, collective realities and deeply intimate feelings, to the work Johan Van der Keuken has done in Amsterdam or that Wang Bing is currently doing in China.
Among the pieces of this fresco, the “Beirut Trilogy” stands out, comprised of Beirut, Never Again, Letter from Beirut and Beirut, My City. Caught in the heat of war, Jocelyne Saab creates new relationships between political analysis, subjective position, and visual expression, which document at one and the same time the eventfulness of combat, the collective reflections on the situation, and the multiple ways that war affects the psyche. Such an alliance is demonstrated in the opening to Beirut, My City: standing in the smoking ruins of her house just after it has been bombed by the Israeli air force, Jocelyne Saab, microphone in hand, describes the situation, then explores the ruins, evoking 150 years of family life destroyed before her eyes. Rarely has the expression “presence of mind” been so embodied. In long silent tracking shots, filmed at dawn when the shooting stopped, Beirut, Never Again documents both the devastation suffered by her beloved city and the residue of daily activities that suddenly seem surreal in this nightmarish landscape. Like the opening of Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) over the ruins of Berlin, the visual power of this sequence returns cinema to its necessity, that is to say its descriptive power. Letter to Beirut, sent to her friends abroad, likewise reports on the destruction of South Lebanon, refugee camps, soldiers on the war path. Her conclusion is final: “Lebanon no longer exists,” and until now history has proven her right. Despite the endless violence of the conflict in Iraq or today in Syria, Beirut remains the paradigm of relentless agony. The writer and visual artist Etel Adnan sums up the relevance of the Beirut Trilogy with the following:
Jocelyne instinctively grasped the essence of this conflict, thanks to her political courage, her moral integrity, and her profound intelligence. No document on this war has ever equaled the importance of the cinematic work [travail cinématographique] Jocelyne produced in the three films she devoted to Lebanon. It’s a rare work, of primary importance for the history of Lebanon, but it is also a study that goes beyond Lebanon and should be studied in university departments interested in sociology and the politics of today’s world. (Letter to the author, 20 August 2014).
Jocelyne Saab has equally applied her incomparable art of visual political analysis to other territories: Palestine (Palestinian Women, 1974; Palestinians Keep Fighting, 1973), Iran (Iran: Utopia on the Move, 1980), Vietnam (The Lady of Saigon, 1997), Turkey (Imaginary Postcards, 2016), Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and especially Egypt, where she often lived (Egypt, The City of the Dead, 1977; The Ghosts of Alexandria, 1986; Al’Alma’, Bellydancers, 1989). In 2005, Dunia, a musical comedy made in Cairo dedicated to pleasure in an Islamic context, earned her death threats and censorship.
As each of her films attest, whether documentary or fiction, Jocelyne Saab brilliantly articulates a situation, its context and its different dimensions: social, political, cultural and affective. In this respect, The Sahara is Not for Sale (1977) is a masterful example of how to document conflict that could be taught in any film school or journalism program. This methodological work, which captures points of view of all the parties involved without forgetting anyone (for example, prisoners of war), is sustained by the admirable visual treatment of the desert, a limitless motif that remains so through all of its variations and specific deployments. At the same time, objective rationality does not exclude taking an ethical position. Thus, the film begins with the fate reserved for women and for children, where any other, less subtle essay would have ended.
Since 2007, Jocelyne Saab has also worked in contemporary art. Under the title “Strange Games and Bridges”, she completed her first installation, a 22-screen piece drawing on her work on war, for the National Museum of Singapore. The same year, she exhibited her photography at the Dubai Art Fair. At the time of her death, in January 2019, she was preparing several films, including a portrait of May Shigenobu (daughter of Fusako Shigenobu), an autobiography, and her first printed collection of photographs. With its unique combination of analysis and sensitivity, Jocelyne Saab’s fearless and crucial work documents four decades of our collective history from the Middle East, with both love (towards the victims of its conflicts) and irony (towards its political leaders).
We may find the emblem of Jocelyne Saab’s art in her penultimate short film, One Dollar a Day, a plea to raise the minimum alms given to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In the Bekaa plain, thousands of families live in exile under enormous advertising banners recycled into tents. A small, ragged population protests under enormous images of necklaces, perfumes and luxury brands, forming a sinister collage contrasting the waste of unbridled capitalism with the immense destitution of its victims. Jocelyne Saab photographs and films the camps, makes enormous portraits of the refugees and, with the help of cranes, suspends them everywhere in Beirut. Over billboards across the city, she superimposes the haunting question: “How to live on one dollar a day?” So that the image becomes a visual cry in favor of the underprivileged, so that no one escapes the consciousness of suffering and injustice, so that humanity becomes again the synonym for kindness and understanding it once was: these are the tasks that Jocelyne Saab has devoted to cinema.
Image from Beyrouth, ma ville [Beirut, My City] (Jocelyne Saab, 1983)
This portrait of Jocelyne Saab (1948-2019) was originally written to accompany a 2013 retrospective of her work at the Cinémathèque Française, and it was later published in modified form in the essay collection Manifestations : Écrits politiques sur le cinéma et autres arts filmiques (de l’incidence editeur, 2020). Its French title, “Les astres de la guerre,” is a play on the title of Goya’s series of paintings on the Napoleonic Wars, Los desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820).
This translation is published on the occasion of the series ‘The New Lebanese Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s’, which takes place from 10 to 17 November at BAMPFA, Berkeley.
Courtesy of Nicole Brenez