Maroun Bagdadi was arguably Lebanon’s most prominent filmmaker, one whose work has been seen all over the world. One of his best-known films, “Houroub Saghira” (Little Wars), a narrative on the brutalities of Lebanon’s civil war, was shown at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, drawing this comment from a prominent film critic: “To make a film about Beirut that eschews polemics for more universal, more human issues is an achievement.” In 1975, he directed his first feature film, Beyrouth ya Beyrouth, Koullouna Lil Watan, a 75-minute documentary produced in 1979, won the Jury Honor Prize at the International Leipzig Festival Documentary and Animated Film.
His portrayal of everyday Lebanese during the 70s and 80s evokes haunting images of a nation of fractured identities. His movie “Beirut oh Beirut” was described by ArteEast as “perhaps the first real masterpiece of Lebanese cinema” and for good reasons.
He worked with Coppola and Scorsese, and was himself filmed by Wim Wenders. It is in Wender’s film Room 666 that Bagdadi said: “filmmaking overlaps with life…”
Born in 1950 in Beirut, Bagdadi studied political sciences and law in Beirut, before moving to Paris where he switched to cinema. After graduating from the IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques,) he returned to Lebanon in 1973 and started working at Télé-Liban, directing documentaries with Fouad Naim for Sept et demi (seven and a half), a series that focused on everyday life in Lebanon.
Bagdadi subsequently embarked on his first full-length documentary, Beirut O Beirut (Beyrouth, ya Beyrouth). This was screened on the eve of the Civil War, which was equally foreboding for his future projects as for his country’s future. This symbiotic connection between the director, his work and country, was present throughout his career. More than mere cinematographic works, Bagdadi’s films are like the needle of the compass struggling between life and death yet capturing Lebanon’s defiant spirit and shining a light on nuances and contradictions.
In Hors la Vie (Out of Life in English), Bagdadi adapted the story of French journalist Roger Auque, who was kidnapped and held hostage for a year by Hezbollah in 1987. This film, one of his best known, was jointly awarded the 1991 Jury Prize in Cannes, tying with Lars von Trier’s Europa. The film gives a harrowing insight into Beirut’s destruction during the 1975 to 1990 civil war. Bagdadi, together with Didier Decoin and Elias Khoury, wrote some memorable characters into the screenplay.
French actor Hippolyte Girardot portrays Patrick Perrault, the character of the photojournalist who is kidnapped. Perrault, often in harsh and brutal circumstances, succeeds in keeping what many lost in the war, his dignity. There are plenty of grey areas and blurred lines in this war, in which a photographer at times needs to carry injured civilians to a car and the nearest hospital, where militias, their guns cocked, demand their portrait taken next to the body of a hanged man.
There is the character of Hamza Nasrallah, nicknamed De Niro by Perrault after his impersonation of De Niro in the famous “Are you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver. One of Perrault’s guards, he speaks the memorable line: “This is Lebanon, man, don’t trust your eyes, things are never the way they look. There’s always a snake behind the rock,” before speeding off in a stolen BMW with a bunch of militias, armed to their teeth.
Perrault nicknames another guard Frankenstein. Ahmed, aka Frankenstein, played by Hassan Farhat, tells Perrault he hopes to be chosen to kill him, but opens up to him about his upbringing in a poor village in the South: “I fought the Israelis there (in Aitaroun)… with the Palestinians. Then I fought the Palestinians… in Beirut. But first of all, I was with the Communists…. Then the Mounazammé… then Amal…. Then… I forget. Today with Islam… we’ll change the world.” Perrault responds: “you change a lot.” Frankenstein replies, simply, “that’s true, I do change a lot.”
Hors la Vie has an intensity that is only comparable with mythical anti-war films such as Apocalypse Now. From the opening scene, which provides viewers with the vital war statistics (number of dead, internally displaced, in exile, injured, disappeared,) the film’s pace and imagery reflect the frenzy, omnipresence and mercilessness of the war.
In Bagdadi’s own words: “Beirut is a delirious city. These films portray the fears of people struggling to make sense of the events and coming to terms with their own national identity amidst a fratricide war and sectarianism gone awry. We hope these films will open a portal into our no-so-distant history, raising issues that are still eerily present in our lives today.”
In his movies, Violence becomes an assertion of one’s identity. As the war threatens to appropriate people’s humanity and sense of self, the characters in the films struggle with their own identity. The films, viewed in chronological order, show how the Civil War results in a gradual descent into dehumanization in general. They provide an opportunity to revisit Lebanon’s history, its omnipresent but unspoken “little” wars.
I highly recommend watching the DVD box set Maroun Bagdadi – the spring of Lebanese Cinema