While bombs and rockets fall in Lebanon, so does the artistic embrace of talented youth in the country. One need not go further than the Ras Beirut (tip of Beirut) district to find award winning youth film-makers shooting beautiful scenes for the world to see. At the ripe age of 15, Jude Chehab decided to make documentaries about her neighborhood. Her latest was produced this year, 7ada Beiruti (Someone from Beirut) and it won awards such as the Abu Dhabi film festival, and was screened at the Al Jazeera documentary film festival.
With parents who support her love for the camera and for story-telling, Chehab grew up watching regional and international cinema: “some Persian films I watch are Close-Up and Kandahar or something along the lines of Bab ‘Aziz. I also like old Hollywood films; one of my favorites is How to Kill a Mockingbird”. At the same time, Lebanese cinema is not the largest in the world, says Chehab: “there is around four major film makers here, Nadine Labaki for instance, and that’s about it”
Unlearning a negative image of oneself as an Arab in the film industry is a factor that shapes the world in which Chehab lives. How does a teenager tell a story about life in Beirut? In her documentary, Chehab turns to the elderly community: “I started by taking my camera wherever I go, I’d film shots here and there of the neighborhood where the interviewees lived. Then we prepared specific questions to ask such as what did you do career-wise, your marriage, your parents, what makes you cry and what was the happiest moment you’ve had”. In so many ways, this is everyone’s life story, says Chehab, because “we’ve all cried and we’ve all laughed. We’ve all loved our children or found ourselves saying work is really hard”.
As much as the story of 7ada Beiruti is universal, it also documents history that is specific to this city. One of the elderly men interviewed is 82 year old Mehideen Harb. Born and raised in Ras Beirut, he explains his tale of going through the civil war, sectarian conflict and economic downfalls. At the same time, his deepest struggles in life are not directly related to politics and war. With tears in his eyes, he says, ” I married when I was 20. My wife was only 16. For over 20 years, she bore me no child. We tried everything in medicine in order to cure her but to no avail. Then, after 20 years of waiting, Zeina, my first child, came to life. This was the happiest moment in my life”. Sometimes, if you walk down the Beirut corniche, you can spot Mehideen playing his oud to passersby.
Young Chehab learns alot about life in the present from stories of the past. She stands behind the camera in the mid summer humid heat of Lebanon. “This is my chair, always here”, says an 82 year old Interviewee from Zuqaq al Blat. He sits on the living room couch wearing a sleeveless white cotton shirt. He says to his wife who is in the next room, ” turn the air conditioner on”. Then he turns to Chehab and says; ” can you believe this heat”. Turns back to address his wife; ” what’s wrong with you, turn it on. Why are you turning the television on? Turn the AC on. That’s it, I’m getting remarried”. He smiles cheekily back to the camera.
By listening to the voice of Beirut between 1929 and 1950 through the memories of her sons and daughters who were born then, young Chehab learns about such things as relationships and love. One of the interviewees addresses her tenderly and explains; ” I loved someone in my life so very much to the point that my wife became jealous. I wrote a poem about her that says ‘ My love, I never adored anyone but her, oh moonlight brightening my way, my joy is her joy, my content is her content, and her pain is my pain; we were never apart since my childhood, and I will never ever leave her, do you know who my love is? She is Beirut, my home, Beirut. May Allah bless her and keep her'”
Religion is a central element in Chehab’s life and so is secularism. The development from her first documentaries leading up to 7ada Beiruti is a reflection of Chehab’s different stages in her religious identity: ” At first my films had these so called Islamic things like a person praying, or the call of Azan, or saying how the hijab is beautiful. I’m not doing that anymore. I’ve changed as a Muslim. Instead of having a film saying no we are not oppressed, I’m going to just make a film and tell the story of a woman”.
For Chehab, one of the elderly community includes educators in Islamic schooling programs that teach her how to behave, dress and act. She says, “There are people in my community who are extremely rigid. I’ve been told not to wear rings because they are attractive to guys”. She breaks out of such ideologies with a positive attitude: “You have to be a progressive Muslim and even though these ideas exist which I don’t agree with, they’re slowly progressing, but the youth today are separating themselves from this older generation”.
The elderly in 7ada Beiruti includes the voice of a woman in her mid 80s who remembers the tramway in Beirut that travelled all the way to Syria. When asked what she misses the most, she says to Chehab; ” the love people had for each other”. For Chehab, the nostalgia she hears in her interviewees is not defeatist but rather a reconnection with past values that can be relived today, such as dealing with poverty together during war. Mehideen recalls; ” I remember surviving on a loaf of bread with lemon”. Another interviewee explains; ” while all our friends and family left during the war, I stayed in my bakery to make sure people in my neighborhood got loaves of bread to eat, even while bombs and rockets were destroying our houses and shops”.
Trauma is no stranger to 7ada Beiruti but stories of fleeing from war are dimmed by a larger trauma such as losing a beloved to death by old age. An interviewee from Sadat street explains; ” the morning my wife died, she sat next to me in bed and we recounted stories of when we fled during war, where we took our children at the time for a vacation; we spent two hours talking and none of us knew that this was farewell. I woke up and I found her dead in bed”
The stories in 7ada Beiruti will carry on with Chehab as she prepares herself to migrate to the United States for education, not unlike many Lebanese youth.