Born in Beirut in 1948, Jocelyne Saab is a journalist, photographer, writer, filmmaker, producer and visual artist. In 1972, she was hired to write for the writer and artist Etel Adnan’s journal As Safa, and Adnan later wrote the commentary for her film Beyrouth, jamais plus (‘Beirut, Never Again’, 1976). After shooting several reports for Lebanese and French television companies in Egypt, Western Sahara, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Syria and Vietnam, Saab produced and directed her first feature-length film, Le Liban dans la tourmente (‘Lebanon in Torment’, 1975). Writing about this film, Adnan claimed: “This is an extraordinary achievement. It catches the Lebanese environment which led to this war in a way no previous document, whether written or filmed, has ever done. Through her political courage, moral integrity, and profound intelligence, Jocelyne instinctively grasped the essence of this conflict. No document about this war matches in importance Jocelyne’s cinematic achievement in the three films she has dedicated to Lebanon. This is not only a rare work of fundamental importance for the history of our country, but also a study whose implications stretch beyond Lebanon, and should be taught on university courses devoted to sociology and contemporary world politics.”** In 1979, Saab helped Algerian filmmaker Farouk Beloufa make his classic Nahla ou la ville qui sombre (‘Nahla or The Dark City’), an allegory in which a singer who is losing her voice represents Lebanon in a state of disintegration. Beloufa’s film is also a collective portrait of a group of photographers and journalists who were active during the dawn of the civil war, and Saab shot a documentary showing it being made.*** She subsequently continued covering her country’s conflicts and wars, and in 1982 made Beyrouth ma ville (‘Beirut, My City’), written by Roger Assaf, which she considers her most important film. Beyrouth ma ville begins with one of the most impressive sequences in cinema history: in the burning and smoldering ruins of her own house bombed by Israeli shelling, we see Saab grabbing a microphone and, with chilling rationality, bearing witness to the 150 years of family history which have just been destroyed. “Risking your life, you took your camera where there were still women, men, children. You could not wait to report on this city, on these people threatened with extermination. Is that not cinema?”** asked Algerian writer Wassyla Tamzali. After working as an assistant director on Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Fälschung (‘Circle of Deceit’, 1981), Saab developed a parallel vein of fictional films which were grounded in reality yet poetic in structure. In 1985, she co-produced and directed her first feature-length fiction film, L’Adolescente, sucre d’amour (aka Une vie suspendue), which starred Juliet Berto and Jacques Weber, then, in 1994, Il était une fois… Beyrouth, histoire d’une star (‘Once Upon a Time…Beirut, the Story of a Star’), a cinematic fable conveying visual memories of a city in ruins. In an unpublished text tracing the genesis of this film, she explained: “I was using cinema as a means of reclaiming my city, hoping it would enable me to look at this city in a way which rejected the violence of that viewpoint imposed by the war. I did not want my city to be seen as an open grave; I wanted to rediscover the loving gaze with which I had always seen it.” In 2005 she made Dunia, a film shot in Cairo dedicated to the subject of female circumcision and pleasure in an Islamic context; it earned her both death threats and censorship. In 2009 she returned to Beirut to make the fiction feature What’s Going On?, and in 2013 founded the Festival International du Film de Résistance Culturelle (‘Cultural Resistance International Film Festival’), which takes place simultaneously in several cities (Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, Zahleh …), and aims to build bridges between supposedly antagonistic communities.
Since 2007, Saab has also dedicated herself to contemporary art. Strange Games and Bridges, her first installation, was spread across 22 screens at the National Museum of Singapore, and made use of her war footage. That year, she also exhibited her photographs at the Dubai Art Fair.
As a war reporter Saab belongs to the same documentary/artistic movement as Elie Kagan, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Maria Eisner. Despite its importance, nothing of her photographic work has been published to date. Yet this work reflects five decades in the history of the Third World in general and the Middle East in particular, a history told by Saab in the full breadth and diversity of its dimensions, its conflicts, injuries, disappearances, traumas, rebirths. Going body to body with the violence of history, Jocelyne Saab has frequently suffered, often braving dangers, physical beatings, death threats, and, as will be detailed in the upcoming interview, various forms of censorship in several countries (France, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon …). One could hardly improve on the statement made by her friend Etel Adnan in 2015: “Because of the films she has made and the life she has chosen to live, she is one of the bravest, most intelligent, and above all freest individuals I know. Her insistence on maintaining her freedom to think and act has cost her dearly. At times, this was a matter of life and death. Few men or women have suffered so greatly in order to remain true to themselves and survive in a way that makes sense in a world as hostile or indifferent as ours. Jocelyne’s work deserves to be recognized for its true, its great value, and I am happy to say that few people deserve such admiration.”**
In 2015, a monograph by Mathilde Rouxel was devoted to her: Jocelyne Saab, la mémoire indomptée (‘Jocelyne Saab, Untamed Memory’, Beirut, Dar an-Nahar).
Nicole Brenez, February 2016.
English translation by Brad Stevens
* This is the slogan of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme (2010).
** From the Jocelyne Saab dossier compiled by Nicole Brenez and Olivier Hadouchi, La Furia Umana, No. 7, 2015, pp. 205-293.
*** This making of documentary, Reportage sur le tournage de ‘Nahla’ (1979, 16mm, 27 ‘), is available as an extra on the French DVD of Farouk Beloufa’s Nahla released by Les Mutins de Pangée in 2015.