A former munitions factory in North London may not be the first place that springs to mind when you hear the words “female-led experimental Lebanese cinema”. But this past Sunday, viewers gathered in a Victorian-era warehouse in Archway to watch three vastly different films bound together by these words.
Organised by the Habibi Collective, crowds gathered at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation for a free screening of two short films and one feature film from directors Dana Boulos, Mounia Akl and Mary Jirmanus Saba. The collective is a female Middle Eastern filmmaking community founded by Róisín Tapponi in 2018, with “Habibi” literally translating to “my love” in Arabic. Tapponi said she chose Lebanese cinema for this event because she wanted to give audiences a nuanced insight into how contemporary female cinema is working in the region.
“There were hundreds of films I could have chosen, so my priority is always quality,” she explained. “I want to screen a film because it is incredible! It doesn’t qualify just because it is by a certain person from a certain country, who ticks some neoliberal boxes required by many contemporary art organisations.”
Beginning the evening was Dana Boulos’ 2019 short film Iconic, starring Karina Fontes. Set in 1984, Boulos’ day-dream aesthetic has been honed through her years working as a fashion photographer for clients including Farfetch, Urban Outfitters and Gucci Dubai.
Based in Los Angeles, the Lebanese-Sudanese director is currently working on her first feature film. Iconic jumps into the workday of Sam Gordon, the head icon and graphic designer at a popular tech firm. It’s a huge day for Sam when the roving reporter Lee (Jeff Newman) arrives at their office to interview her, but her excitement soon leads to despair when the interview doesn’t go to plan. Touching on universal topics of technology and gender equality in the workplace, Iconic doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s early 80s John Hughes-esqe feel keeps perfectly in line with Boulos’ previous short films, most notably Crimson Road and Camgirl. Trip Fontaine-lookalike, 2020’s Golden Globes Ambassador and son of 007 himself Dylan Brosnan also features in the production.
Next was 2016 short Submarine by Lebanese writer and director Mounia Akl. Akl wrote and directed the 21-minute long film during the garbage crisis in Lebanon, which began in 2015. She introduced the piece via video recording, explaining, “It was a moment where the city wasn’t recognisable, it was drowning in garbage and filth. This crisis —which of course was an environmental one— that we are still suffering the results of, was also a political crisis.”
Set in a not-so-far-off dystopian future, the film follows Hala (Yumna Marwan), whose apartment is being destroyed by the waste. As everyone around her prepares to leave, she clings to her home and the memories of her past. She revisits her previous haunts and loves, reminding herself of the life she has built there as the city hopelessly sinks around her. Banned from screening in Lebanon, the film’s gorgeous cinematography is a complete juxtaposition to the urban-detritus subject matter.
Submarine has received enthusiastic praise internationally, where it was an official selection for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and was selected for the coveted Cinéfondation Competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Akl is currently working on a feature film, Costa Brava Lebanon.
To complete the evening was the feature-length film A Feeling Greater Than Love (Shu’our Akbar Min Al Hob) by Mary Jirmanus Saba. The 2017 documentary details the history of two strikes in the early 1970s, prior to Lebanon’s 1975 Civil War, one in a Lebanon tobacco company and the other at Beirut’s Gandour chocolate factory. Protesting against injustice and poor working conditions, the factory worker’s strikes and activism were met with violence, including the death of a young school girl. Saba primarily focuses on women’s activism during this time, interweaving historical footage with interviews.
“I started looking back into the past because I think that it seems to be that the way forward always has to be through this process of evaluating who we are, and evaluating where we came from and seeing where we are going,” she said.
At times discursive, the film’s strength lies in its interview subjects who detail the largely forgotten events. Looking into the past for answers to questions from today, A Feeling Greater Than Love leaves the viewer with a lot to reflect on.
While often explored from the context of the civil war, Lebanese cinema and its themes are quickly growing to be more universal and more celebrated. This generation of female film-makers has emerged while violence remains omnipresent in an ever-changing, highly charged political climate. In another year of Academy Awards dominated by male directors and male stories, the curation of evenings like these are just as important as ever.
by Pagan Carruthers
Originally from a coastal town in New Zealand, Pagan is now living in London and working in post-production. Forever trying to be less-online, and failing. A fan of visually appealing films, her favourites include Lady Bird,Call Me By Your Name, Columbus and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter here.