Recently one of our programmers, Alexander Farrow, sat down with Lebanese filmmaker and multimedia journalist, Raed Rafei. With a media practice that spans the registers of journalism and documentary to more experimental forms of storytelling and non-narrativity, Rafei’s film work is politically kaleidoscopic inasmuch as it is interwoven with personal renderings of identity. Having worked for over a decade as a journalist covering the Arab World, in addition to directing/producing TV documentaries and reports for Al-Jazeera, CNN, and ARTE, Rafei’s practice is informed by the art of journalism, while at the same time radically departing from it. From his first feature, 74: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF A STRUGGLE, co-directed with his sister Rania Rafei, that tracks the legacy of the American University of Beirut’s 1974 student uprisings, to his second travelogue-esque, atmospheric analysis of immigration, borders, queerness, and long-distance relationships, HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE (screened at AFF2017), Rafei’s nuanced mobilization of docuform opens doors of participatory-performative experience that invites the viewer to engage pending East/West tensions yet at the same time, and by virtue of experimentation, challenges viewers to re-think conventional processes of storytelling.
Alexander Farrow: Thank you Raed for being here with me, it was a pleasure to come across HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE during our 2017 programming season. And truly all of us at the Institute were delighted to have it as part of our 2017 official selection where it likewise saw its international premiere.
Raed Rafei: Thank you for having me, and it was great having my film at your festival.
AF: To start off, and I’m very curious – talk about the movement you made from journalism to something like experimental documentary?
RR: Well, I actually started off with biology which I studied till I was 24. I was working in Holland and eventually came to the conclusion that the lab life wasn’t for me, so I returned to Lebanon and finished a graduate program in journalism at the Lebanese University in Beirut. When I finished the program in 2005, the country entered into a turbulent phase with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. I found myself in a tragic but exciting time where a lot of things were changing politically and started working for the Beirut-based English language newspaper The Daily Star in 2006 covering Israel’s war on Lebanon, which was absolutely devastating the country. It was a very intense time in my life. Soon, all the big media corporations decided to open the roads in Beirut which gave me the chance to work with the Los Angeles Times for several years, which helped widen my journalistic practice. During this time I was satisfied by being a reporter and writer, and loved being on the streets interviewing people, documenting their stories and experiences, but I wondered how I could push it further, especially further than the medium of print journalism. My sister Rania, a documentary filmmaker, was working on multiple projects and I started collaborating with her doing research and helping with the direction/production of TV documentaries. We realized however there were limits that existed regarding how far we were able to go with artistic expression in TV film work, which gave little room for being creative as a documentary filmmaker. Especially back then in Lebanon.
RR: Because this is how various media industries work. The industry understands there are specific conventions that people, viewers, are accustomed to when it comes to documentary form, such as the PBS-style documentary with talking heads, archive footage, infographics, and interviews. I’m not disputing that this kind of documentary is valid and I work in this form too! But I believe in a much more fluid way of telling stories that might not subscribe to a certain format, or having a certain format imposed on the work before the work has started. At the end of the day, many media corporations are businesses that aren’t interested in changing the world or covering the truth, much less experimenting with documentary. I’m not saying all the media corporations, I’m just talking in general and specifically in regard to what I was faced with working in this industry for a number of years and with different media companies. And this also isn’t to say experiments in journalism are not being done. It’s just that sometimes you are lucky and have more freedom, and other times, more often than not, you won’t have any freedom. But getting back to the switch between journalism and film to answer your question… In 2010, mind you, before the Arab Spring, I was working with Rania on the history of student movements and student uprisings in the 1970s happening all over the region and around the world for Al-Jazeera. During the research the one thing that kept surfacing was the fervor of a generation of young people who believed they had the power to change the world, and we were inspired to make a film that would capture this energy.
AF: Namely your first feature, co-directed with Rania, 74: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF A STRUGGLE about the 1974 student protests and occupations of the American University of Beirut.
RR: Exactly. We were fascinated by that story considering how lethargic the Arab World was in 2010. The incident at AUB was symbolic of that pivotal time in Lebanese history which morphed from the height of leftist political dissent and projects of social equality and secularism to the event of the the civil war, which started in 1975 — a year after the AUB student protests — that plunged the previous strides towards progress into an abyss of violence and war. So, for 74, we were interested in the point where things shifted. And at the end of 2010 as we were completing our research, the beginnings of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt started to erupt.
AF: Yeah, it’s quite powerful how the project you were already working on reflected the current state of things with the Arab Spring. In addition to the subsequent occupy movement which saw the dissent of millions of young people around the world.
RR: We were very much aware of this. A new wind of change was happening, and actually imposed itself on us.
AF: The documentary form of 74: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF A STRUGGLE is quite potent, specifically regarding the way “performance” and “characterization” are used in the film to reveal the blurry zones between fiction, non-fiction, and history. How did you decide on this approach?
RR: We felt we couldn’t write a script about something we never lived, and we were not interested in the position of the people who lived through the actual events of 1974 who had grown out of the days of youthful hope and rebellion. Which prompted us to shift focus to working with young, contemporary political activists involved with what was happening in the region, while being inspired by the work of British director Peter Watkins who worked for the BBC in the 1960s making documentary films which involved fictional frameworks that allowed subjects to express themselves as who they were in “real life” within that fictional framework. His 1971 film, banned in the U.S., PUNISHMENT PARK was a critical inspiration for us, where Watkins muses on the anti-war movements, social justice movements, and student movements of the 1960s, but instead of just asking people questions on the street he creates a dystopian world where real activists are put on trial by conservatives… which establishes rules of fiction yet at the same time allows the activists in the mock trial to express their opinions, extemporaneously.
AF: For the subjects to inhabit a fictional environment or even a fictional character while still being “themselves.”
RR: But only in the sense of there being a game, or a drama at play, as they express unscripted opinions and thoughts about revolution and social change. We didn’t want to impose a reading of the events of 1974, but instead place the story beside raw contemporary expressions of passion, contradiction, and doubt.
AF: 74 won a national award, right?
RR: Yes it won in Lebanon, Brazil and France. Unfortunately [laughs] so often the case when you make a Lebanese or Arab film, immediately the attitude of people is that it needs to be a film that “explains.” Explanations of history, of politics, culture…and we got a lot of questions from people who wanted to “know more.” We responded by saying our aim wasn’t to educate from A-Z about the incidents that took place at AUB, but to make an artistic filmic project, something that isn’t always easy to accept with films from the Middle East.
AF: Moving to your second feature documentary HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE – talk about how the element of “the personal” begins to take up a resonance in your work. As we see in HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE, the film is about… you! [laughs] and the long-distance Lebanon-Italy relationship between yourself and Sandro.
RR: [laughs] Well when I started thinking more concretely about HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE I began to see it as a political film because the personal is still political. I wanted to tell a story, which happened to be a personal story, but one that complicates the narrative of the imagined barrier between East/West that is constantly being sold as concerning immigrants, immigration policy, and crossing illegally into Europe; yet, what is so often unnoticed in these narratives are ideas and emotions that go back centuries of Middle East-Europe relations, some more tragic than others, but still, and today are reduced to an immigration crisis. It goes so much deeper than this. So I thought a love story, my personal love story, could touch on the situation in a very small, but different way via my relationship with Sandro. Additionally, and of equal importance: I wanted to address the issue of queerness and to really talk about what it means to be a queer couple today caught between real and imaginary borders in the midst of a geopolitical reality where Europeans are closing themselves up to an extreme while oppression and violence are happening more and more in the Middle East. So, how do these cross-cultural personal stories survive in a world like this? And how do they express themselves within this particular queer context? Most films that try to address homosexuality in the Middle East are all about oppressed gay Arabs who are put into jail. I wanted to depart for this.
AF: Egad. And they so urgently need to be rescued!
RR: Yes because the narrative in the West is one that seems to think it has found the “queer utopia.” And thinking that facets of gay identity and the process of “coming out” are universal. And it’s not universal.
AF: But I’m sure people can still relate. I think of the scene in Beirut in HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE with dreamy light coming in from the window as you are lying down, and in voice over, as if in a letter, you direct questions of sexuality and identity towards your conservative father.
RR: In that scene I wanted to address those very difficult issues with my identity and sexuality as it had to do with my father. But… it isn’t just about that. It’s a scene. A moment of failure, on levels that were more than me. The failure and failures of the projects of nationalism my father was attached to, the failed city of Beirut, the failed region, and of course my failure to come out, all these things, converging. So while people can relate, and I am happy they can relate: there are specificities framed by various nuances that make the process of coming out different.
AF: Different than the “western coming out” narrative.
RR: Yes, and to think of the region as thinking of queerness as taking a different path from that narrative. You can say a person in Lebanon or Syria who is attracted to persons of the same sex and who cannot “come out” because they live in a conservative society would be “unhappy”; but, and this might sound controversial: are they really more unhappy or more repressed than a queer person living in, say, in Los Angeles who might be experiencing rejection and loneliness, unable to find meaningful relationships? I’m trying to question the presumptions in the West that situate LGBTQ+ rights as a universal thing that should be spread everywhere from a Western perspective through which everyone should subscribe to and evolve from. Sorry to say, but it doesn’t always work the same way in different regions.
AF: Remaining on this topic, and I don’t know if this would be a reductive question, as a Westerner myself who so urgently wants to understand and be educated! Talk to me about what it was like growing up gay in Lebanon…
RR: [laughs] I have been lucky in the sense of being a part of social circles in Beirut which exist independently from my parents and society at large. But it’s difficult to explain. Essentially: you can live a sort of “special freedom” in Beirut as a gay person, yet with rules that need to be followed, if you catch my drift. Some people transgress the rules and pay the price, others lay low and avoid all forms of consequence. My experience was quite different from all this. I lived my sexuality freely and openly but was still careful.
AF: Do you feel you’ve been branded as a gay Arab filmmaker?
RR: Definitely. My experience with festivals especially for HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE has been challenging. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great distributor that has the mission of challenging dominant narratives, and I was warned my film was difficult because a lot of people want to see what they think is a “gay Arab film” informed by a tendency to put the work in a box, per se, with the presumption that the box again is fueled by Western norms of queerness. And again connected to what we were discussing earlier, it is expected that you, as an “Arab filmmaker,” much less a “queer Arab Filmmaker” always make films that educate, which makes it hard to have real dialogues that move beyond the perceptions that have already been made about you and your work. And even harder if you are engaging forms of filmic experimentation, as we talked about.
AF: Yup, just talk to us about the garbage crisis, terrorism, and refugee camps…
RR: [laughs] and you always are expected to “inform” on these topics! And of course they are important topics. And similarly in the case of HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE, people still expected me as a gay Lebanese documentary filmmaker to inform them about the typical experience of what it means to be a typical gay Lebanese man, a desire that is bolstered by fixed ideas and images they have made in their imaginary about gay Arabs: wretched, repressed people who are hated by society living in the shadows. But this isn’t always the case. And I felt with HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE the story had to ascend to a higher level of dialogue. It had to be about something else because there is so much more at stake divorced from these preconceived notions we’re talking about. Simply, for the film: it’s about a queer couple in this world confronted with geopolitical barriers while questioning issues of nationality, marriage, love, family, long-distance relationships, and the idea of two people coming to grips with the process of building a life together across borders and cultures.
AF: As you travelled with the film across different festivals in the Arab World and beyond, do you feel people were attuned to these deeper questions? Or did they still try to fit you into the category of being a particular kind of filmmaker?
RR: Before the film was finished it was selected for a workshop in Switzerland where a moderator asked “how does it feel to be Muslim and gay”!
AF: Oh damn. The moderator?
RR: And I was not expecting that question! [laughs] we really have to stop creating oppositions between queerness and Muslimness, which is a Western way of creating contradictions and oppositions. Any community faced with a certain form of difference has to deal with challenges and customs of that particular social group. Yet, nobody asks, for example how does it feel to be Christian and gay.
AF: Or how does it feel to be American and gay??
RR: [laughs] nobody will ask this! Because the experience of being American and gay is taken for granted. But for me, and at multiple points in the films’ tour of the festival circuit, the audience was unable to merge an Arab identity with a queer identity, as if these are disparate identities. When in reality these things are fluid, not mutually exclusive. In my work I’m always trying to complicate these narratives and to try to see matters with an open lens.
AF: Dwelling on the topic of Lebanon, one thing I wanted to pick up on and moving to a different, albeit related topic: what did you mean earlier when you said Beirut was a “failed city”?
RR: [pause] I want to think of failure not so much as a negative thing, but a generative thing. There is nonetheless a vibrancy in Beirut. Yes antagonisms and drama, passions, aspirations, and of course, failures. Dreams are born and crushed, but with a diversity that stuffs so much in a small space with multiple different ways of seeing things. Currents of ideas and ways of being that come together in harmony, yet framed by so much conflict. It’s a turmoil. I was raised during the civil war and came of age after, but was still haunted by a past fraught with charged history. Accompanied by a feeling that comes with living in a city like Beirut that has so many lost layers, which you try, sometimes in vain, to uncover. The process is further complicated, in a very sad way, by gentrification which is transforming the social fabric of the city to the point where the lost layers are becoming harder and harder to find. So it’s a haunted-ness that comes from an awareness of what the city was, alongside a feeling that the soul of the city we knew and loved is being lost.
AF: Raed, as we approach the end of our interview, I just have to ask, and it might be a cliché way to end an interview. Projects on the horizon?
RR: Fall 2017 I started my first semester in the Film + Digital Media PhD program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and am now in my second semester. But since I’ve come here I’ve been thinking about the idea of a “queer utopia” which picks up on what I was doing with HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE that questions barriers and ideas of the “universal.” Universal rights, universal feelings, universal relationships. Universal experiences. To continue to think about the idea of queerness, and to complicate the presumptions made regarding “the universal” in cross-cultural settings. This summer I’m going back home, to my hometown Tripoli in the North of Lebanon. Tripoli, as another site of failure. I’m interested in working with the idea of myself failing to come out as gay, as the city, itself, failed to become the capital of the country, which was a prominent consideration before Beirut was chosen. The failure of the Islamist project in the city, the failure of the nationalist project; but, to address failure in a different sense as mentioned earlier, because failure, of course, can be productive.
AF: Thank you again Raed. So much more I’d love to talk about but time evades us! And we cannot wait to see your latest works.
RR: It has been my pleasure.
Looking for more about Raed? Check out his website, his University of California, Santa Cruz Film + Digital Media department page, or watch the trailers for 74: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF A STRUGGLE and HERE I AM… HERE YOU ARE.
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