This year’s Arab Women in the Arts program highlights Lebanese director Randa Chahal Sabbag’s work. Her feature film, Civilized People, kickstarts our annual 5 days of celebration of Arab women who have excelled in and revolutionized all forms of artistic expression.
The reason I chose to feature Randa Chahal Sabbag this year is that, in the time span of her brief career, Randa showcased the lives of Lebanese people, particularly women, from all sorts of backgrounds and walks-of-life and did so while utilizing many different types of filmmaking. I appreciate her creativity and her willingness to take on extremely difficult and polarizing subject matter. Her work is distinctly unique. But while she is an award-winning filmmaker, I find that her work does not get shown or discussed very often and most of it is not easily accessible in the United States. So I decided this showcase was the perfect opportunity to bring some of her amazing films back to American audiences and celebrate both her work and career as well as the stories of strong Arab women she tells.
Randa Chahal Sabbag was a film director and screenwriter born in Lebanon in 1953. She lived in Paris and studied at the prestigious Louis Lumière school. After the war erupted in 1975 she returned to Lebanon multiple times, camera in hand, and began tirelessly documenting the war and the deserted streets of Beirut.
Her first film was a documentary entitled Step by Step (1980). It describes the ramifications of the civil war in Lebanon. It was the result of two years of work, from February 1976 to March 1978. The film aims to grasp at the remote causes of the conflict and to draft a timeline of events: the dismemberment of Lebanon, the liquidation of the Palestinian movement and the new balance of powers in the Middle East under US rule.
After that, she directed Liban D’Autrefois (1981), a short film about how the war erases everything in Beirut. Randa filmed a gallery that was showing black and white photographs, photographs of strangers, photographs found in family’s home, old photographs from the turn of the century, all of which were the opposite of war. It won the Jury Prize at Carthage in 1984.
This is followed by the film Cheikh Imam (1985), a documentary about Egyptian composer Cheikh Imam and his friends who organized three evenings at the Théâtre des Amandiers on April 27 – 29, 1984. This film is a full recording of one of those evenings. Along with his friend and lyricist, the poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, Cheikh Imam was imprisoned for years on end. Together they experienced squalor and jail. Their past impacted their work, whose poetic and militant quality is unique to Arab songs. This film was never finished.
Her next film, Our Heedless Wars (1995) is a crude story about the involvement of her family during the civil war, a work that Jean Luc Godard cites in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Randa had been filming the war since 1976 and recording her family since 1983. “ Then, one day, I wanted to tell a story, but it was hard to find a logic to these images, to the war, to my family, to the dead, to the regrets, to the Israeli invasion, to the Syrian presence, to the reconstruction of Beirut, hard to find a logic to the pain. My family provided the link with which I could give shape to the images of the city.” For Randa, making a film about Lebanon responded to a feeling of urgency : “Now that the mind resemble a wasteland, now that we’ve lost the war, recapture the full-face memories for a final farewell, to this city that I loved so much and don’t stop leaving. Can it really be that one can miss the war?”
Her last documentary was Souha, Surviving Hell (2001), a film about Souha Béchara, a Christian from South Lebanon, a region that has long known Israeli occupation. Souha became a resistance fighter and in 1998 she tried to assassinate General Lahd, the head of the South Lebanon Army, an auxiliary of the Israeli Army. He was left gravely injured, narrowly escaping death. Souha was imprisoned and tortured at length. She was 21 years old, and spent 10 years at the Khiam detention center, 6 of which in solitary confinement. On May 24th, 2000, after 23 years of occupation, Israel retreated from South Lebanon. The Khiam detention center was mobbed by the crowds. The film follows Souha’s return to her village, Deir Mimas, to the Khiam jail, and to the very place where she tried to assassinate General Lahd. For Souha, surviving hell is a joyful, thoughtful, and liberating travel diary. The diary of a trip that, for a moment, let one believe in the possible reconciliation of our country.
As with other filmmakers of her generation, the civil war imposed the documentary format on Randa Chahal Sabbag. However, she was also a film aficionado and an outstanding storyteller, as is evident in her works of fiction. Dealing with the absurdity of a civil war as well as unique stories of characters that are profoundly human, her fiction films are tinted with fierce humor and an incredible sense of freedom.
In 1992, she directed her first feature Sand Screens (1992). In it, a city emerges in the middle of the desert and dies in its richness. Women are doubly veiled, and freedoms are even more threatened. Our main character, Sarah, was born the day after the oil boom. She is part of the generation that believes it can get anything with the power of money, and that simultaneously sees its every desire thwarted when it conflicts with the strict laws of its country. She is unsettled by the triviality of her life and thus pushes everything to its extreme. She fears not the desert, not the wind, nothing. Her thirst lies elsewhere: to leave the desert, which she hates, and in which she is kept against her will. She wanders the empty streets in her limousine, killing time on the phone, provoking strangers. Gradually, tensions arise in this desert, instilling a latent anguish interrupted by bursts of happiness, of ecstatic laughter, and of sensuality, until everything comes to a head. This film was part of the official selection at the Venice International Film Festival in 1991.
Sand Screens was followed by The Infidels (1997). It tells the story of Farid, a reformed Islamist, and Charles, a French diplomat, in and around Cairo. Farid is prepared to hand over to the French authorities a list of terrorists operating on French soil, on the condition that his friend be freed from a French prison. It is not a pact, but a trade. A tension develops between Charles and Farid, not love, but an irresistible attraction. Charles’s wife, Juliette, is devastated – she has never felt so jealous. Farid seduces Charles out of habit, and dares him to give in. History is stronger than them.
After The Infidels Randa Chahal Sabbag directed the stinging Civilized People (2000), which is the opening film of our Arab Women in the Arts program. During the civil war many elites fled the country for safe harbor in Europe’s capitals, leaving behind apartments and villas in the care of domestic labor imported from Egypt, the Philippines and Sri-Lanka. These stories of survival have never been recorded, let alone inspired a fiction film. With scathing humor, Civilized People draws the portrait of a war-tormented Beirut neighborhood, at the mercy of the mood swings of a sniper. The plot weaves the tribulations of a Muslim militia fighter and a Christian maid, with the misadventures of a high-society lady who, undaunted by checkpoints and shelling, decides to fly back for a tryst with her lover. Civilized People premiered at Venice (official selection); it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Nestor Almendros award (New York, 2000). The film’s sharp critique of Lebanese elites created an uproar in Lebanon, and was banned from being screened.
The Kite (2003) was Randa Chahal Sabbag’s last completed film. It won her the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion) at the 2003 Venice International Film Festival and the medallion for Officer of the National Order of the Cedar. It tells the story of Lamia, a 16-year-old girl, who, on her wedding day, must cross the rows of barbed wire that separate her village from the village of her future husband, her cousin Samy. Lamia’s village is Lebanese, Samy’s has been annexed by Israel. Between them, a single passage remains, under tight control and reserved exclusively for wedding and funeral processions. Lamia joins her family in law, abandoning her younger brother, her school, her kite, her mother, and her past. She refuses her husband’s call to bed, and gradually falls in love with the border guard who, from the first day, has been monitoring her from his watchtower. The Kite is currently streaming on Netflix.
Randa Chahal Sabbag continued to work and film between Beirut and Paris, writing and developing many scripts and projects and even served as a jury member at the Venice 64th International Film Festival in the Opera Prima section in 2007. But alas, none of her works in progress were to ever be completed. She passed away in August of 2008 from cancer at the age of 54.
Olivia Snaije wrote in The Guardian regarding her death: “Chahal’s premature death leaves a void in the Middle Eastern world of film, where freedom of expression requires boundless courage and tenacity.”
Randa is survived by her daughter Nour Sabbag who continues to support her mother’s legacy, keeping her work alive and available for others to see. She was an integral part of making this showcase happen and I would like to extend my thanks to her.
Head over to arabfilm.us/arabwomen to learn more about this year’s Arab Women in the Arts showcase and reserve your tickets to see the work of the incredible Randa Chahal Sabbag!