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Jocelyne Saab: intrepid and untameable


The iconic Lebanese filmmaker passed away on Monday, Jan. 7 in Paris after a long battle with illness.


Filmmaker, photographer and reporter Jocelyne Saab succumbed to illness in Paris on Monday, Jan. 7 at the age of 70. Born on April 30, 1948, she was intrepid, rebellious and dynamic in her approach to life and work. Some of the stories she encountered along the way were painful, but she still told them through her own lens. A tireless globetrotter, she was always setting off on a new mission to places where the wounded and silenced needed a voice. In a lifetime of fighting for others, her final struggle was the most intimate.

On screen, her films began with realism before plunging into surrealism. And over the years, L’Orient-Le Jour interviewed her many times. These encounters would last for hours, and she would discuss life, her passion for images, her desire to reinvent everything and, consequently, her desire to exist. "We are such small things”, she once said during one of these encounters at the French Institute of Lebanon, all the while knowing she was being consumed with an incurable disease. "We do not count for much in this infinite world, but fortunately we are struggling to exist.”

Even at the most difficult times, Saab would never tire of making waves or questioning herself. "I probably do not have the same ideals I had when I was younger anymore. It faded. It’s a little blunted, or maybe it just matured,” she said.

But she would quickly cast aside all doubt: "In spite of everything, I still have a conviction: we must act.” Act against misery, poverty, and all the dangers which await the world. That was her motto, which she transmitted with a conviction that never weakened.

Death threats

Despite enrolling to study Economics at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, Saab knew she wanted to pursue a career in the audiovisual field. After university she went to Paris and then returned to Lebanon where she hosted a pop music program on the radio and was hired by the poet Etel Adnan at as-Safa newspaper. This led to a partnership with the Adnan, who continued to work with Saab throughout her life on other projects.

Saab’s studies in economics and social sciences did not go to waste. She used this background while documenting events in Libya, Egypt and the Golan Heights. The experience she gained would come in handy when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975.

Saab had planned to travel to Vietnam to make a film on the end of the war, but she decided to return home when the conflict in Lebanon started. The result was her first film, “Lebanon in Turmoil” (Le Liban dans la tourmente, 1975), which documented the beginning of the Civil War. The movie was released in Paris, but censored in Lebanon. It also marked the beginning of her life-long commitment to various causes. In Lebanon’s civil war, Saab sided with the Palestinians living on the outskirts of Beirut.

Putting her own life in danger, Saab then directed “The Children of War” (Les Enfants de la Guerre, 1976) after the Quarantina massacre, one of the Lebanese civil war’s darkest episodes. She went on to make more than forty films, mostly documentaries, about Lebanon, Egypt, the Sahara, Iran, Turkey and Vietnam, including “Beirut, My City” (Beyrouth, ma ville, 1982) about the Israeli invasion.

Serving the arts

In 1981, Saab was hired as an assistant director on the set of Volker Schlöndorff's “Le Faussaire”. In 1984, she decided to direct her own fiction film, “A Suspended Life” (Adolescent, Love Sugar). The movie was shot in the heart of the Lebanese civil war and was later selected at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 1985.

Leaving documentaries behind for fiction, Saab felt she was better able to narrate sufferings. In her 2005 film “Dunia” she denounced excision in Egyptian society, receiving death threats from fundamentalists in response. And in her 2009 film “What’s Going On”, she relentless searched for poetry in a country still looking for its identity.

Around this time, she decided to switch to visual arts. The canvas appeared to her as a space of freedom, like a "long love story… I do not know where this dexterity comes from, to crush, shape and build it,” she used to say.

Saab also held many art and photo exhibits, the last one in 2017 at the French Institute where she showcased refugee children from the camps. "I do not only exhibit photos just for the sake of display, but to question how others look and reflect,” she said at the time.

The images echoed a short film she directed, “One Dollar a Day: (Un Dollar Par Jour), shot a year earlier.

Saab’s photographic work perhaps best expressed her ethos of cultural resistance. The exhibit also gave its name to a 2013 film festival in Tripoli. The same pictures of children were later borrowed by Jean-Luc Godard for his latest film, “The Book of Images” (Le Livre d’Images), which won an award at Cannes.

But bitterness eventually replaced fighting and resisting. "She always had a hard time accepting the dominant speech. Today, there is no more political speech to hold. No more ideas and ideals. She does not take any side simply because there is no more side to take, if not that of the right to human dignity,” said Mathilde Rouxel, author of “Jocelyne Saab, the Untamed Memory”.

Saab was not only a pioneer and an innovator. Throughout her life, she also tried to reinvent images and visual arts. She laid the foundations of a film library through Lebanese cinema and made “fecondation in video” (which follows the process of implantation in vitro by putting a camera on a probe that can film the inside of the human body). She also constantly reinvented herself without betraying her deepest convictions. All this work, all this questioning, allowed Saab to constantly contribute to the birth of an original and new visual art.

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