‘The intellectuals don’t have the answers’: Lebanese documentary wins at Berlinale

Published by MADA MASR

Nata nel 2013, Mada Masr è una rivista on-line di base al Cairo, che rivendica un giornalismo impegnato e indipendente, con inchieste, analisi, approfondimenti e articoli culturali pubblicati in inglese e in arabo. 

La recensione del documentario A feeling greater than love, della regista libanese Mary Jirmanus Saba, che ha trionfato alla Berlinale. Una storia di rivoluzioni, guerra civile e femminismo. 


“What can the ghosts of protests past tell us?” asks an intertitle in Mary Jirmanus Saba‘s Shuour Akbar Min al-Hob (A Feeling Greater Than Love), which won the FIPRESCI (the international film critics’ association) jury award in Berlinale’s edgy Forum section this week.

The 99-minute film which took the Lebanese writer-director almost seven years to make and was edited by Egyptian editor Louly Seif mixes interviews, archival footage and clips from Lebanese militant films to tell the story of two strikes, in a southern Lebanon tobacco company and at Beirut’s Gandour biscuit factory, in the early 1970s. Due to their failure and that of the larger revolutionary movement surrounding them, as well as the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, they are largely absent from the country’s collective memory.

The 33-year-old filmmaker, who studied social studies and geography in the US before spending several years in Latin America as an organizer of agricultural laborers and as a community television producer, decided to make the film after discovering more about Lebanon’s 1972 uprising and the revolution it almost launched. In relation to the region’s 2011 uprisings, it prompted her to ask: Are we repeating the same gestures, do they bring us closer to justice and equality, and what can we do with a desire for change and unity now?

Placing itself in Lebanon’s strong tradition of militant filmmaking, Saba’s film opens avenues for contemplation on the collective failure of the left in Lebanon by juxtaposing footage from works by 1970s activist-filmmakers, such Christian Ghazi and Maroun Baghdadi, with present-day footage of workers who took part in the strikes leading quiet lives in places where not much has changed 40 years later. Farmers pick leaves to sell them to the tobacco company, which still has a monopoly, and when she takes us to the Gandour factory through an old militant film, we realize through a cut to the same location that it is where the Mall of Beirut now stands.

Much of A Feeling Greater than Love is devoted to an array of narratives about Fatima Khaweja, a teenaged martyr of the strike whose story, as someone born in the tobacco-producing south who migrated to work at the Gandour factory, was used for political gain by the Communist Party and the more pragmatic Organization for Communist Action. Saba speaks to members of the party and Fatima’s colleagues, family and neighbors, and everyone speaks differently of her involvement in the strike, from an account of her being a powerful party member to not even having ever worked at the factory. This multiplicity, while creating some confusion while viewing the film, enabled Saba to avoid romanticizing Fatima and point to larger questions on appropriation of the memories of martyrs, which is where the film triumphs.