In this house

A conversation with Akram Zaatari

In November 2005, I had the privilege of going to Beirut to participate in Homeworks III, a forum on cultural practices. The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, known as Ashkal Alwan, produces this week-long biennial event that comprises lectures, discussion panels, video screenings, performances and book launches. Over two hundred expatriate Lebanese and non-Lebanese from around the globe converged on Beirut to witness and be part of a cultural movement paving the way for a different way of seeing and saying. A feature of Homeworks III was without a doubt the way in which it was able to defy multi-layered surveillance, censorship, limited resources and language barriers so seamlessly and with grace. Straddling a war-torn past which still holds unresolved questions, an increasingly volatile present marked by the open and insistent elimination of writers and intellectuals, unbridled religious fervour and economic uncertainty, Lebanese and some non-Lebanese artists showcased their intellectual rigor and insight with what I could only describe as elegant resilience. It was in such an atmosphere that I watched and negotiated the veiled but disquieting silences of Akram Zaatari’s latest work, ‘In This House’.

 ‘In this House’ (2004) is a 30 minute film which is able to reflect a feature of the Lebanese character that has always endeared itself to me despite its frustrating, almost raw optimism—and I include myself here. Ever since I left Lebanon, fleeing with my parents from our war-torn neighbourhood in Beirut, I watched in Australia for fifteen years the endless news reports of the myriad ways the Lebanese people were entrusted with the task of resolving the historical discord of the Middle East region on impromptu battle fields and with their bodies. Contacting relatives on the telephone (when it worked) every time an even more violent outbreak occurred, I recall so well their detailed descriptions of how long they stayed in the shelters, their harrowing trip to a village in the mountains or to Larnaca, Cyprus… of the repairs they had to do upon their return after a shell or two had hit their home. Ending the conversation with the obligatory ‘don’t worry about us’ and ‘it will be over soon’ were affirmations that they too could not ‘understand’ this war and that they did not want to play a part in it but that somehow through sheer will they would be spared from being injured or killed.

The constant repair of homes amidst ruins and continuous shelling—an activity that spanned fifteen years—speaks to me of an identity that negotiates violence and destruction as a threatening but nonetheless ever present part of life. Paradoxically, it is also that same identity that stubbornly clings to a sense of community and history. The strong belief that the individual can overcome fate itself through his or her bond to their community had not only survived despite a war that was hell-bent on decimating it, but that persists to this day in the very way the Lebanese individual is able to and chooses to communicate through this bond. It is a form of cultural intimacy that is born and nurtured through the silent acknowledgment of the misfortune that has befallen them and the right, if not duty, of this intimacy to exist despite it all.

‘In this House’ is not about the repair of a particular house after being hit, but about rebuilding a sense of memory and bonding between Lebanese strangers through a once occupied house. It is a microscopically laboured and crafted visual and auditory construction aimed at an audience that had not been allowed to participate in or be exposed to discourses on who ‘won’ the Lebanese war or indeed why it started and why it ended in 1991 and not before. Deliberate acts of forgetting in Lebanon itself at government policy level range from reconstructions that leave very little space for remembrances to incomplete accounts about who fought the ‘enemy’. Memory, latency and signifiers of censorship and self-censorship, as such, haunt Zaatari’s film. Together with an appropriation of new media technologies and deliberately corrosive sound pitches, Zaatari positions his film firmly in the present while recasting that present to a buried past: literally.

The narrative is deceptively simple. It tells of a time when all the militias surrendered their arms to the Lebanese Army in 1991. Zaatari superimposes the narration of one member of the Lebanese resistance, Ali, who had written a letter to the owners of the house his group had occupied for six years, with footage of actually digging for the letter. Ali apparently had placed the letter inside the shell of a B-10 mortar and had buried it in the garden. The letter had the script of a romanticised welcome back. It assured the house owners that Ali and his party had looked after their property and indeed had protected it. In November 2002, Zaatari took his video camera and headed to this family’s village in Ain al-Mir to dig up Ali’s letter. I interviewed Akram Zaatari via email upon my return to Sydney and he was kind enough to patiently answer my questions.

Mireille Astore: I sense from the film ‘In this House’ that you are attempting to make a distinction between the ‘culture of war’ that has permeated Lebanon since 1975 to the time the film was made, and the ‘Lebanese Resistance’. What in your opinion (or in Ali’s opinion) constitutes the ‘Lebanese Resistance’? Is it still active?

Akram Zaatari: I do differentiate between the Lebanese civil war(s) and the Lebanese-Israeli conflict, although I admit that these two overlapped several times in our recent history. Lebanese wars were caused by an accumulation of social injustice over years, and maybe—as it was recently made apparent—the widely diverse constitution of Lebanon’s population, and the idea each has on citizenship. Apart from that, there was the Israeli problem accumulating since 1948, first with tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees crossing the borders into Lebanon, then with their right to military struggle, starting in 1970. The Israeli army invaded Lebanon twice, and occupied 12 percent of its territory from 1978 till 2000. Invasions that caused huge damages, but also that led to the formation of armed resistance. The military struggle that was started by the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] in 1970 and was forced out of Lebanon by the 1982 invasion was transformed into a Lebanese Resistance, first secular, then with Hezbollah—the Islamic party. In the early nineties, Hezbollah became the only legitimate armed resistance party after the Taef agreement took place that recommended disarming all other Lebanese parties. This occurred at a time when the Soviet Union’s power in the region was diminishing against a rising Iranian influence. This shift on the ground also reflected an economic shift.

MA: Why and how did the people you describe in the film leave their own house? Did they not wish to be interviewed? Were they identified in the film?

AZ: This village was occupied by the Israelis in 1982 after they invaded the South of Lebanon. The Israelis withdrew from Saida and parts of the South in 1985 and from that village, but stopped in the facing hills. This meant that these people lived very much under Israeli occupation. Ironically when the Israelis left, their village became dangerous because it became the front. So everybody in that village left. The other important factor is that instead of leaving to the liberated part of the South, like Saida, or even Beirut, this family decided to take refuge further South, in Marj-e-ayoun, which had remained under the Israeli occupation. This happened with many Christian families who thought that they would be safer under the Israeli occupation. This family returned home in 1992, and like many families who fled to the Israeli occupied area, they were interrogated for possible collaboration with the enemy, until their records were cleared. And this is why this entire area is until now under surveillance by intelligence services.

The family did not want to be interviewed. I say this in the film. They were paranoid. And they thought the camera may put them in danger. All the intelligence agents who were present on the site while the digging was taking place, did not want to be filmed either because they were not authorised to do so by their superiors. So I filmed a hole in the ground, and interviewed Ali (the member of the resistance).

MA: Ali and the text of the film seem to infer that they ‘liberated’ Lebanon. Is that one of the intentions of the film?

AZ: No this is not the intention of the film. They did not liberate Lebanon. Ali and his group belonged to a small radical party, a bit unknown in Lebanon. They also belonged to the secular groups of resistance that were disarmed in 1990. However, Hezbollah has now been credited for liberating the South. In all cases, the film’s interest is in observing how the invasion/withdrawal functions under the microscope, that is, to give a testimony from the front that is able to show the complexity of a situation even twelve years after the return of the displaced. It aims to look at the geography of fear, and at the latent borders in that region.

MA: Towards the end of the film the building behind ‘the house’ is blotted out. Why?

AZ: The house was a single storey when Ali and his comrades occupied it in 1985. It remained like that until the family returned home in 1992 and decided to build five storeys behind it for their children. But for lack of resources, they couldn’t finish it. So the film starts with this image of a single storey building, and ends with it.

MA: The ‘time capsule’ is an interesting phenomenon, more so in a country like Lebanon that is determined to resist the cult of war. Was the letter another way of ‘resisting’ another war?

AZ: The letter had a strict function. Ali and his comrades had to evacuate the region in 1991. Yet he was not sure then if the war was over or not, or if this house that they protected against demolition would be demolished after they had left it or not. So he wanted to sketch the situation the way it was in 1991, and leave it for time. Also he wanted to prove to the family whom he didn’t know, that they had protected the family’s property.

MA: It seems as if the whole village had a stake in the letter—a context for Lebanese kinship and an endless supply of curiosity. Is that part of what you try to convey in the film?

AZ: Yes, in addition to the Lebanese intelligence, there are the neighbours, and the family. They were all attracted by the simple gesture of digging in the garden. This is a village where nothing much happens that’s out of the ordinary, so an event like this is a major one.

MA: The TV colour bars, the split screen and the ‘white noise’ seem to be the markers for the blurring of the real and the fictional? Why do you feel the need to insert these particular markers?

AZ: No they are not there for that reason. This work started as a documentary on five screens, produced as a video installation. This is a single channel version of it. I wanted to show different things taking place at the same time, so the split screen is inevitable. One for the digging, one for the interviews and other documents.

Since many people were actively present without wanting to be filmed, I gave each of their voices a different tone on the music scale as a way to differentiate them. The arrow and the list of names on the far right of the screen indicated who was speaking at the time, it also shows the influence of web browsers on the film format. The colour bars at the end were part of the filmed document. I filmed the digging for two and a half hours continuously and when the intelligence service guy started digging, he asked me to turn off the camera. So I did, and I marked the end of this shot with colour bars, the way I do with all my rushes after I finish a shot. At this point I was still not sure if I would find the letter. So when we found it only a few minutes later, I turned my camera on again and this is when the image becomes full screen for the first time in the film.

 

16 February 2006

notes: 

Akram Zaatari lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon. His film ‘In this House’ was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney from 8 June – 27 August as part of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney.

Mireille Astore is an Australian artist of Lebanese origin and is based in Sydney.