Jean Chamoun, pioneer of Lebanese cinema, dies at 73

BEIRUT: Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun passed away Wednesday evening. He was 73. For many Lebanese filmmakers in the postwar period, Chamoun was – with Maroun Baghdadi (1950-1993) and Borhane Alaouie (1941- ) – among the pioneers of the country’s contemporary cinema.

“He definitely left a lasting mark on the industry,” recalled Naja Ashkar, whose association Nadi lekol Nas (Club for all People) released Chamoun’s films on DVD, “especially his work on the Palestinian crisis.”

Chamoun will be remembered as a documentary filmmaker. His oeuvre – and that of his wife and long-term collaborator Mai Masri, whose films he helped produce – consistently placed the stories of individuals before the details of the political conflicts ensnaring them. This gave their work considerable resonance beyond Lebanon.

“[Chamoun and Masri’s] work showed the world what was happening and he took a stand at a time when everyone else left the country,” Ashkar told The Daily Star. “He was one of the few to stay and he took some vital footage in Jbeil and Jnoub, never losing hope and always thinking we can still do something.”

Chamoun left Lebanon in the early 1970s to study film at the University of Paris. Like so many of his generation, he was drawn to cinema by Italian neorealism. As he told The Daily Star in a 2000 interview, he always wanted to make features.

He returned to Lebanon six months before the outbreak of the Civil War. Compelled to record what was happening, working with minuscule budgets and mobile crews, he was pressed into documentary. Two of his earliest prize-winning films, “Hymn for Liberty” and “Tal al-Zaatar” were made in this period.

Chamoun and Masri met in 1982 and they wed in ’86. As the war dragged on, he kept making documentaries, but he’s also remembered for “Baadna Taybeen – Qoul Allah” (We’re Still Alive – Say Allah), the radio program he made with composer-playwright Ziad al-Rahbani.

“People would leave work to go listen to the series,” Ashkar recalled, “because it was so current. They could relate to it.”

Chamoun released his first and only feature film, “Taif al-Madina” (In the Shadows of the City), in 2000. Epic in ambition, the film set out to recount the story of the country’s Civil War from the perspective of Rami, a little boy whose family was displaced from south Lebanon. In Beirut Rami was drawn into carrying a gun himself.

There were marked continuities between Chamoun’s documentaries and his feature. As was then the norm, he relied on meager funds available from European funding bodies, but he made the most of the available resources. His political intent remained unswerving.

“The question isn’t whether we should talk about the [Civil] War,” he said in 2000, “but how. It’s important to not only see the atrocities, but also the fact that the responsible people still walk the streets. ... Remembering is the only antidote to a relapse but remembering isn’t enough.

“Something must be done to change the condition of Lebanon. Sectarianism is stronger now than it ever was before the war, and nothing is being done to change the way the young are being educated, so they can challenge that. There is no time to waste.”

Chamoun’s last film, Ashkar says – “Mafatih el Zakira” (The Keys of Memory), a doc about the kidnap of five Lebanese soldiers – was screened privately at UNESCO in 2010.

In his final years, Chamoun struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his daughters Nour and Hana, Masri and the films they made together.

“You’re in a dark room,” Chamoun once said of cinema. “You’re completely disoriented, so you grope around for something to help see where you are. You find a match. You use it to find a candle to light it with. Eventually you can see with your own eyes what state you’re in.”

His own work, he grinned, is “a lighter, a small one, with a very low flame.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 11, 2017, on page 16.




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