Having put her hand to Lebanese martyrs and street urchins, Layla Assaf is now moving on to a saint.
“In legend she’s a saint,” Assaf smiles. “But in this film she will be a more complex character. Not just a saint.”
The saint in question is Marina of Qannoubine, a 12th-century Maronite woman who disguised herself as a man in order to become a monk. Subsequently accused of impregnating a woman, Marina retired to the life of a hermit.
The allegedly lecherous monk was only recognized to be innocent after it was discovered that “he” was a woman. The Catholic Church eventually beatified Marina and made her a saint.
As Assaf tells the story, the most bizarre plot twist in the legend of St. Marina awaited her death. Her corpse was eventually purchased by a relic-hunting Venetian merchant, and Assaf says you can still view her remains in that city. Except, however, for one of its arms, which the Maronite patriarch of the day wanted to hold onto.
The legend surrounding Marina and her severed arm provides the touchstone for Assaf’s contemporary story of a French archaeologist who, upon hearing the legend of the holy appendage, eventually becomes intrigued enough to search for it in Lebanon.
He finds a Lebanese archaeologist holding the sainted arm, and the two have an affair one which recreates a love the saint denied herself when still alive.
The story of a holy limb that has been separated from the rest of its corpse the latter having been sold and exported overseas is rich in metaphorical value. Its currency is especially great in Lebanon, particularly when the purveyor of the story is from the country’s huge expatriate community.
Still, for those who follow Assaf’s work, the subject of this new project might come as something of a surprise.
The Lebanese director has made a reputation for herself in Europe and America as a cinematic activist. She has a string of over 100 documentaries and four feature films to her credit, all made for Swedish television.
The documentaries, produced in cooperation with non-governmental organizations in her adopted country, focus on Third-World development issues children, women, and environmental matters like water usage and desertification.
But, though she is best known in Sweden and has taken her camera to locations around the world, Assaf returns to Lebanon every couple of months. She badly wants to work in Lebanon again, and this project will allow her to do so.
Lebanese audiences already know Assaf for her 1994 feature about a gang of street children led by a girl they call Shaykha, whose name provides the title of the film. It is the only one of Assaf’s works ever to be shown here. She assumes that her documentaries on the civil war were simply too controversial to get a screening here.
The same might be said of her first feature, the 1988 film Martyrs. “It’s about Sana Mhaydli, an SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party) activist and Lebanon’s first suicide bomber. “I doubt it could be shown here in the near future,” she says. “It takes a very critical stance toward the question of martyrdom.”
Assaf plans to direct the same critical lens at St. Marina that she applied to Sana Mhaydli and it is here that some continuity can be seen with her previous work.
“There’s something in the story of Marina that can help explain our identity as Lebanese. This girl and her courage has a lot to say to young people today.
“Marina knew that there were advantages to being a man and she acquired them by the only means available, becoming a man.”
The director’s new project also marks a departure for her, an effort to move beyond themes that have long preoccupied film-makers of her generation. “I want to make a film about today’s Lebanon. Not about the war. I have already dedicated years to this subject in Sweden. Now the war is over. It’s time to present another side of Lebanon.”
One of the other sides is Qannoubine (near the Qadisha Valley), whose relatively pristine condition will make it an ideal location for shooting the movie’s historical scenes. “It’s unique in the world, but unknown to the world,” she says. “The monastery where Marina lived as a monk, it has the same earthen floors it did in the 12th century.”
Assaf hopes that the film’s local setting will encourage local backers. “We’ll want to secure half our budget from within Lebanon,” she says. “This is a very Lebanese film, and it’s time Lebanese stood up in support of local work.”
But the makers of St. Marina’s film anticipate it will have an international audience. The plan is to have the movie ready for viewing and distribution by October 2001, just in time for the annual Conference of Francophone countries being hosted in Beirut at that time.
Assaf stresses, though, that Marina’s story had an international profile long before she conceived of the movie.
“Marina’s legend has been told in a dozen different languages from Germany to Ethiopia,” she leans forward to count off the languages on her fingers. “Perhaps the Crusaders discovered her legend during their stay here and took her back with them.
“But people all over are claiming her story as their own.”