Tony Abu Iliyas, the director of the new Lebanese film Al-Fajr, wants to find an identity for Lebanese cinema.
“There are certain things that will appeal to the Lebanese sensibility, things they can identify with. Maybe it’s humor, maybe romance. But people need to see something of their lives on the screen,” he said.
Mapping the face of the Lebanese audience is a symptom of a film industry still in its infancy. Or in suspended development. The industry’s growth, like so much else, was set back by the civil war and the instability that followed.
“The film industry in Lebanon was destroyed by the war,” he said. “We used to be able to make our own movies here, but now we simply don’t have the equipment or expertise.
“Right now I’m struggling to establish a lab and printing facilities so that we don’t have to go overseas for post-production.
“With Al-Fajr we had to start from ground zero. We had a 100 percent Lebanese crew, one with no previous film-making experience. They had all worked in video and television.
“Post-production, printing, editing, everything had to be done outside Lebanon, in Hollywood and Athens. This makes it very difficult to work here.
“Ideally you take your technical crew, your sound editor and so on, into post-production with you. But you can’t drag all these people to the States with you, so it all falls on the shoulders of the director.”
Abu Iliyas has not been in suspended development, though Al-Fajr is his first feature. He began working in 1989 at LBC, directing promotional spots and ads.
He then moved to ART and made a number of documentaries one for the Ministry of Education, another for the Saudi football squad Al-Hilal.
Presently Abu Iliyas is working on a documentary on the historic northern village of Douma the village that provided the setting for much of Al-Fajr.
“It’s a prototype Lebanese village with a long history of conquest,” he said. “It sits in a valley and has seen every army that’s come into Lebanon since the 15th century.”
But Abu Iliyas’ bread and butter has been music videos, the first of which he made in 1991. In the last decade he has directed more than 50, featuring artists including Julia, Nawal Zoghbi, Wael Kfoury and George Wassouf. He has also worked with his present partner Myrna Khayyat one of the stars of Al-Fajr.
The opportunity to direct his first feature came from the film’s producer, Mohammed Yassine, with whom Abu Iliyas worked at ART.
“He wanted to make a good historical film. Lebanon doesn’t have any movies about the independence struggle. We’d worked together before and he was confident that I could carry it off.”
Finding backers for film and for the arts generally is notoriously difficult in Lebanon. The state is emasculated and local financiers argue that the small market hardly makes it worthwhile. This leaves local film-makers to go, cap in hand, to Europe. This has its drawbacks.
“You just can’t rely on foreign backing for certain projects,” he said. “The French are major backers of Lebanese film. But they wouldn’t be interested in funding a movie that shows the French Mandate years in a bad light.”
But Al-Fajr marks a departure from this miserable precedent.
“Mohammed Yassine has funded the film completely out of his own pocket,” Abu Iliyas nods. “This is a great risk for him because of the size of the local market. But we’re really encouraged by SLFILM a completely local production, but with huge attendance, especially by Lebanese standards.
“It’s very reassuring. It shows that the Lebanese will pay to watch themselves on screen.”
Al-Fajr an historical romance revolving around the independence struggle from the French Mandate has a niche market all its own in Lebanese nationalists. The director acknowledges the timing is propitious.
“This was perhaps a good time to release this movie in Lebanon. With the Israelis just leaving and the young people protesting for change.
“But we started shooting this film two years ago, so in a way it’s just a coincidence. I think the Lebanese would respond to the ideas in this movie no matter when it was released.
“It tells the story of something that happened 40 years ago, but maybe history is repeating itself. I would like to see our country free of outside influence. Who wouldn’t want this for their country?”
Market realities being what they are, though, Lebanese attendance itself is not enough for commercial success.
“We want to appeal first to the Lebanese audience, yes. Then to the wider Arab audience you have to be seen in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world if you want to be successful.
“Then we want to target the Lebanese communities in America and Latin America and Australia. We do want to be seen in Europe, of course, but we have to build locally first.”
Much as he is a product of the commercial imperative, Abu Iliyas has aspirations to do other types of films. He is now in the planing stages of a co-production with independent US director George Haas provisionally about the cultural dislocation of a Lebanese moving between America and Lebanon.
“If you want to work you must go commercial at first. It’s a cycle. The success of this movie will determine the funding I can get for the next one.
“But after a couple of commercial movies I’d like to make a film that doesn’t have to make money. Something for the festival circuit.
“And not about the civil war. We have many movies about the war. it was an ugly and depressing time and I would like to forget it. I want to show Lebanese as they are.”
Al-Fajr opens this week at Circuit Empire cinemas