Filmmaking in Lebanon - Exclusive Interview with EAVE graduate Myriam Sassine
“2020 has been such a turn, so everyone needs to reinvent themselves.”
EAVE: Congratulations for the NETPAC Award for your film COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON at the Toronto International Film Festival and the selection for the Venice Film Festival! As I understand the film is about the pollution and the destruction of the environment in Lebanon. How important is this topic in Lebanon?
Myriam Sassine: We’ve been having a very big garbage crisis since the end of the civil war in Lebanon. We are a small country and there is no room for all the garbage here. There is no recycling, there is no real environmental policy, and so it has been escalating throughout the years. In 2015, it exploded, because one of the main landfills has surpassed its capacity by five or six times. The locals around this landfill started getting sick, so they really didn’t want that the garbage continues being disposed there and they created a roadblock. In a reaction to that action, the company that was collecting the garbage went on strike. So, no garbage was collected for around two months, and we had piles of garbage on the streets. It was terrible.
This garbage crisis led the director Mounia Akl to write this film. She imagined a future of Lebanon, if this crisis continues unsolved and if there is no environmental policy in the country. Unfortunately, we only went downhill from where we were, so today we are even in a far worse situation. They now manage to collect the garbage but there are still no recycling policies, it’s all up to individuals. Our sea is very polluted, our air is very polluted, but with other problems that the country is suffering from, I must say that the environment is not at the foreground of what is being talked about. And this is why we wanted to talk about it, because it’s there, it’s affecting our health and people are not aware of it and people are also not aware of what the solutions might be.
Myriam Sassine ©Frank Schoepgens
So, people are more concerned about politics and economics than the environment?
Our civil war ended in 1990 and most of our local auteur cinema tackles the civil war. Since 2019, we had a whirlwind of events, starting with the revolution, then a financial collapse, the banks took hostage the money of the citizens, and in August 2020, there was this massive explosion in Beirut. So, of course, these topics are more at the foreground. This is what concerns the Lebanese, because also now the middle class is somehow disappearing and there is a big gap between the rich and the poor. The poor are getting poorer, so there’s also a lot of documentaries and films about this section of the society.
We wanted to talk about the environment because if affects everyone. If your air is polluted, whether you are rich or poor, or whether you are an intellectual or a farmer, it affects you equally. We all suffer from that. But the politicians try to make us believe that it is not a central problem. We wanted to say that it’s not a rich countries’ problem, even us in Lebanon we suffer a lot from it and third world countries suffer a lot from environmental problems, too. But it’s not being talked about because there are always more urgent matters to discuss. For me personally, and I also think for the director, this planet’s decay is the most central and urgent thing to talk about today. Because everything else is coming from that.
Lebanon is, as we already said, in a severe political and economic crisis. How difficult is it to make films?
It has always been difficult to make films in Lebanon because it’s a country that is not politically stable, there is no public funding for cinema, so it has always been based on the initiatives of individuals who try to make films. They always search for money abroad through co-productions and grants and private investors. I’ve been making films for the last 10 years in Lebanon, and I must say that the last two years have been the most difficult, because in addition to all previous problems, we had the financial collapse, when some of our money got blocked in the bank. Also, the Lira lost its value, which affected the salaries of our staff and crew, so we lost some people because they had to find other, better paid jobs.
Just to give you an example: I started this film in 2017, so we were paying for development, etc. – 1 Dollar was worth 1.500 Lira, and today I’m still paying because we are still finalising the film, and today the Dollar is worth 17.000 Lira. So already figuring out what to do and doing your accounts, and with the banking system being completely disrupted, you don’t trust the banks anymore, so you always need to be a step ahead, because you are always scared that they might do something similar to what they have done, they could block your money again. So, we’re always looking on how to make our cashflow and therefore our production super secure.
In addition, there was the pandemic. When we shot this film, it was the peak of the pandemic, and we created a safety protocol and all of that, but as we were approaching Christmas and New Year (we shot in November and December 2020), it was becoming more and more scary, because more people were interacting and seeing each other. In addition, the explosion had a big toll on us, because our office was two streets away from the explosion, so it was completely blown away, and also the houses of many of our team members. We had launched the pre-production on the 3rd of August 2020 and on the 4th, there was the explosion, so we had to stop everything, of course. One month later we decided all together that we wanted to move forward, because for some people making art was healing somehow, some sort of therapy. For my producing partner and me it was also a way to be able to contribute with work to the living of a lot of people, because a film can make 80 to 150 persons work during the shoot, which felt important at that time. And also, we were so close to making this film and didn’t want to stop, because everything was in place and we felt a lot of solidarity from the rest of the team, and also from the international team.
In a statement you said you wanted to invigorate the movie industry in Lebanon that is still unfortunately very green. What do you mean by that?
I don’t mean green in an environmental sense. That was a long time ago, I wrote this when I went to study cinema in the early 2000s. My family thought I was crazy, people tried to dissuade me, no one was working in film back then. There was one Lebanese film each one or two years, so it was a kind of utopia that seemed very unreal. Little by little, after I graduated, there were more and more opportunities, especially in commercials and more commercial films. There’s no real infrastructure in Lebanon, because there is no public funding and no support from the state on all levels. There’s censorship, it’s sometimes difficult to get permits and there are no incentives tax wise.
So, when I started working at Abbout Productions, which is one of four production companies that work in film in Lebanon today producing features, we felt like we were on a mission. We were making films for cinema, and we were trying to create some kind of rules and help train other producers and film technicians, giving them an opportunity to work on films. We worked as a company, but we were always thinking in other ways. We provided training opportunities for people and offered free consultations. We also created a genre film festival in 2016 (Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival), because we wanted to push local filmmakers to make genre films because we thought that would contribute to invigorating local cinema. We believe Lebanese and Arab cinema should free itself from just being oriented on social realism dramas or popular comedies. We thought that more variety would help to access the audience faster. This is a little bit the dream that we have.
From 2010 and to 2021, we managed to produce a lot of first features and accompany filmmakers with whom we made more than one film. We also produced documentaries, and we somehow created this small chain of collaborators where we knew we had access to one really good sound studio, a grading studio and some really good cinematographers, editors, etc. We created a system, but unfortunately today this whole system is collapsing because the country’s circumstances are really harsh on everyone. Even if I think about the whole planet, 2020 has been such a turn, so everyone needs to reinvent themselves. Maybe in the next few years there will be less Lebanese films produced because this community needs to find its way again and reinvent the system it has created. In the last few months, I realised that I cannot depend on the same people and my old reflexes don’t work anymore, because everything has changed, and we need a bit of time to re-adapt.
EAVE project COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON ©Abbout Productions
I can imagine. It’s difficult with corona on top, it makes everything in the whole world very unstable, and one has to find new ways to react.
Yes, film industry in general has taken a toll. I feel that producers everywhere are struggling with what kind of films they want to make, or they can make or where they will be released, etc. For me, my country and my profession are both in crisis right now. So it’s a bit hard to grasp.
How important is the EAVE network for your productions and for your work? And how does your collaboration with EAVE producers look like?
EAVE was really like a marking experience for me. Maybe less in terms of learning new things – of course I learned a lot – but this network of people, especially the group I was in, we were 14 producers, each coming from a different country and having different ways of working and different approaches, but we all somehow found out that we had the same struggles and we had the same questions about how to apprehend the films we were making, and who is our core audience and how to work with directors…etc.
Already from when we met and connected during EAVE, a strong connection was built, because we spent a lot of time together there, and we talked not only about our careers but also about our lives and there were a lot of emotions unleashed. After that, we felt very close and we stayed in touch. We have a WhatsApp group where we communicate almost daily and each of us shares our accomplishments, but we also share our problems, and the others try to help. If someone needs guidance in something, or a tip or a contact, we help each other. It has been really like a great richness; I feel this group is invaluable.
Already at the beginning of Covid-19, I was getting news from Chile, Switzerland, New York, UK, Faro Islands, Spain, and we were getting all sorts of news from each other, and I felt really connected to the world trough that group. Because you don’t get this kind of in-depth sharing of experience in the regular news. With some of them we tried to work together on my film, but we couldn’t, so they helped me when I had some questions.
I feel, the network as a whole is really important because many of the co-producers on Costa Brava, Lebanon are from the EAVE family. It is somehow reassuring; if you did EAVE, then we speak the same language. We have the same references, the same working documents, so it’s really easy when you know that the other producer is an EAVE alumnus. It cuts away the distance of meeting someone else, and you can always ask some other EAVE alumni like: did you work with that producer, how was it, etc.
The EAVE network is really very rich in people and all alumni around the world. The nice thing about it is that it keeps getting bigger. Every year there are new people coming, so it keeps growing and becoming larger. And EAVE keeps doing initiatives and gatherings at festivals, so they are connected with their alumni. The proof is that you are talking to me now. So, you feel you are a part of something, and I think this is important, because you feel that you are less alone in your struggles.
Are you planning a new film, or do you have something new in mind already?
I have three documentaries in production right now, and we are finishing two other documentaries and we are starting to plan their release strategy. I also have a few ideas, but I haven’t taken new projects in development because I’m waiting to see how everything will develop. I want to take a bit of time to think about the next phase.
Page published 11 October 2021. Updated 12 October 2021.
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Filmmaking in Lebanon - Exclusive Interview with EAVE graduate Myriam Sassine
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