BEIRUT: After a long illness, Borhane Alaouie passed away in Brussels Thursday following a cardiac arrest. With his departure, the final member of Lebanon’s war generation of filmmakers has stepped out of the frame.
Alaouie was born April 1, 1941, in Arnoun, south Lebanon, about a kilometer from Beaufort Castle. He studied film at Brussels’ National Institute of Performing Arts and Broadcasting Techniques (Insas) from 1968 to 1973. He released his first feature two years later; his final effort appeared in 2008.
In the intervening decades, says Lebanese documentary filmmaker and cinema historian Hadi Zaccak, Alaouie had been a stalwart in a new generation of Arab cineastes that revolutionized the face of cinema in the region.
“I consider [Alaouie] the spiritual father of ‘the new Lebanese cinema’ – of his generation, and of our generation that came in the '90s. He was not only a filmmaker but a teacher. His death somehow ends this generation of the '70s that started making a completely alternative cinema to the one based only on entertainment.
“This new cinema – which was born before the beginning of the civil war, developed since 1975 and was formed by Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab, Randa Chahal, Jean Chamoun and others – reflected upon all the country’s sociopolitical problems. This generation was very engaged. They also worked a lot on using documentary, in fact destroying the boundaries between documentary and fiction film.”
Among Alaouie’s most effective docu-fictions, Zaccak believes is his first feature, “Kafr Qassem,” recounting how, in the days preceding the 1956 Suez War, the Israeli military massacred the residents of the titular Palestinian village. The film has long been recognized as a classic.
“‘Kafr Qassem’ was a very important film in the history of Arab cinema,” Zaccak says. “It was a very important film not just for its subject, but also for how Borhane dealt with the subject – how he was showing the mechanism of Israeli occupation and the internal structure of Palestinian society in a microcosm of Kafr Qassem ... It was his first film, which was truly amazing.”
The core of Alaouie’s oeuvre are his Lebanese films. In his 1981 feature “Beyroutou al lika” (“Beirut Encounter”), Zaccak sees the filmmaker re-interpreting the high hopes of the revolutionary '70s in the terms of the bitter realities of the 80s.
“‘Beirut Encounter’ is also an important film,” Zaccak says, marking “the shift from documentary to fiction in order to deal with the Lebanese situation in minimalist terms: the connection, or the lack of connection, between two characters.”
All his subsequent Lebanon films, he says, follow the project begun by “Beirut Encounter.”
“‘You, Wherever You Are,’ Borhane’s documentary from 2001, marked this return and, I think, his feeling of complete defeat in the new Lebanon that came about in the '90s, the reconstruction period. [Rather than optimism,] Alaouie witnessed complete destruction, destruction of the human being, destruction of the city even while it was being reconstructed.
“I think the atmosphere that he evoked, the things he talked about, we are living now. What he expressed very clearly in the 2001 doc and his final film, ‘Khalass!’ mark the end of an era.”
Beyond Lebanon, Alaouie was among the pioneers of a form of alternative cinema that emerged in the 1970s, whose influences were global.
“After all the revolutionary movements, especially the student movement in May '68 in Paris, the rise of the left, anti-colonial movements against the US intervention in Vietnam, it was like a whole world was using cinema. It was socio-politically engaged cinema, and the Arab world we had similar movements with directors from Egypt, from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and from Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.”
Alaouie’s regional stature was reflected in “Kafr Qassem,” an account of a Palestinian story produced by the Syrian National Film Institute.
“‘Kafr Qassem’ is one of the most important films released in the '70s, alongside Tewfik Saleh’s ‘Al-Makhdu’un’ (‘The Dupes’, 1972). Alaouie also filmed in Egypt. An important documentary ‘Il ne suffit pas que Dieu soit avec les pauvres,’ is about Egyptian architecture but it reflects not only on Cairo but on identity itself and the identity of every Arab city. He also did work on the Gulf War in the '90s and Aswan.
“Alaouie was one member of ‘the new Arab cinema’ that emerged in the '70s and included lots of new directors from Lebanon, like Baghdadi and Saab, but also Michel Khleifi from Palestine and Muhammad Malas from Syria and others from the Maghreb.
“This was a period when the Arab directors were not only dealing with their own local subjects. They had a Pan-Arab orientation, which they gradually lost as the region became divided.”