Filming, Under the bombs

"Under the Bombs" is not just set during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war – it was filmed in the midst of the fighting. The film featured only four "real" actors, with the rest of the cast made up of citizens, who were responding to the conflict itself in real time. NOW LEBANON spoke with director Philippe Aractingi about his latest movie and the criticisms against it, as well as how he views Lebanese cinema.
Lead actress Nada Abou Farhat won the Best Actress Award at the Dubai film festival for her portrayal of Zeina in 'Under the Bombs.' © Patrick Baz

Director Philippe Aractingi's widely acclaimed motion picture tells the story of a young mother who returns to Lebanon from Dubai via Turkey in search of her sister and son in a southern village. She meets Tony, a taxi driver, who agrees to help her, taking the audience on an emotional road trip across the war-torn country just after the ceasefire was declared on August 14, 2006.

Released in the fall of 2007, "Under the Bombs" – Aractingi's second feature film –, received the EIUC Human Rights Award and the ARCA Prize for Youths at the Venice Film Festival, and won first prize at the Dubai International Film Festival (lead actress Nada Abou Farhat also took Dubai's Best Actress honors). It was released in Lebanon last month. The film's strong reception built on Aractingi's previous success: Lebanon’s first post-civil war musical, "Bosta," which was released in over twenty countries and was Lebanon's best-selling film of 2005.

'I didn't think of a documentary because I knew that a documentary would only talk to the mind and would not make you feel' – Philippe Aractingi

Philippe Aractingi in his office in Badaro, Beirut. R.R.

NOW LEBANON: Why did you choose to shoot "Under the Bombs" as a feature film, not as a documentary?

"I had a similar idea in 1989 to shoot a film, put the actors in the real chaos and make them react to what was going on. But at that time I was too young and I didn't have enough experience, so I didn't do it. When this war came, I realized that I had enough experience.

"When the war started, we went to Faraya with my kids. On the 12th in the afternoon, we already had food, money, passports and petrol. My wife told me, 'You know how to react very quickly to that kind of catastrophe.' She didn't grow up in Lebanon, so she saw in me a person who already has the fight in him, and I thought yes, I do know what it is to feel war. So I decided that I should do something, and I didn't think of a documentary, because I knew that a documentary would only talk to the mind and would not make you feel.

"I knew that I needed to go further, make it stronger, give it a real [feel], because this is a war; this is not a joke. This was really people dying. I also felt a lot of hatred going into me and a lot of anger, and I needed to change all that energy into something creative, therefore positive. Even if it's a drama, if it's something tough, I needed to go and change it. I decided to go and do something creative, and at the same time I had an idea, which is a very similar idea to something that I wrote a long time ago that I hadn't done. So it's not that I'd written something – in the very beginning at least – very different from what I knew.

"I called the actors, and we started shooting and improvising scenes with what was going on. In the first scene, when she goes out of the port, it was a real Turkish boat, and they were real taxi people. I told the taxi people, 'Don't look at the cameras, but answer her exactly as you would answer her normally.' She said she wanted to go to the South, and they said, 'The South?!' It wasn't acting; it was being.

"The first part of the shooting was… something that we lived; we were feeling this. Plus, I had two great actors who knew how to create, improvise and react [in real time]. So I shot with a small crew like a documentary, but it was a fiction, and it was done with a small camera…"

How much of the acting was improvisation? Was there a script that actors had to be loyal to, or did you give them some room to work with how they reacted?  

"I shot during the war, went to Paris the second day, found a producer, got some funding and came back… On the third day after the ceasefire, I started shooting… That's ten days of shooting, and in these first ten days, the philosophy was not to create what's in your mind like in a fiction film, but to take what you have and to improvise… You prepare what you have to do; you even write your dialogue, and then you go on.

"And when it comes to the real people (the journalists and the refugees), you tell them, 'We're coming in with the camera. Don't look at the camera. She's an actress,' and so on. But you don't tell them what to say, and you let them react spontaneously…"

'The criminal here is Israel; it's obvious. [But] in a way, the film is not taking [sides.] It's about the victims' – Philippe Aractingi

The movie tells the story of Zeina who teams up with taxi driver Tony to find her sister and son in South Lebanon during the 2006 war. © Patrick Baz

Were there any political undertones in the film or particular messages that you intended to deliver?

"It does say, 'This is not my war.' As a character, she [the character Zeina, played by actress Nada Abu Farhat] is not pro-'this war'; therefore, she's not pro-Hezbollah in a way. But he [the character Tony, played by George Khabbaz] is against his friends and against Israel. In a way, the film is not taking [sides]. Now, of course, it is obvious that Israel has destroyed a lot, it did a lot of damage, and it did kill [the character Zeina’s sister]… The criminal here is Israel; it's obvious. But it's not pinpointing Israel, and it's not pinpointing Hezbollah. It's just saying, 'My character, my people, are looking for their kids.' And there is one point where she says, 'I'm looking for my child,' and this is obviously saying, 'I'm not pro X or Y. I'm just against war… I'm looking for my child.'

"Obviously, that is saying to everyone that we are looking for the human side, we are looking for the victims, and the victims are most of people who lived with the war. When you have documentaries, people… don't go to the victims, which is what most of the people are. So yes, we do make a statement… It's [a statement] about the victims."

Did you think the film was released too soon after the war, or did you do it intentionally during the present crisis?

"To be honest, there is a momentum to the film. And if you lose that momentum, you lose a little bit of interest. Also, you can't wait. The film was just released in Venice in September; it had seven prizes… and then two prizes in Dubai. So there is a momentum, and everyone's talking about the film. If you keep on waiting, you lose the momentum...

"Also, I feel that this film was necessary. We went out of this war very quickly, and suddenly we started fighting with each other. We did not see that we lived a huge [slap], and we were traumatized! Everyone is shouting at each other, and they don't understand that that shout started with this trauma. It also started with the death of Hariri…

"The proof that this [film] is a necessity is that there was a girl who went to see it in Dubai, and she said, 'I lost my grandmother during the war, not because of a bomb, but because she couldn't get hold of her medicine because of the war.' She cried a lot, and she said, 'I was very, very angry when I heard about my grandmother. I didn't want to go back to Lebanon. I was angry, and I saw your film, I cried a lot, and I decided I have to go back to Lebanon and pray for my grandmother.'

"For me, it's like I showed her her wound, and I said now she can go back to her wound and try to heal it. In that sense, the film was a necessity… People tell me they went to the mirror. People tell me these kinds of things that make me feel that this film has to be seen. Not only is it a film, it's a process inside us.

"So for me, it has to be shown, and sooner is better. Now a lot of people are afraid of seeing it because it's called 'Under the Bombs.' When you see that title and you go for that film, half of the work of going into your memory is already done.

"You see, I don't feel proud... Proud of what? Proud of being witness to those who died?... Some people were really reacting very tough to this film because it moved their emotions that they didn't want to open, and they're fighting back... You know, they're fighting really hard and tough and being nasty... and I truly feel that some people are jealous! I don't [care] whether I'm being known for this film. For me, the important thing is that this message goes through… I've made a lot of effort to show this film in the South. I've asked for it to be not allowed for those under 12. If I was commercially thinking, I'd say, 'No, send everyone in.' [But] I don't think everyone should go in!"

How would you respond to criticism that you were exploiting the conflict to make your movie?     

"I really truly feel that this movie was created through me. I didn't create it, I didn't do it; I was a tool to do this film... At the end, this is a film for the victims. It's not as if we're hiding it; there is a message. And I don't necessarily think that films have to have messages.

"But in this case, it was my reaction to the bombs, so people who feel like I'm abusing it and doing it for myself, they did not talk to me, they did not see me; they just reacted in a meaningful way... I took actors that you can relate to and feel with, so I'm talking more to your emotion. Critiques are more into this. They don't let the emotion go, and I think the emotion is much stronger than the mind. The mind makes you understand, but the emotion makes you feel..."

'We've lived through so many wars, and we've had so many tough experiences that necessarily it's going to keep on giving us a lot of great films and great directors, because they have suffered, and they have a lot of things to say' – Philippe Aractingi

Philippe Aractingi during the shooting of 'Under the Bombs' in Lebanon. © Patrick Baz

What future projects do you have? How does your creative process determine how you direct your films?

"For me… I feel that I try to transform [negative emotions] into a creative object. If I feel anger and hatred, and if I feel that the victims should be witnessed, then I go for this. If I feel that there is joy in me and this joy should be shown. Joy is part of Lebanon... What I have inside, I just have to let it out in a creative way. I think also, I've done a new genre in cinema, which is not created by me; Rossolini started it in Berlin… I think I will continue working with the same grammar of writing and doing films with reality, but the subjects can be totally different."

What role do you think Lebanese cinema should play, and what role is playing now?

"For me, I'm more into the feelings than the thinking. We've lived through so many wars, and we've had so many tough experiences that necessarily it's going to keep on giving us a lot of great films and great directors, because they have suffered, and they have a lot of things to say… It is tough for us to do films, but I feel at least one or two of these guys [Lebanese filmmakers] are going to bloom internationally. It already started.

"You see, 'Bosta' opened a door for the general public to go and see Lebanese films. It was the first film to be shown in the Arab world [as such]. It was the first film after all the fights we had with the Egyptians to get into the Egyptian market. It was the first film to be sold so much. I mean, we sold to twenty countries so far. Then came 'Caramel,' that also played a great role and did very well in the rest of the world, and so on and so forth. Now, there is 'Under the Bombs,' and we're opening doors for each other. I opened the first door, she ['Caramel' director Nadine Labake] opened the next door, and we will keep on opening doors for each other… It's really a big movement, but it's tougher on those who [are just starting out."]

Do you think in some ways a lot of directors are trapped by the idea of a civil war or that the Lebanese are victims of warfare?

"I wasn't trapped by it in 'Bosta.' 'Bosta' does talk about the war, but in a very light way. In 'Under the Bombs,' it was completely different because war came back to us. And that comes back to memory: If you don't heal your memory, and if you don't heal your wounds from the past, then the past will come back to you. In that sense, it is a necessity. You can see it in 'Bosta.' There is a sentence in the film that says, 'You're dancing on your wound.' You can heal it that way, but in any sense, you have to heal it."

This article was re-published with permission from Now Lebanon.