‘The intellectuals don’t have the answers’: Lebanese documentary wins at Berlinale
Written by Malek   

By Rowan El Shimi

“What can the ghosts of protests past tell us?” asks an intertitle in Mary Jirmanus Saba‘s Shuour Akbar Min al-Hob (A Feeling Greater Than Love), which won the FIPRESCI (the international film critics’ association) jury award in Berlinale’s edgy Forum section this week. The 99-minute film — which took the Lebanese writer-director almost seven years to make and was edited by Egyptian editor Louly Seif — mixes interviews, archival footage and clips from Lebanese militant films to tell the story of two strikes, in a southern Lebanon tobacco company and at Beirut’s Gandour biscuit factory, in the early 1970s. Due to their failure and that of the larger revolutionary movement surrounding them, as well as the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, they are largely absent from the country’s collective memory.

The 33-year-old filmmaker, who studied social studies and geography in the US before spending several years in Latin America as an organizer of agricultural laborers and as a community television producer, decided to make the film after discovering more about Lebanon’s 1972 uprising and the revolution it almost launched. In relation to the region’s 2011 uprisings, it prompted her to ask: Are we repeating the same gestures, do they bring us closer to justice and equality, and what can we do with a desire for change and unity now?

Placing itself in Lebanon’s strong tradition of militant filmmaking, Saba’s film opens avenues for contemplation on the collective failure of the left in Lebanon by juxtaposing footage from works by 1970s activist-filmmakers, such Christian Ghazi and Maroun Baghdadi, with present-day footage of workers who took part in the strikes leading quiet lives in places where not much has changed 40 years later. Farmers pick leaves to sell them to the tobacco company, which still has a monopoly, and when she takes us to the Gandour factory through an old militant film, we realize through a cut to the same location that it is where the Mall of Beirut now stands.

Much of A Feeling Greater than Love is devoted to an array of narratives about Fatima Khaweja, a teenaged martyr of the strike whose story, as someone born in the tobacco-producing south who migrated to work at the Gandour factory, was used for political gain by the Communist Party and the more pragmatic Organization for Communist Action. Saba speaks to members of the party and Fatima’s colleagues, family and neighbors, and everyone speaks differently of her involvement in the strike, from an account of her being a powerful party member to not even having ever worked at the factory. This multiplicity, while creating some confusion while viewing the film, enabled Saba to avoid romanticizing Fatima and point to larger questions on appropriation of the memories of martyrs, which is where the film triumphs.

Like another recent “hybrid documentary” concerned with labor strikes, Out on the Street (2015) by Egyptian filmmakers Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, Saba also uses re-enactment in her multi-layered film. An older man drives around present-day Southern Lebanon in an old Mercedes, using a megaphone to call on passersby not to accept the status quo, to revolt and join the strike at the tobacco factory. But no one even flinches at the sight of his solitary protest.

A Feeling Greater Than Love is also a feminist film. Saba sought out women who were involved and many appear in the documentary, some anonymously. These characters speak of their mobilization work, but also at times of their imposed role of sandwich-makers for the protests. A major character is Nadine, an aristocrat involved in the Organization for Communist Action, helping rally the female factory workers, who then moved to France at the war’s outbreak. In a fascinating scene, Saba brings her together with several of the other 1970s activists she has been interviewing to reflect on their dreams at the time, the reality now and where they went wrong. “It’s not the intellectuals who will have the answers,” Nadine says. “If anyone will know how to get out of the situation we’re in now, it’s the workers who will come up with the solution.”

By bringing her own texts and questions into the film, Saba poetically creates a charged, personal account in which Lebanon’s history is a microcosm of the whole region’s fate. As countries that led the 2011 uprisings have fallen into civil war or deep social and political divides, A Feeling Greater Than Love is as a document for urgent reflection on how to avoid the errors of the past — as well as on what cinema’s role can be. Its title captures a feeling that many who participated in protests or strikes will relate to, but we are left to wonder whether that feeling is enough to create real change.

The members of the FIPRESCI jury, Sasja Koetsier, Rasha Hosny and Rüdiger Suchsland, wrote of Saba’s film: “Documentary cinema at its best, this is exciting, thrilling, encouraging,” and that: “Full of melancholia, it is yet full of hope, the longing for a better future.” Personally I don’t see the film as hopeful, but as an important contribution to the conversation about what better alternatives might be.

This article was first published by MadaMasr, an independent, progressive media platform in Cairo on February 21, 2017.