9th ALFILM – Shorts Program 3 – (De)constructed Realities

© Christina Homburg

The third shorts program featured films which were co-productions between Lebanese and German filmmakers. The Robert Bosch Stiftung offers yearly prizes and a series of events to encourage these collaborations. Two of the films in the shorts program – The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow and Tshweesh were former prize-winners.

The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow is a cryptic and allegorical film about a giant robot presented to the people of Lebanon by Charles de Gaulle, apparently as a commemoration of their independence. The robot is referred to as ‘le nouvelle homme’ – the new man, and although he starts out being adored by the people, his story quickly turns tragic and the opening of the film finds him a reclusive figure, struggling to make sense of his turbulent past.

© Christina Homburg

The film won the Robert Bosch prize in the animation category but the film is partly live action, partly stock footage and also feels distinctly like a documentary. One person asked how the robot was conceived and how he finally came to be in a film. The writer said that the script was written for a comic, and they never expected that it could be made into a movie. They originally assumed that the robot would need to be CGI and they tried it out but (perhaps fortunately) it didn’t go very well. They met a special effects creator from Germany who was excited by the project and agreed to help make the robot as a real physical thing. Suddenly the previous complications of working with CGI were gone and they had the ability to take the robot out into the city and shoot with it, observing peoples’ reactions and being able to film it using techniques they were familiar with.

There is extensive archive footage throughout the film and another question was about how the team managed to work this way given that archive footage can be difficult or expensive to obtain. The writer said that the original concept had been entirely based on archive footage. The robot was originally intended to have a VHS tape system inside him, and the film would be him literally re-editing his life and trying to make sense of it. They realised after they looked into it, that this idea would require so much difficult-to-obtain archive footage that it was necessary to re-imagine the story from a different perspective. The writer said it was a sad realisation that a huge amount of Lebanon’s history is recorded on archive footage which is often literally rotting in the basements of TV stations or archives, often ignored because it’s so extremely expensive to obtain and use.

One person asked where the original idea to came from, to include a sentient robot in a story so grounded in real history. The writer said that the aesthetic was inspired by robots from Japanese anime which is quite popular in the Arab world. He said that although he loves science fiction, he feels it’s somehow tied into western or industrial revolution values. The robot originally speaks French, but after someone spills some coffee on his vital circuits, after he is repaired he starts speaking Arabic. This was intended as a wry way of representing this connection and also what the writer feels is a typically Lebanese experience of trying to repair things rather than calling professionals, and often getting unintended results.

Tshweesh is a surreal an unusual film in which the city of Beirut is the main protagonist. Tshweesh looks at the city from above, with every scene set against the backdrop of sprawling rooftops connected by interlinking cables and dotted television aerials and washing lines. The world cup is being screened but everyone is having extreme difficulty trying to fix the reception on their televisions due to some unknown interference. Soon the city comes under attack and the residents are forced to flee inside. Tshweesh is an onomatopoeic Arabic word meaning interference word meaning interference and the director explained that the film looks at many different kinds of interference – both the unseen kinds like the one which disrupts the TV signal, or the violent physical interference represented by the bombing. The producers explained that the situations in the film were things that they personally experienced in Beirut in the 1980s and in 2006.

One person asked how the sound design had been developed because the interplay between audio and image in the film are very important. The director said it had been one of their primary concerns because they wanted to evoke the feeling of being in the city. They wanted to portray the sense of multiple threats to the city – attacks happening on the ground and from the sky. This motivated the decision to go up to the rooftops as well as shooting some scenes down on the ground.

Another question was about one of the crew who is from Germany and how it felt to work with someone from a different country on a project so closely linked to the city. The director explained that the crew member knows Beirut extremely well because he lives there and was able to bring his experiences of the city onto the screen.

© Christina Homburg

The Street of Death is another film which spans different genres. It features stories from a single narrator about the ‘street of death’, a road running along the seafront in Beirut where many young people hang around, riding their motorbikes dangerously and often fighting or feuding with each other. The narrator tells stories about growing up rough and his experiences on the street of death. From the images it’s impossible to tell if the stories are fact or fiction, but they all sound plausible and they way they are told feels candid and sincere. The film is therefore partly a documentary about this area of Beirut and partly a confessional autobiography of an unknown person who grew up there.

One person asked how the director had become involved with their German collaborator on the project. They explained that the director had already been shooting in that area of Beirut (which was also where the director grew up) and that the collaboration started around 9 months after shooting began. One person asked how much footage was actually shot to obtain the final 22 minutes with multiple stories contained within. The director said he spent two solid weeks shooting at one point, but more often he would set up the camera on the balcony and just film what was going on. It was a a drawn-out process to see what he could obtain rather than planning out in a lot of detail what to shoot and when.

© Christina Homburg