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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

“Having a camera is like having a weapon”: An interview with Hady Zaccak

Wednesday , 03 April 2013

“I am very attached to everything related to the socio-political environment,” says Hady Zaccak, a documentary filmmaker. “Beirut, of course, is always a center for this.”

Zaccak was born in Beirut, but his family left the city in 1976 because of the Civil War and went to the mountain. He visited the city during his childhood when there were calm periods and the roads were open. “My relation to Beirut was a more distant relation, seeing the city from afar,” at that time, he says.

“I started really discovering the city in 1992,” Zaccak continues, and tracing its emergence from the war. The first phase of this emergence involved people discovering what remained of the city from before 1975 following the destruction of the war.

The next phase was a period of reconstruction, which lasted from about 1995 to 2005. During this phase there was a feeling of not knowing the city anymore and a sense of amnesia, Zaccak says. “You are erasing everything and polishing everything as if nothing has happened and you are building a new future.”

Then, following former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination, people came to realize “no, it’s not really the reality,” Zaccak continues. “Plenty of problems are still here and we are in every moment in danger of a new civil war.” We are still in this period, he adds.

Zaccak’s own work focuses on themes related to memory, amnesia and the writing of history as well as sectarianism and prominent political issues in Lebanon. The most recent film he completed, titled “Mercedes”, tells the story of 60 years of Lebanese history through the biography of a car.

“Our history is like a cycle repeating itself every 10 or 15 years… we are forgetting this,” Zaccak says. “The car remembers more than we do.”

Zaccak also made a film, titled “A History Lesson”, dealing with how history is taught in Beirut and its suburbs and the contradictions that exist between curriculums in different communities. “A History Lesson” and “Mercedes” were both released in theatres.

Other work that Zaccak has done includes a trilogy of films about the new, indirect civil war taking place between the Sunni and Shia communities in Lebanon, he says.

Zaccak’s films, especially “A History Lesson” and “Mercedes”, have garnered wide attention. The films helped prompt a debate about Lebanese history, which is a good thing, Zaccak says.

But, making movies about such contested issues also opens up the possibility for censorship.

“Concerning censorship, there has been quite an evolution,” Zaccak says. Prior to the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 “there were plenty of themes that you couldn’t talk about, especially everything related to how to write the history of the war, how to deal with sectarianism… even how to talk about the Syrian presence… if you talked about it you had plenty of problems.”

“The films I made, personally, after 2005 I couldn’t make before 2005.” In this sense the events of 2005 were positive in regard to media and cultural freedom, Zaccak continues. “On the other hand, you could say it has become more difficult to film on the ground in Beirut… the space is not open anymore. It’s fragmented.”

“It’s very strange, but it looks like the ‘80s, like in the war era, where to film somewhere you have to have the permit of all the parties, or the powerful people in the area,” Zaccak adds. On every corner there is a different responsible political faction. “You are always feeling like there is someone coming to stop you,” he says. Even in areas that use to be free to film it is becoming more and more difficult.

“When we talk about censorship usually we talk about… the state,” Zaccak continues. “What we are facing today… is popular censorship, or mass censorship, which I think is the most dangerous censorship because the people come and forbid you to film.”

Once, Zaccak was filming in Dahiyeh after obtaining a permit from Hezbollah. Even with the permit, the people on the streets started to become aggressive towards the presence of the film crew. “If you are in a neighborhood… you are first the stranger even if you come from another neighborhood” in the same city, Zaccak explains. “When you have a camera you are not only a stranger; you are an alien.” And the presence of aliens is not tolerated.

Zaccak has also run into problems with the security of the American embassy. He was shooting footage of the embassy from the highway and the security later tracked him down and wanted to see everything he had filmed. 

Also, the Israelis forbid Zaccak from filming along the border in the South. He was taking footage along the border and the Israelis called the UN who in turn called the Lebanese army and the Lebanese army came and told him that, even though he had a permit to film from the army, he also needed one from the Israelis to film the border.

“At this point, you have to have plenty of permits,” Zaccak says. In order to film, sometimes you have to have permits from three, four or five groups including the municipality, the army, General Security, Hezbollah, different Palestinian factions, the UN, embassies, and so on. Before 2005, even though government censorship was worse, if you had an army permit to film everything would be ok.

Despite the obstacles, though, it is still valid that Beirut is a cultural center in the region, Zaccak says. If you take other cities that have big cinema festivals, like Dubai or Qatar, Zaccak says, “you don’t feel that the relation between culture and the city is a very old one and a very traditional one.” In Beirut, he continues, “you still have this kind of tradition where you can have theatre plays, you have conferences, you have people working in literature and painting.”

There is plenty of underground cultural activity going on in music and cinema in Beirut. This is all positive, Zaccak says, but “I can’t deny it is on a small level.” The predominant culture in Beirut is the culture of the malls and blockbuster cinemas. “It is difficult to see, for example, an independent American film in the mall. So it is… the same standard culture for everyone,” he adds.

“There is a very big problem,” Zaccak continues. “Outside this small perimeter of Beirut, which goes from Achrafieh until Hamra, the cultural scene is zero.”

“This small place between Ras Beirut and [Achrafieh] is where you have a mix of communities and cultures,” Zaccak says. “Most of the regions outside are becoming from one color… This is something very awful.”

However, there has been a generational shift in wanting to deal with these issues, Zaccak says. “Before 2005… when you wanted to talk about the War or to deal with the issues people use to say, ‘we are fed up with the subject and we don’t want to know,’” he continues. “The thing that changed after 2005 is that people want to know now… The generation of post 2005 is very curious and wants to know and is dealing more with politics, though it is somehow the same inherited politics, but they are dealing more with it.”

Even so, “we are going more and more toward sectarianism,” Zaccak says. Even in the cultural scene you have some people who have given up trying to reach new audiences with there work. “This is a little bit dangerous because it looks like the situation in the country where you will have the extremists [on all sides],” and the moderates will become more of a minority.

“I think everything is becoming somehow related” when it comes to the moderate section in Lebanese society, Zaccak continues. “Even when you take the issue of civil marriage, civil society, the artistic scene; they are all together… This group of maybe around 30,000 people is somehow this kind of community. They watch your films; you go to their protests. This is the small community that is trying to do something.” But the question remains: what impact are they having?

“Of course, I know that films cannot change the world or the country. You say if I cannot change [things] let me at least witness and show what is reality,” Zaccak said.

In addition to making films, Zaccak teaches at Université Saint-Joseph. You can find out more about his work at his website:www.hadyzaccak.com.

Eric Reidy is a project assistant at the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom researching and writing about the cultural scene in Beirut. This article is part of a regular interview series with artists living, working, and creating in Beirut.

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·         “Beirut has a special magic”: An interview with Syrian artist Gylan Safadi

·         “Our culture is dying”: An interview with Mohamad Hodeib

·         “It’s a place for music… Beirut”: An interview with Bilad El-Sham

·         “Culture has been put on the side”: An interview with Dima Mabsout

·         “Everyone is leaving. I’m coming here”: An interview with Omar Sabbagh

·         “If you want to understand the culture you have to meet the people”: An interview with Sabine Choucair

·         “It’s not the melting pot of the artist”: An interview with Mokhtar Beyrouth

·         “I need to show the reality”: An interview with Shewa Wolde

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