Mathilde Rouxel and Stefanie Van de Peer, eds.: ReFocus: The Films of Jocelyne Saab: Films, Artworks and Cultural Events for the Arab World

In: Studies in World Cinema
Claire LaunchburyVisiting Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, London, United Kingdom,

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Mathilde Rouxel and Stefanie Van de Peer, eds.: ReFocus: The Films of Jocelyne Saab: Films, Artworks and Cultural Events for the Arab World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2021. 304 pages.

Jocelyne Saab (1948–2019) was a journalist, artist, curator as well as an extremely diverse and fascinating filmmaker and photographer. To have a single volume dedicated to her work in English is a vital marker of her status and importance, hitherto under observed. Running through this collection is the editors’ deep affection for Saab and their continued commitment to her work – Rouxel is also her archivist and Van de Peer has written extensively on her.

The book is divided into four thematic parts: fifty years of creation in the turmoil of Arab history; film as a weapon against war and oblivion; liberating the people, freeing the body and advocating poetry, and ends with an annotated catalogue of Saab’s works by Rouxel. This invaluable archival apparatus bears witness to the sheer scale of Saab’s activity and production. The collection also benefits from a rich number of stills and images illustrating the crucial visual aspects of the cultural material under scrutiny. The collection is to be commended for its terrific diversity of contributors attesting to the widespread transnational interest Saab’s works have gathered over the years. This excellent survey then traverses the geographies Saab covered through a combination of poetic reflection, testimony, interview, and analysis of films in their workshop stages and critical frames.

The introduction offers a slightly abridged translation of Rouxel’s introduction to her 2015 monograph with the addition of a section on transnational scholarship. Starting with the introduction, it is clear that the editors have ensured that the broad internationalist and emancipatory ideology central to Saab’s work has been replicated in the collection. Her own difficult biographical history is thrown into relief on several occasions: from a traumatic relationship with her mother to the relatively early loss of her father to a personal life that involved flight, exile and banishment from places that were important to her. Olivier Hadouchi’s interview with Saab shows how she was driven by the desire to give articulation to voices and bringing people together, frequently disregarding differences in politics, conflict and belief. Hadouchi notes that (and it is a recurrent theme throughout the chapters) her cinema never ceases to assert and celebrate life against everything that mutilates, imprisons and stops women and men (of all ages) from flourishing and shows her commitment to social justice and the emancipatory power of cinema and dance in her work as an activist who sought social change.

Although Saab spent a considerable amount of her life living and working in France, her gaze was determinedly non-Western. She railed against the lazy conflation of opposition to the Israeli state and Palestinian solidarity with anti-Semitism observing that it was, for her, a European hatred that she only really discovered in France. Ghada Sayegh weaves a poetic account of Saab’s cinema of the Lebanese civil war and what it means to film it while simultaneously feeling concerned with its disappearance. Here Saab is explored as a ciné-archiviste who undertook several large scale initiatives to collate, preserve and archive Lebanese film.

Jean Grandjean takes us beyond cinema to establish Saab’s presence as a photographer and installation artist, who uses architecture and stories to give temporality to even her most static works. Rouxel’s position as Saab’s archivist is showcased in an affectionate analysis of the works which remained unfinished at the time of her death, these included a series of témoignages and memoirs which offer different sides and layers to her life and work. Several chapters engage with how memory operates as a narrative device for Saab and the importance of the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival of Lebanon that she inaugurated and which brought together her cultural and activist work. Giovanni Vimercati explores the spectral quality of Beirut memory across her documentary and fiction films, suggesting that Saab’s practice is one of expressionist ethnography of an urban microcosm, these are films of Beirut which offer both political elegy and requiem. This is picked up later by Gregory Buchakjian who addresses urban geography from the point of view of his own practice as an urban photographer who documents Beirut’s abandoned dwellings.

Mark R. Westmoreland offers a close reading of Saab’s Il était une fois, Beyrouth, histoire d’une Star (Once Upon a Time, Beirut, Lebanon/France, 1994) which reflects on the montage, bricolage and assemblage of the different clips into the narratives she constructs as a form of cinematic archaeology. Yomara Inhuiko shares personal testimony of his collaboration with Saab on her last and unfinished film project My Name is Mei Shigenobu (Lebanon, 2018).

Stefanie Van de Peer’s excellent chapter explores early documentaries which demonstrate Saab’s concern with liberation and her idealist courage. She argues that Saab plays with the poetic power of painfully truthful images across the films Irak, la guerre au Kurdistan (Iraq: War in Kurdistan, France, 1974), Le Sahara n’est pas à vendre (The Sahara is Not For Sale, France, 1977), Iran, l’utopie en marche (Iran: Utopia On the Move, Lebanon, 1980). Saab is shown to be an activist, alert to the global consequences of local conflict and determined to showcase this through audio-visual work that balanced journalistic objectivity and a powerfully subjective activist fervor.

Margaret McVeigh takes us through the development of the script in Saab’s possibly most famous fictional feature, Dunia (Egypt, 2005). The chapter is constructed from a 2016 interview McVeigh had with Saab where they explored the boundaries between truth, fiction and parafiction offering insight into the cinematic atelier of Saab’s process. Maram Soboh looks at Saab’s feminist film productions and emphasis on dance, seeing this as the key emancipatory gesture in four of Saab’s features.

Corinne Fortier looks at a couple of later projects, notably the short documentary series Gender Café (2013). Placing side-by-side lgbtqi activism and the faces of refugees in her analysis, Fortier shows how Saab could deftly navigate between violence, discrimination and war while also restoring intersections of dignity, resistance and survival.

Samirah Alkassim concentrates on the last twelve years of Saab’s life, where she departs from classical forms and explores more surrealist ways of operating. Her exhibition Strange Games and Bridges (2006) challenges the mythical constructions of Beirut, such as the Western tropes of Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, using broken mirrors and mutilated mannequins to represent the broken urban space of post-civil war Beirut.

In the final section, Marie Chebli explores the early fiction feature Une vie suspendue (A Suspended Life, Lebanon/France/Canada, 1985) through both Deleuze and Kristeva. The dead fertile space of the cemetery provides a frame for understanding the narrative structure underneath a linear one. Gregory Buchakjian again notes the recurrent feature of toxic relationships in Lebanese film and the agonizingly high price Beirut pays for its utopias. Léa Polverini explores fiction and voyeurism in Saab’s representation of Alexandria, locating voyeurism as a generative force operating between the meshes of the sordid and the sublime.

This is a superb collection of essays. The book offers strong analysis, moving testimony, and an engaging poetics attests to the multiple layers, complexity and brilliance of a much-missed friend and filmmaker. Saab’s fascination with the world, but moreover, with those who inhabit it, drove her immense work and research as well as her desire to rebuild the world and herself. She both bore witness to and lived her own struggle to survive which, along with the deep humanitarian motivation of her work, gives testament to the sacredness of human life. This impressive collection is of interest beyond film studies, it engages with poetry, photography, urban studies, Asian Studies and is itself a beautiful tribute to Saab’s life and work.

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