Lebanese Filmmaker: Randa Chahal Sabbag
Once censored by the Lebanese government, this award-winning auteur is now embraced as a cultural ambassador and a voice of conscience in her homeland.
When director Randa Chahal Sabbag took home the Silver Lion prize for Le cerf-volant (The Kite) at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Beirut’s Daily Star hailed it as “a triumph for Lebanese film”—a radical departure from the hostile press the controversial filmmaker once received.
Lebanon’s submission in this year’s foreign-language Oscars race, The Kite, is an unlikely love story between a Lebanese girl and an Israeli soldier guarding a border checkpoint between their two countries. Sabbag calls her movie a fairy tale for troubled times.
“I chose the subject because of the absurdity of the situation,” Sabbag has said. “I like the continuity in communication even though there’s barbed wire separating the people....The Kite is a pacifist film, without concessions. There are no slogans, there’s no good guy or bad guy. The film is like a dream, from beginning to end.”
Last October, Lebanon’s prodigal daughter received the nation’s highest honor, Chevalier of the Order of the Cedar. The government, however, wasn’t always heaping prizes on the outspoken 50-year-old director.
In 1999, she clashed with censors over Civilisées (A Civilized People), a black comedy about the Lebanese civil war that killed at least 100,000 people from 1975 to 1990. The topic of the war is still considered off-limits because few people want to disturb the fragile peace among the Christian sects, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze, and other political factions. But what also remains buried in Lebanon’s past is the answer to who was responsible for several mass killings of refugees and for the 17,000 unsolved disappearances during the war.
“It was our war, and we should not play the innocent,” said Sabbag, who was born in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. “Unless we accept responsibility for every bullet, we will never become a nation.”
But Lebanese officials didn’t see it that way. Citing vulgar language and slurs against both Christians and Muslims, the Ministry of Interior’s military censors proposed cutting 50 minutes, or about half of the film, before the movie could be shown. Sabbag refused to make the cuts. As a result, she (a Muslim married to a Christian) was vilified in the press and in mosques. Her family received death threats. Though honored by UNESCO and Human Rights Watch, Civilisées has yet to be shown in Lebanon.