Telling the Diaries From Lebanon story is a 'necessity', says filmmaker Myriam El Hajj

Beginning in 2018, the film documents Lebanese life as change and positivity give way to political and social chaos

Visual artist Perla Joe Maalouli features in Diaries From Lebanon. Photo: Mad Solutions
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Sitting in a Berlin hotel, Lebanese filmmaker Myriam El Hajj is speaking potently about her new film, Diaries From Lebanon. Showing this week at the Berlin International Film Festival, the documentary chronicles her native land through the perspectives of three different characters, making it a vital account of a country in crisis.

“It’s a film that talks about what the country went through,” she says. “I think it’s very important for people to reflect on the last few years.”

Beginning in 2018, the film actively documents Lebanese life, where change and positivity gave way to political and social chaos, notably after the devastating explosion in 2020 that rocked Beirut. El Hajj chooses her protagonists carefully. Joumana Haddad is an activist running for election in 2018. Georges Moufarej is a one-legged former commander who claims he has incriminating names and dates when it comes to the Civil War. Perla Joe Maalouli is a visual artist fuelled by anger at the government corruption she sees around her.

“It is a political film,” says Beirut-born El Hajj. “It’s very subjective and one of my points of view is that the past is still very present. And this is why Georges is in the film. I didn't choose him by mistake.”

The director sees Diaries From Lebanon as an extension of her 2015 debut feature Treve. “My first film talked about the past and about the civil war. So there was a link between my first film and this one and this is something that moved me a lot because my parents were very involved in the civil war. So the character of Georges, for example, embodies the past that is very present and doesn’t allow the future to evolve. Joumana and Perla are the future.”

While Maalouli is a rabble-rouser ready to take to the streets in demonstrations, Haddad is more about working for change legally, through the system. “The first time I really met Joumana was during the elections,” recalls El Hajj. “I saw her and I saw something shining. She was walking with her kids in the street and I was like ‘Yes, this woman has something to say if she’s in the parliament. I would like her to represent me.’

“So I started filming her but I didn’t know that she would win, and actually she won and it was a surprise. We wanted to believe … it was like a dream.” The authorities denied her victory, claiming she had lost, a contentious decision that led to protests on the street.

Unsurprisingly, El Hajj is delighted to be bringing the film to Berlin, a place in one of the world’s most celebrated film festivals giving legitimacy to the movie back home. “We had a lot of Lebanese people in the theatre during the first screening,” she said.

“It helps the film and it protects the film, actually, when you come back to your country after a big festival like the Berlin.” Certainly, it will be harder to censor or bury the film in Lebanon after the exposure of an international premiere.

While El Hajj points out that she was free to make the film in Lebanon without any interference – she simply took to the streets with her camera, filming more than 300 hours' worth of footage – she is unsure if and when it will be shown.

“Today maybe we cannot show it, but maybe in two years we will,” she says. “I thought that maybe it will not go out today in Lebanon but for the future it’s important for it to stay in the conversation.”

Naturally, the film takes on a new dimension at the point of the explosion, which threw El Hajj into crisis. “The characters were losing a lot of things, their lives were changing … my life as well. So it was a lot about ups and downs actually. I stopped filming after the explosion.”

Aside from the economic implications – her producers’ offices, for example, were destroyed – she also felt weighed down by philosophical concerns. “We were wondering, why do we do cinema? We really questioned this. What do we change by doing this film?”

Then El Hajj reunited with Haddad, who herself was psychologically broken by the blast. “So I started shooting with her. And I felt that I'm not alone any more. The characters are calling me and we are doing the film together. It became a collective film. And I couldn't stop any more. There was a necessity to tell the story.”

Could she conceive of extending this project? Further Diaries From Lebanon, perhaps? She’s not against the idea. “We're not talking any more about Lebanon [in the news] but the country is stagnating and the fallout doesn't stop. We're still in the same crisis, or even bigger. So yes, of course this is something that will continue, in the form of a diary or [other] characters … I don't know. But I am not done.”

Diaries From Lebanon plays at the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday, February 24 and Sunday, February 25

Updated: February 24, 2024, 7:06 AM