Miguel's War Photo: courtesy of ITAR Productions
Miguel Jleilaty is a seemingly ordinary man with an extraordinary story. 37 years ago he fled multiple sources of trauma to find refuge in Madrid, but in Eliane Raheb’s new documentary, Miguel's War, he returns to Lebanon to face the past. The horrors of war, the repression he faced as a gay man and the rejection he felt from his family all combine and overlap in a film which speaks to the broader experience of life in Lebanon during the Seventies and Eighties. The film, which incorporates elements of interview, archive material, dramatic role play, animation and collage, won the Berlinale Teddy Award for Best Feature Film earlier this year and is now screening at Newfest in New York.
Eliane Raheb Photo: courtesy of ITAR Productions
“I did everything to make my vision for this film possible, and I think that I didn't do any compromise, although the funding was extremely difficult,” Eliane tells me when we meet to talk about the film. “I had, the last two years, to pay myself to cover the deficit of the funding. But I really wanted it to be nicely made and complex and fitting not only my expectations, but Miguel's expectations. I wanted to give him a dignity through this film. I really wanted to do something beautiful for a beautiful person, because I think that he can be a very beautiful person.”
A seasoned documentarian and founding member of the Beirut DC Association for Cinema, Eliane has found multiple ways to explore Lebanon’s story over the course of her career, but this particular film came about almost by accident.
“It was by purely chance that we met in Barcelona,” she tells me. “He was the translator, to translate the debate of one of my films. That film was about also the Civil War, it was called Sleepless Nights. And he was a big fan, too, and he was watching the film. After the film, when he did the debate, I saw that he was extremely tense as a translator. It didn't seem to me that he was an ordinary objective person. So after we went off to have a drink, and I told him ‘Why were you so much emotional about the film? I felt you were not at ease.’ So he told me ‘Well, because I also participated in the Civil War. And I didn't want to see it again, you know, after all these years. I didn't want to be confronted to it again.’
“Then he started telling me his story. It was a kind of monologue. And I was hit by that story. And I told him, let's meet another time, the second day, and we met, it was another three hours. He was talking and I felt that his throwing to me all this story was not by chance. It had a meaning somewhere. When I went back to Lebanon, I started thinking about the story. And I really felt it was a metaphor for how religion, family and fascism can shape your identity and make you become a self destructive person.
"I think that he can be a very beautiful person" - Eliane Raheb Photo: Bassem Fayad, courtesy of ITAR Productions
“I came back spoke to him again in Barcelona. I started to record audio, really getting in all the details. I had lots of questions. It was very intense. And after I told him, ‘I want to do a film about you.’ He didn't believe it in the beginning. He thought that I was just saying this, but slowly when he saw that I was really wanting to do the film, it became serious and he was happy about it. Of course he always asked me ‘Why my story is important?’ I was wondering, why is it important for me? I didn't tell him of course. There are things that I keep to myself. But now he's getting it I think, because we're travelling with the film and he's seeing the people reacting with all these Q&A's we're having.”
I tell her that I can't think of another film where a gay man has been at the centre of a story like that, with his story representing a larger story. Being gay is usually centred and presented as a big issue, whereas here it’s just one of many aspects of who Miguel is and the story he has to tell.
“I want to be in his head. And I want to unfold all the layers,” she says. “I wanted to understand him as a human being. I like character driven stories usually, so I wanted really to feel that the spectator is in his mind, and he's imagining things with him, he's travelling to spaces, he's travelling in time. This is where it was natural for me to put all these mediums together, because I thought that it was getting along with this complex character and that each player would be represented – like the performative part of Miguel would be through theatre, the animated parts represent more fantasies, taboos and sacred things, and in a collage way, because I think that memory can reconstruct things in a collage way.
Making time to have fun Photo: Bassem Fayad, courtesy of ITAR Productions
“When you dream, you start imagining a collage of events that happen in your life with people. Why are they here in my dream, and we are, I don't know where...in Italy?” She laughs. “I find it very interesting how the memory and the unconscious mix. So I wanted that animation would represent this visual part. And there’s documentary, normal documentary, because I have a person who is searching for something. He has a daily life. So I wanted also that we could be in a normal documentary sometimes. And archive because I also wanted to give a bigger context to the story and linking it to our collective memory that we live in Lebanon. So it was always personal, and the bigger picture was trying to link them all.
“I didn't want to do an LGBT film in the sense that it's only a gay story. No, it's a bigger story. One of his identities is being gay but the film is more political, and it shows you that even your body is manipulated by institutions that want to mess with your individuality and want to shape you in a more mainstream, politically correct way. And this is something we all suffer from.”
He seems to have a complex relationship to nationality as well in the different places he identifies with at different times. How long did it take to make the film and did he change during that time?
“It took maybe four or five years to be finished,” she says. “But we didn't shoot a lot. We shot maybe only 15 days, but scattered, so it was like many shootings over two years. The rest was to edit the film, because I edited the animation and it took a long time to finish. The animation is a bridge between documentary theatre and between spaces, and this is difficult. Also, it's not like a storyboard, which is very, very precise, like in a fictional film. We have to find the end point, our point. And it was a back and forth between me and the animator, trying and testing things and then refining them.
Exploring memory and identity Photo: Bassem Fayad, courtesy of ITAR Productions
“Between the time we started recording his story, and at the end, I felt he was a bit changing, I could feel this. And I think you can see it in the film. In the end, you can feel that he's becoming more balanced, calm, we're talking about love. We're trying to find the essence of things.”
I tell her that I loved the collages and the unusual choices in there like the fish that kept popping up, and she laughs. So what was her approach to that part of the film and to finding the right kinds of images to say what she wanted to say?
“It was like taking his text, which already is very visual, and adding my own ideas on it. Also, sometimes you make associations as a human being, between things, which are not logical. Like for example, when I was a youngster, during the war, I used to have sexual ideas linked to like, discovering my sexuality, and it was linked to shame and to the religious icons. At the same time, I was afraid from the war. So then you make a decision, which only you understand later. I was trying to do the same with this, taking from his real life, for example, a picture of himself or the parents or family. Putting on it the iconography, for example, of the religious. I wanted to be talking about something religious but in the same time adding something sexual to it. I think this is a collage of my childhood and my fears and his fears, which I understand. Sometimes you don't understand why they are here, but they come together.
“It's a bit like surrealism. The sea is something important in the film. The sea is something that he used to like when he was a child, then he hated it because it was linked afterwards to the war. For me, somebody in that war going to Hell was diving into the water. And then, of course, he was narrating how he met his mother after the war. You know he was beaten by his brother, how he hides it and how he left. It's a word that is difficult to represent in normal fiction. It wouldn't be the same So I thought, ‘Okay, he's diving in something very deep, which is water. Let's imagine that everyone is becoming fish. And when we tried to do it as an animated draft, I liked this a lot. So I found meanings in it.”
"When you dream, you start imagining a collage of events" - Eliane Raheb Photo: Andy Kaiser, courtesy of ITAR Productions
The two of them argue in a few places in the film. At one point, he's threatening to walk off and leave the project. Why did she decide to show us that in the final cut?
“Because I believe honesty can be something nice for spectators,” she says, dismissing the notion of trying to make a film with a neutral voiceover. “This film was based from an encounter that I had with him. We passed by a series of ups and downs together, because also, we became friends. And usually when you are a filmmaker and you are very close to your character, they get lost between you as a filmmaker and you as a friend. It's a bit confusing for them. So I wanted to show the limits of everything, and then make the cinema about the limit of friendship, the limit of manipulation.
“Someone wants you to film him but in the same time, he gets aware of being exposed suddenly to too many viewers, and exposed to his own life. Because in the same time, he wants to make a show. But when you go into the motivations and understanding why you want to make this show, it becomes serious, and he becomes fragile at this moment. And I wanted to dig into it. And when you dig into intimate things and things that you don't understand yourself, it's like being in a therapy session. I think you get mad at this person who's digging somewhere, you don't want to talk maybe at this specific moment and in front of people.
“I wanted to expose the spectators to to all the process, and being honest and fair, to him and to the cinema itself. And show also the fragility of making a film of telling your story of your traumas. I thought it was natural to show also that he could be mad at me. I can be a bitch. I was exposing all the sources to the audience so that they can interact and live all the experience as we did. It lifted me and it had it's difficult days, like a love relationship.”
"He's becoming more balanced, calm, we're talking about love" - Eliane Raheb Photo: Bassem Fayad, courtesy of ITAR Productions
The film screened in Lebanon just over a week ago, she tells me, but it wasn’t widely publicised. Whilst she wanted it to be seen, she was wary of attracting the wrath of censors, so it was viewed by a select audience which included people involved in the production, LGBT people and members of human rights organisations. “It was a nice, diverse audience of maybe 200 people, and it was very, very emotional. They really clapped. And I was thinking, ‘What a nice closure closure for Miguel.’ Because he left Lebanon humiliated. And now when he's got his clap, it gives something of his dignity back in the place that traumatised him the most.”
If the film does well at festivals and wins more awards, she says, it will be more likely to get through the censorship process in Lebanon. She’s happy it’s screening at Newfest which, with a bit of luck, will be another step along the way.