A Letter to Helga Fanderl
My dear Helga,
At the very moment when I began to write this text which I imagined would take the shape of a letter addressed to you, echoing our botanical, pictorial, and cinematic encounter, a letter originally written in French, a language that we share although it is for both a borrowed one,
At the very moment when I sent Lamia, exiled in a country whose languages she does not speak, a voice message about the simple joy of conversing in Arabic, the only language she and I share –albeit with different accents, Syrian for her, Lebanese for me– and to compose from these conversations fragments of writings that belong neither to her nor to me, but to us both,
At the very moment when I was telling her about that other joy, of having been invited by you Helga, to put our encounter into words, from our first conversation on the terrace of the Freie Universität, up to the lunch at your house where you told me, by way of farewell: we’ve already said everything that we need to say – I had thought then that many things were left unsaid and that I would like to invite you to my home in Lebanon, while dreading what you would think of a home so dysfunctional and dense that it is stifling,
At the very moment when I was going back home to write with Mira a film that we’ve called أقبل الليل (The Night Came About), a film about the never-ending nights and follies of the Lebanese youth, their bodies in abeyance and in denial, yet who never cease to dance,
At this(ese) very moment(s), surging masses took to the streets, as if one single unstoppable body, booing the lords of our past (un)civil wars, those plunderers, those self-proclaimed guardians of a peace that we allegedly threaten with our accumulated, consolidated, insolent angers (a revolution? you ask).
From that moment on, I could no longer write this letter based only on our summer in Berlin. It had to be written from here in Beirut, from this autumn in Beirut, so dark and yet so luminous.
A few days earlier, I had written to you:
Here, it is not raining yet. Wild fires have broken out all over the country. From my balcony, I only see the Mediterranean, horizontal, desperately flat, indifference. You know, everything here is always much slower, thoughts are often interrupted. However, I am happy to have found, despite everything, the habit of my notebooks. I think they are to me as your films are to you, extensions of our presence in the world, maps of our inner bursts.
October 17. Night has fallen. I take to the streets in search of the others who have come down before me. I walk for a long time, but nothing around me seems to have changed. Someone tells me that the movement has turned to the left and has dissipated by itself, that it has disappeared.
I come back empty-handed. And yet there they are, seemingly unstoppable, I can see them on my computer screen: masked faces lighting fires and others, bare-faced, unanimously chanting that word: revolution.
I am afraid right now, afraid to believe in it and afraid to drown in it; and afraid that my words and your images should disappear at once, as they are, by nature, fragile, tremulous, and bare.
On July 16, you wrote me:
Would you like to join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock at my film studio, 55 Danckelmannstraße? The entrance is to the left of the main door and of a small shrub in a big pot and a large bay window.
On that day, I perhaps already suspected that something would happen between us. As you spoke, I was jotting down your words in my notebook, in an almost visceral impetus to preserve them, hoping not to interrupt your flow unintentionally.
You told me:
Shooting films in Super 8 is like shooting in your head. You can’t see the timing. You can’t control what you’re filming, yet you take the risk. You rely solely on your emotions, yet you need to be precise, accurate. When I am filming, I am in a state of trance. I always ask myself, is the subject communicating with me too?
You told me:
There is no sound in my films, only the sound of the projector. I play with different rhythms; I create ruptures. Cinemas are spaces too large for my films and so the film projector is always in the screening room, exposed –sometimes it’s necessary to set up high tables, almost like sculptures – as if I were clearly stating: this is not an illusion, this is a film. Otherwise, the silence of the room would be too loud.
You told me:
I slipped in January and broke my wrist, fractured my jaw. I was just leaving the cinema but my mind was elsewhere. Today I know why I fell. That evening, I saw something in myself that I didn’t want to see: I was just about to give up a part of the freedom within me, and when this thought came to me, I stumbled. I couldn’t do anything with myself for some time, and so I decided to put my films in order, to clean them up and classify them. I projected the films that I was unable to remember from their titles. This immersion renewed my connection to so many of my films…
As you were setting up the first reel, you said in a whisper: dust is the enemy of film. I took a picture of the provisional list of your films, printed then hand-corrected by you. The list closely resembled the fragments accumulated in my notebooks.
Then you put the projector in motion and the screening began.
Of that day, very few images remain in my mind, as if drowned in my agitation. Yet one film persisted: Mädchen (Girls), little girls who appear and disappear behind the verticality of the trees at the Place des Vosges square in Paris, and that little girl in an impeccable red dress, so carefree yet so impenetrable…
October 23. I am in the streets again. The crowd is all anger, but is it the same anger as mine? I stare at the faces, draw nearer to the bodies. Suddenly, a man climbs a tree, he wants to tear off the branches, to throw them onto the burning tires. I am outraged. I want to protect the tree. The angry body doesn’t see me, he doesn’t hear me. I can only align myself to his anger and the tree becomes to me, as corrupt (corrupt by its very indifference!) as those who planted it there, in this Down-Town razed to the ground by wars and rebuilt as if to wipe the slate clean.
Around us, the walls are scattered with screams. In the crowd, a group invokes our fellow peoples, Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Algerians, …. and in the midst of all these strangers, I suddenly find myself alone, crying out our helplessness and our hopes. A man screams that the Lebanese people will topple not one but 100 dictators! Mohamed writes from Berlin that the Syrian people has torn itself apart and has long gone. I am now crying his loss… Pleurer, il faut que ça ait lieu (Crying, it must happen) wrote Marguerite. I look for Nour who always comforts me. She says: One would think that our country is now aligned with its own reality. It is as if our inner chaos has materialised, as if a dissection has taken place and we can now see its entrails, our entrails.
Are we collectively witnessing an unexpected and dazzling awakening or a long and painful descent towards an even darker chasm? I go back home to write down these things and many others too, in my notebook of doubts.
On July 31, you had written:
I think you would like the title I gave to a program of my films at the Flaherty Seminar: Mit der Frische einer ersten und der Intensität einer letzten Begegnung (With the freshness of a first encounter and the intensity of a last).
I had replied with the words of a recently discovered Irish poet, Geoffrey Squires. It seemed to me that although you have never met, you were both driven by the same poetic gesture.
Today I am as old as you were when you first grabbed a Super 8 camera to collect bits of Paris, Berlin, and Essaouira. It has always seemed to me that a world perceived through its detail is not merely the world, but the very essence of the world. I had read about it, written many times about it, but nothing had prepared me for the impact of your images. They seemed to come right out of the heart of the world and as I sat there, it seemed to me I was not only in the presence of your inner world, but of the inner world of the world [Weltinnenraum!]. Weeks later, the morning after encountering your films, Ghassan had expressed a similar sensation: It‘s as if the world had come to an end and that we were presented with fragments of what the world was, of what it had been. But there was something else: the relief of knowing that your films existed. These images – that little Mädchen in a red dress in the Place des Vosges – it was almost as if I had dreamed them, as if they were replicas of my forgotten dreams. And I do not yet know what to do with that feeling.
July 31. We had set up chairs outside, on the pavement in front of your Raum für Film. I’ve never done this. It’s just like in Southern countries! (little girls’ chuckles), and then: Sometimes, as I wait for the laboratory to make copies of the negatives, I forget what I’ve actually filmed, since I’m unable to see it. Weeks later, I finally discover the film and it’s nothing like I recall. During this time, my film programs take shape in me. I make handwritten drafts, putting one title next to the other, as if writing short poems. I note in the margin the colours, the movements, the sensations. I don’t keep these sheets; they are later replaced by my Kompositionen.
As you were speaking, I imagined coming back here one day, to be near your films, just sitting in this room and writing.
Then we put away the chairs and you solemnly announced, as you closed the studio blinds: We’re going to create an artificial night now! As your images were revealed to me for the second time, I noted in near darkness that: the background is constantly shifting from blue to grey –but it’s simply the sky–,that there’s a vertical sea and a horizontal one in the same shot – these are the Niagara falls–, that a black and orange leopard is circling a dead trunk or a creature from another time – it’s only a stone. I spent a long time looking at this creature. When I finally decided to film it, it was the day when the light projected the cage’s grid on its body. I was already imbued with a unilateral relationship with the animal. The film could finally convey everything I wanted to say about it.
You rewound the Komposition to put another one on. Do you always feel slightly apprehensive at this moment? I had confessed my desire to keep your films in me, to let them work on me longer, knowing that the very impossibility of doing so made them even more beautiful, as is the case with love.
Between one film and another, in the black separating them, fine coloured lines, scratches, small nothings no doubt but something all the same. Those two red blots on the last film? They look like Japanese stamps. I did notice them before but it seems I then forgot about them. An overwhelming feeling at the sight of the birds flying from one edge of the screen to another across a sky silent with grey snow, of the leaves, botanical illustrations drawn on the glassy watery surface – that takes place in a corridor linking the two wings of the Berggruen Museum, not far from here. I move from left to right, from right to left. It’s as if you’re underwater and, at the same time, there’s water behind. The vision that I had of it resembles the result.
That day, we talked about painting, about Poussin and Bellini and others as well, and I showed you my small collection of details gleaned from the Gemäldegalerie. We discovered a mutual fondness for this painting by Mantegna: Maria mit dem schlafen Kind.
That child seems to be dead… No, you
reassured me, he sleeps.
Weeks later, I found them on your desk, the mother and child.
On August 14, at 3 o’clock, we took bus number 101 at the Kantstraße/ Leibnizstraße stop to go to the Botanical Garden in Dahlem. It was then that you suggested this text – I think that you would write something that comes from within. Did you know then that your words already filled pages and pages of my notebooks, that I wanted to record you, to record us? You agreed and I caught a brief conversation between the bus stop and the ticketing booth at the entrance: …my style of making the film while filming, of creating the film with the camera, was not established at the beginning. I tried editing with that really thin film and it didn’t make sense to me. My response was to accept this limitation. Slowly, I extended this practice. The first time I designed a program of my films, it was because I needed to find the right form. – And so that affected the shooting technique? – Yes, but it was a process, you see, not a ready-made approach.
Then we went into the garden.
There’s a grove over there where I filmed the quinces, perhaps even some plums on the ground, in a state of decomposition. I can remember a speck of dust that had altered the film, but when I saw it again, I liked it as it was. Another time, when I was shooting, I heard a strange noise. It was a young fox breaking walnuts open (little girls’ chuckles) and I made a film with it!
Ah, we are in Siberia now! – Is the Mediterranean here, do you think? – Yes, we need to find the Mediterranean…
That tree with the silver leaves is called «le tremble» in French (the trembling aspen). It’s beautiful! You recall the German saying: zittern wie Espenlaub.
You tell me you know, for having time and again filmed them, all the gardens of Paris. You show me a flower, bluish and tiny. Where I lived when I was a child, there was a bank of wild flowers. I loved this one without knowing its name.
I had read somewhere (the painter Turner?) that green was the colour with the greatest variations in shade. The greens of nature or those of man? I did not know. It might be true then. You told me that once you brought back a small lemon tree from Italy, it was so small, but I love it, I hope it survives! Then you tell me about the tender green Argan trees that grow in the desert of Morocco, the country of the man I loved the most.
I said I had read somewhere that certain trees, even side by side, avoid touching each other, a phenomenon known as crown shyness. But the trees are touching here, you told me, raising your head. Perhaps only those that recognize each other come into contact.
We go into the grove and we eat the forbidden fruits, the yellow cherry plums and the red apples. I no longer remember how, because I didn’t record it, we talked about Dreyer, and Ordet. I always cry in the end when the miracle happens. So do I, you said. Tomorrow they are showing Gertrud at the Arsenal, would you like to come with me?
November 8. Is my burning country echoing others around the world? Are we all burning of the same fire? Each hour of each day, the movement multiplies. Now, every one of us is redefining his place within it, searching for a position from which the impetus would be the most sincere, and the most sustainable. Alya says to me: Many of us walked away from our original upbringing, from our families who carry the civil wars like a stigma, but this withdrawal wounds us, condemns us to imposture. Has the moment finally come for us to confront what we turned our backs to? In the streets which only weeks ago seemed so hostile, my gaze detects other gazes around me, fragments of sentences gleaned here and there form a giant conversation. I write them on the walls of the city in my mother tongue.
On September 9, in your studio, my friend Isabelle had joined us from Paris. That evening, we finally saw the face of that man whom you loved the most, and also your face, filmed years earlier in a Paris bathed in sunlight yet tinged with your sorrow. It was raining hard that evening, I recorded and you said:
For a long time I didn’t see my films as a complete work. It was only what I could do, what I wanted to do. And in doing so, exposing myself, yet accepting my poor medium all at once. A fight needed to take place in me, a never-ending fight towards accepting what I am and what I try to create. This has nothing to do with what appears to be important.
I put a lot of thought into what I do, but always afterwards, never during the process of filming, otherwise I’d be lost. It’s necessary in order to maintain a tension in me that makes my films possible, and to gain clarity within myself. Controlling my actions, while accepting at the same time my mistakes and imperfections. Right from the start, in the context of experimental cinema, I felt vulnerable, and I needed to face the brutal reality of being what I was. But it has been worth it not giving up.
Isabelle’s body, arms and hands are moving feverishly, simulating the rhythm of your images, their impact on her very soul. If one day images were to come out of me, I think that they would look exactly like yours. That tree on the Saint-Martin canal, I think about it at least once a week; that cathedral in Rouen reminds me of an old lover, you know those romances that last a few days and that count for a lifetime.
You agreed, and said the spectator is always alone before your films, and that those exchanges that follow the screenings, made possible by the very existence of this film space that you were about to lose, was an extension of your gesture. But like a writer writes alone, I make films alone.
A few days after my return to Beirut, you wrote to me:
On Sunday I saw by chance that the painting by Mantegna that we like so much, Madonna with sleeping child, has gone to another museum. It’s now at the Bode-Museum. I immediately went to see it again, thinking of you.
The beginning of November was marked by the start of a series of screenings as a farewell to your Raum für Film. You wrote to me: the 7 programs for 7 days were to me an accurate summary of the essence of my work.
From now on, it seems to me that I can no longer be withdrawn, amputated from the world, but rather that I have to chose to be, as you are, incessantly anchored in the movement of the world. Little does it matter if the world appears obscure, you have your gaze and I have mine, and we have unwrapped by a tacit agreement a breach in time to weave them together.