Poetic, Powerful Lebanese Cinema of the ’70s and ’80s Comes to BAMPFA

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Woman with dark hair and light yellow shirt sits behind desk on phone
Still from Borhane Alaouié's 'Beirut the Encounter,' 1981 playing Nov. 13 at BAMPFA.  (Courtesy BAMPFA)

In the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, filmmakers Borhane Alaouié, Jocelyne Saab and Heiny Srour turned their cameras to both the large-scale destruction and small moments of beauty that surrounded them. Their work was an extension of their political activism, which connected them to people and movements across the pan-Arab world. In atmospheric documentaries and inventive narrative films centered on Beirut, these filmmakers depicted the senselessness of war and how ordinary people — especially women and children — bear the brunt of conflict.

Timed to fit within the larger program of the Arab Film Festival (running both virtually and at Bay Area theaters Nov. 10–20), “The New Lebanese Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s,” screens five newly restored films at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive between Nov. 10 and 17.

The series, which was curated by Jonathan Mackris, begins this Thursday with Saab’s “Beirut Trilogy” of Beirut, Never Again (1976), Letter from Beirut (1978) and Beirut, My City (1982). The films represent a shift in her approach to documentary filmmaking, away from a traditional format into a more personal and essayistic style (the first two feature text written by the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan).

Woman with dark hair holds mic in burned and roofless house
Jocelyne Saab stands in her destroyed home in a still from 'Beirut, My City,' 1982. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Over the span of the three films, images and people reappear, ever more degraded or disappeared. The horse track that offered some semblance of normalcy in Letter from Beirut is a pile of broken concrete in Beirut, My City. In each successive film, Saab moves farther out from behind the camera as the impact of the war on her own life grows. By 1982, she is standing in her bombed-out home. “We don’t know who will rebuild it,” she says. “We don’t know who we are anymore.”

Alaouié’s Beirut the Encounter (1981), screening Sunday, Nov. 13, takes the bombed and bullet-marked backdrops of Saab’s Beirut Trilogy and plots a quiet story of attempted reunification across them. A Muslim man and a Christian woman, former classmates and friends, have been separated by the war for two years. With telephone lines between East and West Beirut newly reconnected, they plan to meet in person before the woman leaves for better opportunities in the United States.


Following their journeys across checkpoints and traffic jams, the film documents a changed and still-divided city, questioning whether these friends will ever physically (or emotionally) reconnect. As the man says in a recording meant for his friend, there is a chasm between any two people in Beirut: the 60,000 killed in the civil war.

Woman in white dress faces a group of women seated in black burqas on beach
A still from Heiny Srour's 'Leila and the Wolves,' 1984. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

The series’ final film, screening Thursday, Nov. 17, zooms out from the Lebanese Civil War to draw parallels between the conflict and Palestine’s 20th-century history. Leila and the Wolves (1984) uses a hybrid format punctuated with powerful and magical imagery. Scattered with documentary footage, the film reenacts historical moments to dwell on women’s unacknowledged contributions to anti-colonial struggles.

Our guide is Leila, a Lebanese woman hanging a political art show in London, who sets off on her journey to counter a male colleague’s belief that, in the past, women had nothing to do with politics. In each vignette, Srour depicts the courage of women and girls alongside and independent of their male counterparts, and the ways that patriarchal structures within resistance movements deprive them of agency.

‘The New Lebanese Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s’ plays at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Nov. 10–17. Details here.