Interview: The Lebanese Rocket Society co-director Joana Hadjithomas

Interview: The Lebanese Rocket Society co-director Joana Hadjithomas

Premiered earlier this year at our Birds Eye View Festival 2013, and now receiving a full theatrical release courtesy of Soda Pictures, The Lebanese Rocket Society tells the remarkable true story of the contributions to the 1960s space race made by Manoug Manougian: a professor of mathematics at Haigazian University, an Armenian establishment in Beirut. Although it’s rich with archive footage and photography, this unusual feature goes beyond straightforward historical documentary – not just excavating a forgotten narrative, but also reanimating the past through the use of highly personalised voiceover and speculative animation.

The film was directed by husband and wife team Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, whom we see paying artistic tribute to the research conducted by Dr Manougian and his young team, most notably via the commissioning of a scale replica of the Cedar IV rocket which the students and scientists built five decades ago. This reconstruction is completed by transporting the artwork uncovered through the streets of Beirut to its final resting place at the university – a bold and potentially provocative act, given that rockets are more often associated with weaponry than scientific exploration in present day Lebanon.

Joana kindly took the time to chat to BEV about her and Khalil’s practice as both filmmakers and artists, during a trip to London to promote an exhibition of their work…

BEV: Your last feature, I Want to See (2008), starred Catherine Deneuve as a version of herself, reflecting on the destruction caused by the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War in southern Lebanon. Did you and Khalil consciously want to make a film about creation this time?

JH: Well, I Want to See is more about an encounter, rather than destruction as you say. We wanted to find something different for our next project, though the two films are linked in a way. They’re both about how we use cinema to interpret events, and how it can shape our memories.

How did this project begin?

My sister was doing research into Lebanese history and she told me about the rocket society. It was hard to believe at first! But then Khalil and I went on this amazing journey, finding Manoug [now a teacher at the University of South Florida] and so on…

Dr Manougian documented his research and the rockets were even commemorated by official stamps (see below). Yet somehow the whole enterprise has been lost from the Lebanese people’s collective consciousness. Why do you think this is?

That’s a big question. I think because it doesn’t match the image of ourselves that we have these days. Manoug’s work was scientific, not for the military. He saw himself as contributing to an international effort. So the film is about dreamers, and maybe after all the conflict in the Arab world we don’t allow ourselves to dream in this way. To project into the future.

For the first half of the documentary your narration refers to the age of of Pan-Arabism and utopianism in quite a sad, melancholy way. And then spring 2011 happens! Did you feel that idealistic spirit coming back?

Yes, definitely! People were taking to the streets in so many countries. Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya… They were starting to dream again.

Watch The Lebanese Rocket Society trailer

In theory, the rocket society saga starts in 1960 and ends in 1967. Yet the film extends this timeline into the present – with your replica rocket – and even into the future, via Ghassan Halwani’s animation. What’s the idea behind that?

We didn’t want to be nostalgic. When we started this film we didn’t think there would be enough archive footage, so we actually asked Ghassan to create the animation for that purpose. But the we found Manoug and all his footage, so the animated sequences became about the future: what if this space programme had been allowed to continue? You’ll notice it’s in the style of 1960s science fiction – which I enjoy very much – imagining what Lebanon would be like in the year 2025. Even though we’re already in 2013.

The project has now spawned four more pieces of art…

Actually five more! You can find most of them in the film. For example, The President’s Album [a photographic installation comprising 32 identical, eight metre-long segments depicting rocket segments, folded to each present a different part of the whole image to the viewer]. There’s also The Golden Record, which is like the time capsule from the American Voyager missions, only paying tribute to our Lebanese space explorers.

Khalil and I consider ourselves as… searchers. We don’t consider ourselves only as filmmakers. We do research as part of our filmmaking and these installations came out of that. The Sharjah Biennial invited us to make this project and it was very interesting to transport the replica rocket from the factory to the university on a truck through the streets. It’s not a missile, but we’ve gotten used to associating rockets with missiles.

What is about Lebanon that makes the place focus of your work?

Well, I’m making films with my partner in life and we both grew up in Lebanon, so of course it’s going to be part of our work. The films reflect our experiences. But we’re filmmakers of Lebanon, rather than Lebanese filmmakers. We could make a film anywhere. It’s not a nationalistic thing.

With The Lebanese Rocket Society it’s important to remember that Haigazian is an Armenian university. Manoug came from Jerusalem and his students were from all over the region. They created a rocket and gave it as a gift to Lebanon. Paying tribute, but not driven by nationalism.

Do you know what your next project is going to be?

We’re writing a fiction film. It’s difficult for me to talk about it because I have a lot of possible routes. It’s closer in manner to A Perfect Day (2005). Fiction in a more traditional way. Working with actors. It’s exciting.

Birds Eye View celebrates and supports female filmmakers. What advice would you give to women starting out in film?

I’m not the type to give advice! I was teaching for a very long time, and I used to say that I was just accompanying the students. But I would say to people that they should never put a project away. If you’re really haunted by a project you should do it. It’s not about budget or anything. It’s about desire. As human beings we don’t need to be restricted by anything. Filmmakers should follow their desire.

The Lebanese Rocket Society opens in selected UK cinemas on Friday October 18. Follow on Facebook or Twitter  for details of special screenings. Artworks from the project feature in Long ago, and not true anyway at Waterside Contemporary gallery in London until November 16.

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