Roxana Vilk is producer of the POETS IN PROTEST series made by SDI Productions for Al Jazeera English. She's also the director of the episode on Yehia Jaber: Laughter is My Exit.
There is something very enticing about filming poets. Here are these characters, reflective and questioning by nature, living through a truly historic time of change in the Middle East.
The idea for the documentary series Poets of Protest came after I had been commissioned by Reel Festivals to make three short films during their poetry festival in Beirut in 2011. I was curious to see the changes in the Middle East through their eyes and their poetry. There is also an added creative challenge: How do you bring their poems to life on screen? Poems are an art form in their own right, and film is a whole new artistic language. I wanted to explore where these two art forms could meet and create something new together. And I was keen to have an equal number of female and male poets, three men and three women. I proposed the idea to Al Jazeera English during the Edinburgh Pitch hosted by the Scottish Documentary Institute, and they liked the idea!
Yehia Jaber is a well loved and very funny Lebanese poet. Back in June 2011 when I first met him, it was his laughter that immediately drew me in: it is warm, infectious, and can’t help but gather you up in its path. With his shock of white hair and a cigarette constantly perched precariously on his lip, he is everything you imagine a poet to be, questioning society and politics around him, and spot on with his sharp, funny observations of life. I immediately warm to his poems, which are both incredibly funny and deeply emotional. I knew in my gut we had to make a film together.
Lebanon’s history is complicated. The country has been ravaged by so many wars, and Yehia with his own complex past seemed like the perfect quirky character to guide us. "In this comedy that is Lebanon," as he sees it, "we are always re-building and re-war-ing.” He grew up in a Shia family, with a strict father who invested his money into building mosques. Yehia rebelled against his father’s beliefs to become a communist fighter during the civil war and the consequent invasion by Israel. It was the horror and disillusionment of his fighting years that finally led him to picking up his pen. "Now this violence inside me, it will be by words, because there is no blood. Perhaps this is now my play yard to fight by words."
We arrive in Beirut on 12 January, the talented DoP Ian Dodds and myself, with exactly ten days to shoot the film. We are greeted with huge thunderstorms and relentless rain which immediately throws our schedule out the window, as filming anything outside becomes nearly impossible. The plan had been to head south with Yehia on a road trip, towards Israel – to film his old battle fields, visit the small village where he grew up, and find his parents' graves. Instead, the rain means we start in Beirut, in his flat. From his balcony, we can see the exact spot where the civil war began in April 1975, and his many colourful stories of Beirut during the war tumble out.
Even with permission and an excellent fixer (the fabulous Sara Moussa), filming in Beirut is unpredictable. Two minutes into filming from inside the car, through the narrow streets of the Burg Barajneh district in the South of the city, two men see us filming and start pointing and gesticulating wildly. Thirty seconds later, Sara gets a call on her phone: "This is Hizbollah media center. We know you have permission to film, but the atmosphere has changed. Something is happening here for the next 48 hours, and you need to get out of this area fast and now!”
Yehia reverses the car out, and we drive in tense silence for ten minutes. Suddenly heading south on a road trip, despite the rain, seems like a much better option than continuing filming in Beirut. So the next day, we head out of the city.
The urban sprawl and madness of Beirut gives way to the calm turquoise sea, palm trees, and fruit groves of the South. "I know this highway so well," says Yehia. "We drove it up, fleeing as refugees, when Israel invaded the South. Then, as civil war escalated in Beirut, we took this highway back down south again." He laughs. "I’ve been traveling up and down this road all my life."
He tells me a heartbreaking story of how his mother came to Beirut during the war for cancer treatment, and how she died in hospital in Beirut. Yehia then had to spend a week taking her body to and from the Israeli checkpoint, trying to get permission to bury her back in her village in the South. I get a glimpse of the raw anger and pain that fuels much of Yehia’s writing and creativity. Over the next week, he takes us on an incredibly personal and moving journey to his village, to the battle fields, and finally back to Beirut.
Laughter is My Exit will be broadcast on Al Jazeera English from Friday 14 September 2012 at the following times GMT: Friday 19:30; Saturday 14:30; Sunday 04:30; Monday 08:30. British Summer Time is GMT+1h.
Extracts from this film were previously shown at the Bread and Roses Film Festival in London.