hady zaccak
Hady Zaccak is among Lebanon’s most prominent documentary filmmakers, having written and directed over 20 documentaries since 1997.
He has earned a number of awards throughout his long career for several of his films, including A History Lesson (2009), Marcedes (2011), Kamal Joumblatt, witness and martyr (2015) and Ya Omri (104 wrinkles) (2017), which all received theatrical distribution.

Ya Omri was recently playing at Metropolis Cinema, and it’s clearly a passion project of yours. Can you tell us a little bit about what drove you to make this film over such a long period of time?

I started filming my grandmother in 1992 when I was 18 years old. I wanted to preserve her memory because I was afraid she would pass away. I would sometimes end up filming the same stories, including the story of her return from Brazil in the 1930’s.
When she turned 100 years old, I noticed a transformation in her memory. There was even a time when she didn’t recognize me, which frightened me. The initial goal was to simply archive her, then it transformed into a film project. I worked with a small crew, and we filmed her for another 2 years between 2011 until 2013, documenting the aging process, and what remained of her stories.

How did you get your start in documentary filmmaking? Why did you choose documentaries over traditional narrative filmmaking?

I spent my childhood and teenage years during the Lebanese civil war. I was searching for something important, which was the missing image of my city, Beirut. In the 90s, with the end of the war, I wanted to really discover my city like I never had before.
This was the first step towards documentary filmmaking. I always had a fascination with searching for history in a country that has an amnesia problem. This is how the war ended; with a collective amnesia. Documentary filmmaking was a way to dig into Lebanese history without hiding the truth. I started writing a book about the history of cinema in Lebanon, and it led me to use everything that documentaries offer: a cinematic tool, the marriage of imagery and sound, and telling the story of a history. It was a great way to experiment, especially in a country that doesn’t have an infrastructure for cinema production.

What are some of the challenges you face as a documentary filmmaker in Lebanon? Is it tough to get wide distribution for a documentary?

The distribution aspect is a problem, but there has been one shining light in the last few years: Metropolis Cinema. It’s a portal to films people may never get to see otherwise, as it nurtures the audience’s hunger for alternative films and documentaries.
Ya Omri is my fourth feature to be released theatrically, which is exceptional in the Arab world. This is great since it gives documentaries a cinematic outlet, and it gives audiences something new to watch.
Although piracy runs rampant here, DVDs and online distribution are still a good way to get your work noticed and appreciated. Unfortunately, local television channels aren’t much help in the production process since they’re more interested in talk shows and scripted series.
Festivals are also a great way to get noticed and to get some distribution, especially with all the festivals that we have in the Arab region. Ya Omri actually premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December of 2016.
A big challenge that doesn’t have to do with distribution is the perceived danger of a camera by security and civil forces. We live in an age where you can see everything using Google Maps, but when you point your camera at something, it’s like pointing a weapon. You’re considered armed and dangerous, and you end up being watched. It’s a little strange, but those are the rules.
As filmmakers, we’re also always facing different kinds of censorship when it comes to filming and then screening the final product. Censorship comes from different sides, not just from the state; there’s religious censorship as well as societal censorship. But again, this is the situation and we have to deal with it.

Your filmography points to a certain infatuation with Beirut, and the Middle East in general. Is there a common theme that connects all of your work?

I think that my main goal is to dig into the history of Lebanon and the region. I like to tackle subjects related to memory. I’m facing my own kind of amnesia, and I like to focus on points that are sometimes forgotten and left out of our history.
My primary audience is the local audience, and I want to talk about our collective memory. When you start locally, it’s easier to reach a wider audience. Sometimes I focus on details that have more of an effect on people who are very up-to-date with the country’s current sociopolitical situation, but my films aren’t strictly for those audiences; I want to expand beyond documentary enthusiasts so that we can deal with issues that touch all of us.
Since the Arab world has become like a big Lebanon due to general instability in the area, whenever I talk about something Lebanese, it tends to apply to other countries; I’m talking about something we can all relate to as Arabs.

What can we expect to see from you in the near future?

It usually takes me between 3 to 4 years to finish a film because I give the research process all the time it requires. My next film will be related to history, but from a different angle. I like to compare my work to filming a house – the same house – but that house has many different entrances. You can go in through the front door, the back door, windows, or even the patio. But it’s still the same house, and I still have a long way to go before I’ve explored it all.

by Anthony Sargon