Region through an artist’s eyes: Lebanese film director Philippe Aractingi

Lebanon Traveler meets filmmaker Philippe Aractingi at his production studio’s premises in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Badaro. The Lebanese director shares his memories of growing up in Beirut and how the city’s chaos can be a catalyst for creativity.

To the newcomer, navigating Beirut can seem daunting. The city, chaotic and changeable, can be a challenge to get around. Finding the offices of Lebanese filmmaker Philippe Aractingi was a timely reminder of that.

What had at first seemed like a simple service ride, ended up with a phone call outside the Ministry of Justice – wrongly pinned as the office of Fantascope, Aractingi’s production company – along with a series of instructions that would have baffled those unfamiliar with the city.

After finally locating Aractingi – in the building with the green windows and the statue of Mary outside – LT sat with the award-winning director to discover more about his connection with Beirut.

“There is a feeling of constant change, which is exciting when you come to Beirut and worrying when you live there,” says Aractingi.

Born in 1964, the director grew up near the Green Line, the divide between East and West Beirut, and was just ten when the fighting broke out.  The Civil War would be the catalyst for his own career. Dreams of being a poet were cast aside as “harsh reality” had a stronger pull.

He began as a stringer for foreign journalists before taking his own photographs of the conflict. Then, in 1989, aged just 25, Aractingi made his first move to France and launched his career as a documentary filmmaker.

“I always wanted to become a filmmaker, and I started filming what was in front of me. This is why I am in often in documentaries, because reality was more present, more strong, than fiction,” Aractingi explains.

Aractingi is forever documenting the world around him. He points to a case for his camera on his belt, joking it is like a holster for a gun. The camera is Aractingi’s constant companion – he goes nowhere without it.

“I take a lot of pictures of Beirut because what you see today maybe won’t exist tomorrow,” he explains. “The city is always changing, it’s a moving place. The ground is moving underneath you all the time.”

Through his work Aractingi has seen the cycles of changes that have evolved and shaped the Lebanese capital. Due out next year is an installation he has been working on – with images of Beirut before, during and after the war, as well as images of the city today.

The director’s relationship with Beirut is one familiar to many Lebanese – a cycle of flight and return. He stayed in France from 1989 to 2001, traveling the world and producing films on topics as varied as Buddhist archaeology in Sri Lanka to acrobat children in Morocco and giraffes in South Africa.

But while the diversity of these films helped shape him as a director – he sees himself as one who “loves playing with different styles because he has been influenced by the differences in the world” – it was his feature films that were the projects he really wanted to make.

His return to Beirut in 2001 facilitated this new phase of his filmmaking, with feature films Bosra (2005), Under the Bombs (2008) and Heritages (2013) all based in Lebanon. It was the Under the Bombs, partially shot just days after the end of the 2006 war – a war that saw Aractingi and his family leave Beirut for Paris once again – that garnered the director critical acclaim.

The film, like most of Aractingi’s work, is a journey. Following a mother desperate to find her son in the aftermath of the war, and shot with a mix of scripting and improvisation, it has the actual destruction of south Lebanon as its backdrop.

“I grew up in chaos … and in a way I have used my creativity to find a way to get out of chaos. So Under the Bombs was a typical way for me to be creative, or to overcome the war. To be more resilient within what was going on with my life,” he explains.

This resilience is shared by most Lebanese. At times Aractingi eschews his motorbike – helpful for weaving in and out of Beirut’s congestion –  and travels by service to keep an ear to the ground. “I work a lot and work is not very useful for inspiration. You need to know people, you need to listen to them, you need to hear them speaking,” he says.

Hearing Beirut is the focus of his latest feature film due out in 2017. Listen is billed as “a journey through sound,” and follows the story of a sound engineer who sends messages to his love.

The film is a way to really listen to Beirut, a “way of discovering through the ear”. He moves out onto the balcony from his office, pointing to the cranes in the distance. “You have the churches, the minarets, the cranes,” he says.

“The sound of construction, the sound of prayers, and each one is preaching his own religion.”

Like many who grew up before the war, he remembers a greener, quieter city, and is critical of the high rises spreading out from Downtown and forever altering the shape of Beirut and its communities.

“Funnily enough the Green Line was often very silent,” he says, remembering the ambiance of trees and birds that hid silent but deadly snipers.

“It was quite amazing because I was in an environment that was very deadly, very dangerous but at the same time very calm.”

Beirut itself has been the focus of several of Aractingi’s works. After the Civil War he rushed home to take pictures of the city as it was, before Solidere’s reconstruction. The 1993 film Beirut of Stone and Memories paired his images with the words of Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni.

A photography series, Night on Beirut, first displayed in Paris in 2011, was a project he undertook in between films that saw him photographing the nocturnal face of the city.

“It is quite interesting to see Beirut by night because of its light and the way it’s calm,” he says, describing the differences in colors and light in different neighborhoods – the ever present “madness” of the city.

A Beiruti at heart, he hesitates to say chaos is what keeps drawing him back, but there is no denying that the changeable nature of Beirut is one that inspires creativity among its inhabitants.

“I would say Beirut has to be written with an ‘s’. Many Beiruts,” he says. “It is what makes it interesting. It is what makes it undefinable.”

For more on the work of Philippe Aractingi visit his website.

A version of this article was first published in Lebanon Traveler magazine, December 2016 issue. 

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