Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Lebanese Rocket Society – Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige

The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France/Qatar) 90 minutes

In the 1960s, as the space race was heating up between the global superpowers, a small recently established Armenian university in Beirut was conducting its own rocket program of sorts. The program was headed by Manoug Manougian, a young professor of mathematics at Haigazian University, and it launched ten solid-fuel Cedar rockets over the course of seven years. The program had no avowed political intentions – something inconceivable today – but political leaders from across the Arab world – Nasser in particular – did try to get in on the action, albeit without success.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s third feature traces the history of the program, tracking down the protagonists – Manougian is now a professor in Florida while the university’s president at the time John Markarian is living in retirement in Pennsylvania. The film begins with some coy humour – the directors’ rudimentary Google research throws up nothing but Hezbollah Katyushas as representing ‘Lebanese rockets’. A trip to Haigazian University is more fruitful, though the archive news reports are all in Armenian and they have to get a student to translate. This front-ending of the research difficulties is a bit unconvincing as, even if Manougian’s rocket program has been largely forgotten, it is not all that obscure. There are ample witnesses to it, particularly Harry Koundakjian, the father of Lebanese photojournalism, who documented several of the launches. There is also Youssef Wehbé, a former army officer charged with observing it, who says that the government’s interest in the project was ultimately of a military nature.

The idealism of Manougian and his students was eventually quashed when the Lebanese government, under international pressure, put a stop to the project in the late 1960s. The researchers themselves had also exceeded their own expectations, to the extent that they almost got themselves into trouble, when one rocket made it all the way to Cyprus. It landed in the sea but there was an international complaint from the British government, who had (and still have) a military base on the island. What might have been is imagined in a futuristic animated sequence of Lebanese space travel at the end of the film.

The Lebanese Rocket Society is a conventional enough documentary and lacks the spark of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s earlier films Perfect Day and Je veux voir, both of which straddled fiction and documentary. As in those films however, the civil war looms large; in a way, the real focus of the film is not the rocket program per se but the society that was lost to the 15-year conflict. In many respects, Lebanon has weathered the last forty years surprisingly well – despite the bloody conflict, the rise of terrorism, occupation by both Israel and Syria and sectarian tension which keeps the country forever teetering on the brink of collapse, the country is still there. There has been none of the wholesale ethnic cleansing and population movements that have seen countries elsewhere in the world emptied of ethnic groups throughout the 19th century. Even Lebanon’s Christian community is faring much better than many others in the Middle East.

That instability has its own impact on the filmmakers. As part of a range of art installations to accompany the film, they decided to rebuild one of the rockets and give it as a gift to Haigazian University. Of course, they have to persuade authorities they have no military intent. They garner the requisite permits only to have to start all over again when Saad Hariri’s government falls in January 2011. It is this sense of portraying a historical flux that the film itself inhabits that gives The Lebanese Rocket Society an unexpected edge. This film may be a much lighter one than its predecessors but Hadjithomas and Joreige continue to have a lot to say about a small country with a painful but fascinating history.