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Under The Bombs: blending fact and fiction to bear witness to war

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
Philippe Aractingi’s latest film was made during and about the aftermath of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon. He spoke to Simon Assaf.
Issue 2093
Zelna looks out over Israel’s destruction of Lebanon in the film, Under the Bombs
Zelna looks out over Israel’s destruction of Lebanon in the film, Under the Bombs

Under The Bombs is an extraordinary film. Shot in Lebanon following Israel’s bombing in 2006, the actors improvise a script while real events unfold around them.

The film revolves around Zelna (Nada Abou Farhat) who returns on the first day of the ceasefire to look for her son and sister who were trapped in Kherbet Salam, a Shia Muslim village in southern Lebanon.

She hires Tony (George Khabbaz), a Christian taxi driver to help in her search. Their journey takes them into the destruction and chaos of the war.

How did the idea of Under The Bombs come to you?

The film was my reaction to the war. Either I gave in to despair or I tried to channel my hatred and anger into something creative.

The idea of blending fiction and documentary first came to me in 1989 during the last days of Lebanon’s civil war.

I wanted to put actors in the middle of the chaos and allow them to improvise a story. But what stopped me at the time was fear.

Since then I have made 40 documentaries, a feature film and worked on improvisation.

So when the war started again in the summer of 2006, I gathered the actors and crew with an idea of making an improvised film about life under the bombs.

We began to shoot scenes during a brief ceasefire and then in the days following the end of the war.

At first I thought this was an opportunity to develop the “docudrama genre”. But I soon realised that what we were making was a film about those who were dying and those whose lives were being changed by the war.

Did you have an idea for the plot?

I had no script when the war started. Three days into the war I called the actors and began filming. My family was evacuated to France and from there I was able to get financial backing. I slipped back into Lebanon and fortunately the war finished.

So we went into production with the whole premise of the film changing.

The opening scenes were filmed while the war was on. The rest was shot during the first days of the ceasefire. We took all this footage and developed a script.

We began to realise that this film was no longer about the war itself, but its impact on the lives of ordinary people.

It is rare for this kind of film to focus on those who suffer so directly from the war. We were bearing witness to the war.

We were in tears when one elderly refugee told of how she lost all her family. It was not like making a film, it was about living the film.

How difficult was it for actors to act at the same time as witnessing harrowing scenes?

It was tough. The actors had to improvise as they reacted to refugees, officials and events.

We forgot about the reasons for the war when we were confronted by its victims. They provided the real context in which the story unfolds. Fact and fiction became intertwined.

When searching for her sister, Zelna witnesses the disinterring of those who died to be reburied in “martyrs’ graves”. You then film the funerals. How difficult was this?

It was very hard. We were making a film, while around us was real grief.

This became very tough. We began to argue with each other about whether we could use these scenes. We began to question our motives and sincerity – were we bearing witness or were we just exploiting people’s suffering?

A pivotal scene in the film is when Tony confronts his relatives who supported the Israeli occupation. Did you feel it was important to get all sides of Lebanon in the film?

The Christian villagers had a discussion about sectarianism and the problems they faced. We turned that into a script, then gave it back to them as their lines.

They began to make changes and the most important was that they added the line “we were forced to work with the devil”.

We found that you learn more about the truth from real people than fiction.

Under the Bombs is released in Britain on 21 March

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