Lea Najjar and her surprising story of Beirut pigeons

Lea Najjar was born in Vienna in 1994. Her mother is German, her father Lebanese. She grew up in the Austrian capital until her family decided to return to Lebanon. She was fourteen. A few years later, after a first year at the AUB (American University of Beirut), she continued her training in documentary filmmaking at the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

It was her friend Alia Haju – Lebanese multidisciplinary artist (filmmaker, illustrator, musician, photographer and videographer) who moves between Beirut and New York – with whom she has collaborated on several projects since (including Kash Kash), who will transmit her taste for the seventh art by taking her “out to hunt stories”. And it is quite naturally the stories of her father’s country that she will go after.

“Lebanon is so crazy, so rich in history, in images full of contradictions,” she exclaims. It’s a very inspiring, disconcerting, sometimes even disconcerting place that I seek to understand through my films. Lea Najjar explores the country, interested and curious to discover its inhabitants, their unique perspectives, their surprising stories, because for her “the most interesting (stories) are those that already exist”. Indeed, the young director says nothing; it is her atypical, unusual and so special encounters to which she gives a voice, which share their stories. His productions have no scenarios, are without actors or simulation; the characters are inhabitants of Beirut, Lebanon, neighbors, witnesses, who come to serve as proof, reveal their truth, and reveal their intimacy and share their secrets.

“A lot of things that happen in the world, if someone wrote them down and made them into fictional films, people would say, ‘That’s a bit too exaggerated, that doesn’t make sense, that’s not not realistic!”, but in documentaries, there is no such problem. Indeed, Lea Najjar’s films hide nothing, they are pure, objective and realistic. His work is only an exact representation of human and social realities, neither idealized nor falsified. The documentary format gives the young woman the legitimate excuse of her realism, despite the fiction and surrealism that appear to us on the screen, and come to merge there. Lea Najjar thus paints a portrait of Lebanon that is as faithful and authentic as it is surprising and creative. Reality and fiction mix, borders blur, sometimes almost disappear. His achievements are like allegories, where each of his works depicts Lebanon under its specific characteristics.

Injustice and helplessness in the face of the power of money in Janette (2014), where Madame Janette, the only female fisherman on the coast of Beirut, tells her story about the transformation of the city and her love for the sea: “ The sea is man’s best friend. She takes, but she does not give. »

The absurd, patriotism and identity crisis in Almania (2016), where German flags hang proudly from Armenian and Palestinian windows and balconies that line the corners of Beirut, and questions a misplaced patriotism of Armenian and Palestinian minorities who have found an anchor in a foreign standard.

Madness and schizophrenia in 2023’s Ship of Fools, where coastal man Abu Samrah has been training to become Superman ever since he heard a supernatural force on television giving him a mission to fight evil in Beirut.

Undoubtedly original scenarios, surely surprising, perhaps even barely thinkable, but undoubtedly real scenarios, inspired by real life. Wouldn’t Lea Najjar and the documentary insinuate that fiction and reality are alike, that reality is fiction as much as fiction is reality?

Portrait of the young director Lea Najjar, with whom the boundary between reality and fiction disappears. Editing by Tarek Riman

Beirut jealous of its pigeons

His film Kash Kash, presented in a single screening on Thursday September 29 at the Grand Cinemas Galaxy at 8 p.m., and whose original idea was to only film the players of kash mamam (an ancestral game where the kashash – name given to the players – try to capture other players’ pigeons in their volley) from the flat roofs of Beirut, has become an allegory of resilience, freedom and hope. This opus closes the eighth edition of German Film Week, organized by the Goethe-Institut.

Initially, when Lea Najjar and Alia Haju (co-author) discovered kash hamam, they saw in this sport a celestial apolitical network allowing to bring a new perspective on Lebanon, partly explained by the fact that the players come from all political, religious and social horizons. But the team will quickly be confronted with the vagaries and the indomitability of Beirut. Filming, which began just days before the thawra (the protest movements that began on October 17, 2019 in Lebanon), was extended by more than three years due to the events. Three years during which the team will have to continually rethink the idea, forced to overcome the exceptional contingencies that Beirut and Lebanon have gone through during this period. So many historical events that the team will finally decide to integrate into the documentary, experienced through the eyes of Radwan, Abu Mustafa, Hassan and Aisha, the four lovers of Beirut pigeons, who participate in the magic and poetry of Kash Cash.

“We just wanted to make a film about kash haman, which doesn’t show the conflicts that take place within the city, but when we started shooting, the revolution was starting! says Lea Najjar. When the thaura arrived, we didn’t want to integrate it into the film at the risk of spoiling the timelessness of the game (which has been played for hundreds of years). At first we didn’t make the connection, because we didn’t understand what was going on. We were in the streets, thinking that we couldn’t continue filming the birds (…) some members of the team were saying: “I want to go demonstrate!”. We thought it was only going to last two or three weeks, but the people stayed on the streets for months. We had to stop the project for a long time. (…) As the revolution continued and inserted itself into everyone’s life, we realized that we couldn’t separate the thawra from the film. (…) Then everything started to go from bad to worse with the coronavirus, the inflation, the violence during the demonstrations, then the double explosion…” Everything was shaken up, redesigned, readjusted. Even the original main character had to be changed; Beirut, eternal drama queen, was seized with jealousy for the birds and ended up replacing the pigeons who were supposed to have the star: “We wanted to do a portrait on the game and we ended up doing a portrait of the city, through the game.”

For the director, “Kash Kash has turned into real therapy”. After August 4, 2020, the team was about to stop, but when they realized that the four kashash were still playing, filming resumed: “They didn’t stop playing; and as long as they were playing, we had to film. We were inspired by the players who continued to climb on the roofs despite the events. The game had become more than a game, it had become a means of escape. (…) Radwan, a few days after the explosion, despite the fact that his house had been completely destroyed, continued to play from his roof. »

Kash Kash – which has already received the Next: Wave Award at the prestigious CPH:DOX documentary festival in Copenhagen and the Special Jury Prize at the Millenium Festival in Brussels – shows the strength of resilience of Beirut and Lebanon through these four kashashes, which although hard-hit by events, they continue to gather, play and form communities despite the chaos, from the flat roofs of the city, which become their outlets, their havens of peace, where they come to find hope and freedom.

Screening on Thursday, September 29 at Grand Cinemas Galaxy, at 8 p.m.

German Film Week Program

The German Film Week, organized by the Goethe-Institut, runs until September 29 in various locations in Beirut and presents eight recent works of various genres.

The kick-off was given yesterday Thursday September 22, on the esplanade of the Sursock museum, with Next Door, the first film of Daniel Brül, one of the most popular actors in Germany, known for his roles in Good Bye Lenin! and Inglourious Bastards. Also on the program, the multi-award winning science fiction film I’m Your Man by Maria Schrader, a playful futuristic romance, deep and unusual in its expression of the relationship between humans and androids, on Tuesday September 27 at 8 p.m. at the Grand Galaxy. Highlights include Franziska Stünkel’s The Last Execution, the true story of an East German spy, on Saturday September 24 at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy and Anne Zohra Berrached’s Copilot featuring Lebanese actors and the director by Lebanese-German photography Christopher Aoun, a feature film inspired by the true story of 9/11 terrorist Ziad Jarrah and his girlfriend Aysel Şengün, on Friday, September 23 at 8 p.m. at Galaxy. The Salle Montaigne at the Institut français is hosting the film Toubab by Florian Dietrich on September 26 at 8 p.m., and the Ishbilia theater in Saïda presents The Peppercorns and the Secret of the Deep Sea by Christian Theede on Friday September 23 at 7 p.m. The same film will be screened on September 24 at 7:30 p.m., at Action 4 Hope, Bar Elias (Zahlé).

The Week will close with the regional premiere of the Lebanese-German co-production Kash Kash by Lea Najjar.

Free admission, but reservation required on MetropolisCinema.net

Lea Najjar was born in Vienna in 1994. Her mother is German, her father Lebanese. She grew up in the Austrian capital until her family decided to return to Lebanon. She was fourteen. A few years later, after a first year at the AUB (American University of Beirut), she continued her training in documentary filmmaking at the Filmakademie…

Lea Najjar and her surprising story of Beirut pigeons