AHRC funded film 'About a War' researched the motivation and outcomes of the Lebanese Civil War
Why do we fight? And what happens to us when we stop? These deceptively simple questions are at the heart of About A War, a remarkable feature-length documentary that emerged from an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project exploring the Lebanese Civil War.
Under the keen eye of a blazing a sun a former soldier speaks. “I felt like the war came to me," he says. "And I felt like this war was my chance to change things. A chance to stop struggling in life and have done with feeling defeated all the time.”
About A War explores the complex personal motivations behind the decision to pick up a gun and fight - and what happens when a person attempts to come to terms with what they have done.
The film is perhaps the most visible output from an AHRC funded project investigating infrastructure and war.
“We were looking at how infrastructure - power, water, bridges - was used as a target by state and non-state forces during the 15-year long Lebanese Civil War,” says Daniele Rugo, a filmmaker, scholar and Senior Lecturer in Film at Brunel University, London.
But the research team, which included also Dr Dana Abi Ghanem from Manchester University, quickly became interested in the power of film to communicate with both an academic and non-academic audience, particularly those who wouldn't normally engage with academic work, according to associate producer Abi Weaver, a BAFTA award winning producer/director who has worked across a range of visual media for major UK broadcasters who is currently working on her AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Surrey.
The film is co-produced and edited by Masahiro Hirakubo, who recently won an Oscar for White Helmets.
“The infrastructure project brought us into contact with a number of former combatants,” says Rugo. “Becuase these were the people who were actually involved with disrupting infrastructure. They were the ones who cut off the power and phone lines and we wanted to understand the human side of their actions.
“But as we talked to them we became increasingly interested in what had happened after the war was over, and the role the former combatants took in post-conflict society; in rebuilding and resolution.”
Of all of the interviews the team conducted, three men became the focus of the film: Assad, a right wing Christian intelligence officer; Ahed, a Palestinian refugee fighter and Nassim, a Communist commander.
Through them, About a War unpicks the personal and social motivations, trauma and regret of militiamen who picked up arms during the civil war.
With no official account of the conflict, their testimonies build a multi- perspective picture of a crucial turning point in Lebanese history that radically transformed the Middle East.
“We wanted to explore how these men, as teenagers, were first mobilised,” says Weaver. “We wanted to know how and why they picked up a weapon for the first time, and how they kept on fighting for 15 years.
“We also wanted to explore what happened when the fighting was over and suddenly they had no role play; when they were in a position when they had to acknowledge what they had done as part of a system of violence.”
The interviews were conducted over many hours - and in some cases days - in order to allow the men to fully explore their histories.
“We were able to give them the space to talk about how they came to realise their role in the conflict,” says Rugo. “We started at the point when they cut the wires and worked back to how they got into that position.”
Nowadays, ex-fighters Ahed, Assad and Nassim work towards breaking cycles of violence among young people in Lebanon.
“Their testimony runs counter the general amnesia in the country and the widespread refusal to face up to what went on,” says Weaver.
But while the mens' testimonies delve deeply into issues of violence and politics in the Middle East, the filmmakers believe they also stand as a cautionary tale for a region that continues to be marred by inequality, sectarian divide and war.
“The film is a record of what happened and also exemplary testimony to what happens in armed conflict - and what happens when that conflict is over,” says Rugo. “We wanted to speak to the present as well; this isn't just a historical film.
“These men have gone full circle in many cases: from being participants in conflict to being involved in education programmes helping the next generation find other paths and creating support systems that didn't exist for them.”
And this is all the more important because in many ways the process of healing is still only just beginning in the Lebanon - despite the war ending in 1990 - and the suicide rate is still disproportionately high amongst ex fighters.
“There are still many taboos around the conflict due to the sectarian divides within the Lebanon,” says Weaver. “Ex fighters are afraid to speak out in case by doing so they upset 'their' group.
“But this is changing. We have heard many times how ex fighters enter support programmes with all sorts of fixed ideas about the other side, but then emerge, often years later, with a sense that history is much more multi-sided than they thought.
“They are able to see different perspectives, and that is, for them, a way to finding redemption.”
About A War will be screened in Oxford, 27 February 2019, 18.30pm.