Alex Rowell

Forget but don’t forgive

NOW talks to Reine Mitri, whose new film exploring the roots of Lebanon’s sectarianism has been banned from screening by authorities

Trailer for Reine Mitri’s 2014 film, ‘In This Land Lay Graves of Mine’ (Reine Mitri/Djinn House Productions)

Sitting alone in her Sodeco office Friday afternoon, the mild-mannered filmmaker Reine Mitri doesn’t strike NOW as someone given to “stimulating sectarian and partisan zealotries and disturbing civil peace.”


Her latest work, however – ‘In This Land Lay Graves of Mine’, which premiered in Dubai last year – has been deemed guilty of doing precisely that by the Lebanese government’s official Censorship Committee, in the words of the head of its Cinematic Works department.


Earlier this month, the film – a documentary that takes an outcry over Mitri’s sale of land in her historically Christian hometown to a non-Christian buyer as a point of departure for a wider investigation into sectarianism, land identity, and the ghosts of the civil war that haunt Lebanese of all backgrounds to this day – was denied permission to be screened by the Interior Minister, acting on the recommendation of the Censorship Committee.


NOW spoke to Mitri about the decision, which she calls “ridiculous,” and the implications of it.



NOW: Firstly, how would you define the film, because it seems to be part personal memoir, part history of the civil war?


Reine Mitri: I don’t think I can categorize it in one category, because as you say it’s a blend. At the same time it’s a personal, an intimate film, and it’s also an investigative documentary. And an arthouse film, let’s say; not investigative in a journalistic way. I think it’s a mixture.


NOW: Why the title, ‘In This Land Lay Graves of Mine’?


Mitri: For me it has several connotations. It could have a literal meaning. It’s also because each of the communities in Lebanon or elsewhere, to claim they were the first in a region or area, they prove it by having marked the territory, either by graves, or mosques, or churches. So each one can say that ‘in this land lay graves of mine.’ It’s actually a sentence from a speech by a Shiite cleric, Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, who was talking about the graves of the Shiites in the Jezzine region, which is now a Christian-inhabited region.


But it’s also about, ‘What ties me to this land and not another one’? It’s where my ancestors are buried. When my father died in 1986, we could not bury him in the village. I think this is something in common among all those who were displaced during the war; all of them were not able to bury their dead in their land. And so far many people are still buried elsewhere. So it’s also more symbolic than the direct meaning.


NOW: What was your goal in making the film? Did you have a specific message you wanted to put across?


Mitri: There were several motivations. The main one I’d say was because I find it impossible for me to live or to accept that I live in a divided country. A country divided sectarian-wise. Where almost everyone is afraid of everyone. And I don’t want to live in a purely Christian area, but today it’s almost impossible. So it comes from this, let’s say, rejection or suffering from sectarianism in general, which is something that I live in my daily life, and it bothers me, and it makes it almost impossible for me to live in this country, but I don’t want to leave this country. I want to live here and I always have, and I’m attached to it.


So for me it was a way to go and search for the sources of this ailing of the country. Why are we suffering? Where does fear come from? I had to go and look at the sources of what made things reach the point they’re at. And it was very complicated to go between the layers of the present and the past, and the most challenging was how to talk about sectarianism without falling in a trap of using sectarian language. It’s very tough to be Lebanese and not talk in sectarian language.


NOW: Hopefully we’ll come back to this later, but before that, regarding what happened with General Security – you submitted a request to screen the film in May, is that right?


Mitri: Yeah. I wanted to release it in cinemas, and they said no.


NOW: General Security issued a recommendation to the Interior Minister to prevent its screening, and he then issued a decision to that effect. Is that correct?


Mitri: Yes. Most people are confused about this, because they are used to the fact that General Security for years were the ones who viewed the films and banned them or asked to cut them. So recently, I think four years ago, they created this Censorship Committee – based on a decree that dates from 1947 – formed of representatives of several ministries, and a representative of General Security. This Committee decides for the films that are a little bit ‘delicate’ for the situation, as they think. But this Committee does not have the authority to ban, so it recommends its decision to the Minister of Interior and notifies General Security. This is just a procedure.


NOW: Did you see the decision in writing?


Mitri: No, I asked for it, and they told me I have to apply in writing, so I did, and I’m still waiting [Update: Mitri has since received it.]


NOW: But they told you orally what the reason was?


Mitri: They didn’t tell me, but I heard it on the sound recording on Maharat News [where the Committee official said it “stimulated sectarian and partisan zealotries and disturbed civil peace”]. I was expecting this, but it’s such a ridiculous reason. It’s ridiculous that we live in a country where the speeches of politicians every day on TV could ignite a civil war, and we live in a civil war, practically, even though we’re not fighting every day in the streets. I mean, what do you call what was happening in Tripoli for three years? Isn’t it a civil war? This is why I find it ridiculous that they say a film that’s going to be released in cinemas, and barely 10 people are going to see it, is going to threaten civil peace.


I mean, it’s obvious that me, as an individual; not related to any political party; not armed; I would be the first victim of the civil war. I won’t be the one who profits. So how could it be that I, the first victim, would ignite a civil war? It doesn’t make sense.


NOW: If the official reason makes no sense, what do you think was the real reason?


Mitri: The civil war ended in a way that wasn’t really an end – it was a compromise or truce. And the Taif Agreement came and all the warlords decreed a general amnesty law, and they have been in the government ever since. So of course it’s not in their interests that you come and open the civil war files and say who did what, and say that we live today in a divided country because of you and what you did.


NOW: This is the key, perhaps. Linking the war to the present day.


Mitri: Exactly, and they wouldn’t allow anything to accuse them. Because the film accuses all of them.


NOW: You say parties don’t want to bring up the past. But at one point in the film one of the interviewees says the same thing – “It’s better we don’t talk about what happened.” Why do you think some people themselves agree that silence is better?


Mitri: Partly I think there is a feeling of shame. When you feel that you are a victim – it’s my own analysis and I still cannot find a real answer for it – but especially in Damour and the massacre of Christians by the Druze in the mountain, they never talk about it. I think it’s maybe out of shame. Sometimes when you’re a victim, like when a woman is raped, and they tell her it’s because you were wearing seductive clothes, and she buys it, and she keeps feeling that maybe it’s because of me. This is why most of the massacres were taboo subjects.


NOW: Do you think it’s healthy not to talk about these things?


Mitri: For me, no, it’s never healthy, because when you don’t talk, then you accumulate your anger, and it will mount and mount, and this is what’s happening. People have suppressed their anger, and there is a lot of violence, dormant violence, in Lebanon.


NOW: There was an interesting point in the film where you spoke about feelings of guilt, as a child, that Christian militias had committed atrocities. And then when making the film you said you felt for the first time that Christians had been victims too. Surely this recognition of common suffering, common humanity, is an important message, one that the government should welcome?


Mitri: They don’t want to. I think this question of victim and victimizer – it’s one that faces all countries that had civil wars. And it’s almost always that the victim has been a victimizer, and it’s a circle. This is in no way to banalize violence, by saying ‘we were all victims and we were all criminals.’ It’s to say there is no black-and-white; nobody holds the absolute truth. Each side had something right in their rhetoric or their motivation to fight.


But whenever a party or a person believes they hold the truth, then we’re really dead. Because this is when they start to eliminate the others.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

The film, which premiered in Dubai last year, was denied screening permission in Lebanon this month (Reine Mitri/Djinn House Productions)

I mean it’s obvious that me as an individual; not related to any political party; not armed; I would be the first victim of the civil war. I won’t be the one who profits. So how could it be that I, the first victim, would ignite a civil war?"

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Why don't you publish the entire interview? If not in cinemas, then where can one view the documentary? This is such an important topic, we rarely have outlets like this to talk about the past, and Ms. Mitri makes some very salient points...

    June 29, 2015