Yasmina Hatem

Talking to Hady Zaccak

Capturing Lebanon’s history with documentary films

Filming in Moukhtara, near the Jumblatt family estate in the Chouf district
Filming Kamal Jumblatt

It all started early on for Hady Zaccak. It was during the war – one of the wars anyway – around 1989, when he was 14 years old. School was out and there wasn’t much to do but sit at home and watch movies. And so he did. “Lots and lots of movies,” he says. “During that time, cinema became a way of escaping.” He began to write short stories about things going on around him, and recorded “short audio films” because he didn’t have a camera to capture images.


At the same time, he had a great interest in history; he wanted to know why we were at war, what had brought Lebanon to this point. He was also interested in the history of cinema in Lebanon, which he eventually wrote a book about.


He knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, but at that stage he thought he wanted to make fiction films. “When you fall in love with cinema, you don’t fall in love with documentaries,” he says. But soon enough, he found that documentaries encompass his two main interests: filmmaking and history.


And so, at the end of the 1990s, he presented his Master’s film after studying filmmaking at IESAV. It was mixture of documentary and fiction: In “1000 and 1000 nights” (1999) he used the story telling style of the Arabian Nights to tell the story of the Arab/Israeli conflict.


“We live in a very unstable country,” explains Zaccak. “And making films is like therapy. Like we’re trying to understand what is happening. And even if we find no solutions, at least we’re making films!”


Because there is no consensus on history in Lebanon from after its independence, Zaccak feels like there are “plenty of subjects to deal with.” The subjects he is interested in working on are those that haunt him. “Memory,” he says “because we have a dramatic problem of amnesia in this country. Sectarianism and other forms of sickness we’ve seemed to grow comfortable with. The Palestinian cause. The fact that the Arab world is becoming like a big Lebanon.”


In his latest film which was released in theaters, “Marcedes” (2012), Zaccak chose cars as his characters, driving the entire story: a contemporary history of Lebanon through the eyes of Mercedes cars. “I was fed up with filming people, I needed a break. Cars were more cooperative and silent!”


Currently, he is working on a documentary about Kamal Jumblatt, which was suggested to him by journalist Giselle Khoury and the Kamal Joumblatt Friends Association. It is the first time that one of his films has focused on a political figure; but Zaccak says Kamal Jumblatt wasn’t an ordinary politician. “It’s taken one year of research, reading all the books he wrote, reading the books that were written about him, and preparing the relationship with the people who will end up being filmed.” Because in a documentary, unlike fiction, you cannot cut and repeat if the take isn’t nice.


“When you start working on a film, everything around you, anything you read or watch or talk about is being absorbed in a way in your film,” he says. Also, writing a documentary is very different from writing fiction, because it’s a process that continues throughout every day of shoot, depending on what was said or what happened. “In a fiction film, the director is God,” says Hady. “In a documentary film, God is your co-director!” But then his favorite part is to look at what was shot and “play with it like a jigsaw puzzle,” rewriting as he goes.


His recipe for success is a mix of long months of research, a close-knit 'family' crew which he formed and has maintained throughout the years, and the fact that they all try to experiment together. Together they created ZAC Films, composed of Hady Zaccak (researcher, writer, producer, and director), Muriel Aboulrouss (cinematographer), Emile Aouad (music composer and sound designer), Mouhab Chanehsaz (sound engineer), and Elias Chahine (editor).


His constant dream is that his next project will be better than the one before.


And which one is he most proud of? “Same answer. I’m always most proud of my next film!"

Filming in Moukhtara, near the Jumblatt family estate in the Chouf district. (Image via Bachar Khattar)

“'In a fiction film, the director is God,” says Hady. “In a documentary film, God is your co-director!'”