Nadine Elali

Talking to Ahmad Kaabour

“Ounadikom” by Ahmad Kaabbour.

This year’s 2010 Cannes International Film Festival screened French director Olivier Assayas’s five-hour epic on the life of the infamous leftist terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez , better known by his alias Carlos “The Jackal”, (played by Édgar Ramírez). One of the key characters in the film is Palestinian militant Wadih Haddad, played by the prominent Lebanese cultural figure, Ahmad Kaabour.

Kaabour is, among other things, a celebrated singer, perhaps best known for his song “Ounadikom” which he composed in 1975 upon the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. His music always aims to shed light on humanitarian issues, some of which are addressed in his latest film. Kaabour sits down with NOWLebanon to discuss the Carlos debut, his role and modern cinema.

Tell me about Carlos.

Ahmad Kaabour:
The movie is a biography of Carlos and the revolutionary left – starting with his decision to fight along with the Palestinians, his coming to Beirut to meet Wadih Haddad, assigning him to missions and coordinating with the German left, the Japanese, Palestinians and Lebanese. 

What is the film’s message?

At its basics it is a story that shows how a man coming from Latin America to fight alongside the poor and the weak turns into a legend, and then becomes a hostage of his own legacy.

Who is your character, Wadih Haddad, and what was his role?

: Wadih Haddad represents the general mood of the “left” that prevailed in the late 60’s and 70’s. [Many] believed in “revolutionary violence,” as seen among the Red Brigades, the Japanese Red Army and other groups in Latin America. Wadih Haddad pioneered the act of hijacking planes and kidnapping figures to promote the Palestinian cause and to strengthen the presence of the Palestinian left.

The Palestinian Popular Front later considered him a gambler with the Palestinian cause and I agree with that, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that he was a true leader and a fighter regardless of all the Western conviction that he was terrorist.

How did you approach this role?

To play the role of Wadih Haddad, I had two options, either to do extensive research to present the exact character and stress that I should also look like him, act like him and talk like him, or search within me, my memory and my sentiments for what is similar between me and Wadih Haddad.  I looked for the cruelty and harshness within me that may resemble Wadih Haddad and then constructed the character on those bases, but at the same time I remained Ahmad Kaabour who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

What did you learn from Wadih Haddad’s role?

: Wadih Haddad was like a wake-up call telling me to pay attention to the fact that if the revolutionary left was not able to get us anywhere, then revolutionary Islamism in all its forms will not get us anywhere either.

What has been the reaction thus far to Carlos?

Kaabour: Foreign press considered the movie objective and free from bias. The movie starts with the murder of one Palestinian leader and they point to the Israeli Mossad, hence the movie does not emphasize that revolutionary violence was only present among the Palestinians and the European left, but that oppression and terrorism were Zionist before it was Arab. There were some criticism about how Carlos’ daily activity was presented, but Olivier stated that the movie was not a documentary of Carlos but a point of view of him.

What do you think of Lebanon’s contribution to film?

Kaabour: We cannot really say that Lebanon has a role in the film market, but the Lebanese do. For example Carlos has seven Lebanese actors in it, all playing major roles. Other than me, there are Fadi Abisamra, Talal Al-Jurdi, Rodny Al-Haddad, Zein Hamdan, Razan Jammal and Badih Abu Chakra. Our presence in the movie was not any less professional than any of the other actors and the critiques pointed that out at Cannes.

But a presence for Lebanon in modern film, there isn’t one.  Lebanon is a small country and doesn’t have the market for film. Film for Lebanon will continue to be attempts by Lebanese directors in collaboration with foreign production. Moreover, with our current economic situation, I doubt that the Lebanese institutions can support Lebanese cinema.

What is your criticism to modern film?

Kaabour: The majority of filmmakers who come to film in Lebanon tend to use Beirut as a decorative tool. There’s a touristic reading of the country’s suffering. As the city was being rebuilt, many rushed to make use of the damage and it bothers me to feel that Beirut and its pain became a decorative tool for European productions.

There are those that are an exception to the rule and here I’d like to point to Nadine Labaky, whose ideas were not dominated by war and its effects. She was able to produce a light movie portraying everyday life, and as a first step, I congratulate her.