“Behind Me Olive Trees” is a rare testimony of a reality that has never been offered comprehensive coverage, yet exists: the dilemma faced by returning former South Lebanon Army members and their families and their rejection by local villagers who sometimes greatly suffered at their hands. This is however a real phenomenon that affects many parts of society in South Lebanon, regardless of their religion or sect.

Sister and brother Mariam and George Mansour are the children of a South Lebanon Army soldier that fled the country to Israel by fear of retaliation when the latter withdrew in 2000. When they find themselves on their own, they are fostered by priests who decide to send them back to their home village, Deir Mimas, through the Red Cross, to live with their grandparents.

The return to the homeland is not quite as expected: while Mariam struggles to get a job and is eventually fired because of what her father did, George is called a traitor by a classmate and subsequently expelled from school for having beaten the boy.

This promising short movie by Pascale Abou Jamra has a delicate take on the situation and highlights the fact that despite everything, people remain human. For instance, Mariam and George’s dad fled with his family to Israel because of his activities in the South Lebanese Army, and eventually fell into alcoholism and womanising and abandoned both his wife and kids. Unable to find his place in a society, he hurriedly flees due to a lack of better options and feels he cannot really fit in despite his political opinions.

What’s most striking however is the weight the two youngsters have to carry every second of their lives, regardless of their innocence. Faced with their family’s reputation they cannot escape and must bear the consequences. Everything in this film reminds us of the hardships of ordinary people’s lives: Mariam and George’s mother who became the family’s breadwinner when their father left the household and worked herself to death in the church where she prepared meals for the priests. Back in Lebanon, Mariam who accepts the first job she finds (in a hot-dog van by the border) to pay for her little brother’s school fees while their grandparents are forced to sell their donkey – although essential for the running of the little family olive business – to get a bit of cash.

The true strength of “Behind Me Olive Trees” lies in the apparent absence of violence in the rejection of the siblings by the villagers, highlighting the complexity of the issue. Men are nice to Mariam because they see her as vulnerable and somehow – an attractive – part of the community, but everyone’s real feelings burst out when George’s schoolmate insults him, revealing loudly what everybody whispers behind closed doors…
“Behind Me Olive Trees” was the first student short film ever to represent Lebanon at the Cannes Festival. It was screened on May 23, 2012.

By Coline Houssais