T. E. Lawrence
In 2009, acclaimed Lebanese filmmakers and visual artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, stumbled on the same commemorative stamps in a collection of archive photographs and took it upon themselves to rediscover the meaning of these rockets, what they represented and the story of how they came into existence. They embarked on a journey through crackly archival footage and old newspaper clippings, and it led them somewhere surprising that says as much about the world we live in today as it does about the utopian early 60s when the rocket project started.
A recent review in indieWIRE (which incidentally goes on to give the film an ‘A’ grade), starts off with the following paragraph: “Before the United States went to the moon, Lebanon had a space program. OK, what’s the punchline? This prodigiously researched film reminds you that the most improbable documentaries are often inspired by facts that you can’t make up.” And indeed, the story is beyond in improbable.
In 1960, a group of Armenian-Lebanese mathematicians, physicists and engineers, mainly from the Haigazian University in Beirut, took on the lofty moniker of the Lebanese Rocket Society and attempted the slightly ambitious feat of launching a rocket into space from the top of a hill at the edge of the Lebanese capital. Predictably, after shooting up into the sky, the rocket rapidly plummeted to its watery demise in the Mediterranean.
But the group of scientists, led by the charismatic and endearing Manoug Manougian who features throughout the film, would not admit defeat, and went back to work making more elaborate versions of the Cedar rocket. The rocket launches got progressively more successful, and caught the headlines, proving very popular with a country eager to dream. The beginning of the end of the adventure would come when the the Lebanese Army co-opted the program. In 1967, amid regional turmoil and warfare, the program came hurtling back to Earth. It was terminated, the laboratory was shut down, the utopian dream was forgotten and many involved in the project emigrated.
Before becoming a film, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s exploration of this historical fact first took the form of an art project at last year’s Sharjah Biennale, where they placed a white replica of one of the Cedar rockets in the city’s heritage quarter. The artists were firmly saying that they wanted this rocket, that once represented idealism and scientific curiosity, to replace the bellicose rockets of more recent Arab iconography.
In Beirut itself, the artists wanted to challenge the burying of the memory of these rockets, by re-enacting the transportation of ‘Cedar 4’ through the streets of the city, where it had been been erected as a monument in Hagazian College before being taken to Sharjah temporarily. The logistics of carrying even a sculpture of a rocket, because that is what it is after all, were ludicrously complex in a Lebanon, and a region, now riddled with insecurity. This passage makes for one of the film’s most poignant modern-day scenes. It is a truly emotional film, and a universal story, tying together painstakingly researched archival reels with contemporary interviews with the people involved in the Lebanese Rocket Society in the 60s and footage of the artists bringing one of the rockets back to life, and even an animation sequence of a utopian alternate present. All these elements led the BBC to praise the film for its ‘adventurous storytelling’ during its premiere at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival.
So the documentary, and the works of art that surround it, become a meditation on the nature of dreams and the possibilities of modernity that captured Arab imaginations in the 60s. It is also a very contemporary film, that frames these decade-old dreams within a new reality, that of a Middle East in the midst of revolution and upheaval. An Arab world with its complexities and seeming impossibilities, daring to dream again.
As with their ‘How Soon is Now: A Tribute to Dreamers’ show in Beirut, Hadjithomas and Joreige ultimately explore the role of imagination and dreams in the elaboration of a common narrative in Lebanon and the Arab world. And they conclude that nothing can be more important today than the ability to dream of a better future.