According to the documentary, The Lebanese Rocket Society, that’s the sort of future we could have expected. The Cold War era brought about the infamous space race – the Sputnik and Apollo missions and all the American Sci-fi flicks that followed. And, as far as we were concerned, Lebanon wasn’t even in the running. That is, until the Lebanese Rocket Society.
The directors of Lebanese Rocket Society, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, dug deep enough to discover that Lebanon, a comparatively diminutive country in the region, had its own “space program.” Of a sort.
In 1960, Manoug Manougian, a charismatic mathematics professor at Haigazian University in Beirut, aspired to fulfill one of his childhood dreams to explore rocket science. In a leap of faith, he organized a group of students to conduct experiments that would create and send rockets into the sky. Though the rockets only reached the edge of space, the project’s success spoke volumes.
With all the political conflicts in the region, such an experiment would be considered utterly absurd today. Manougian and his students made it happen solely because they insisted that the purpose of the experiments was to provide advancements in science and research. He hoped that, one day, his team would contribute their expertise to help Russian or American scientists in their own quest for rocketry and space exploration.
The dream came to an end in 1964 when Manoug got a call from then president Chehab, ordering him to terminate the project. The reasons were vague, but in various interviews throughout the documentary, accusations seem to target France.
But this movie is eons away from politics.
Lebanese Rocket Society starts off with a beautiful cross-pan of the “Cedar 4” rocket. During the first few seconds, we notice the bright blood-red and bleached white colors and think, “Oh that’s just a replica of Tintin’s Destination Moon rocket.” But then, imprinted on the side of the rocket in a majestic green, is the Lebanese Cedar. It seems unbelievable today that this piece of technology was created by the Lebanese. Well, believe it.
The first scene, filled with surprise and a futuristic feel, sets the theme and style of the documentary. What is as fascinating as the story itself is how Joana and Khalil came to piece it together. If you asked your grandparents, “Have you heard of the Lebanese Rocket Society?”, or told them the story that took place in the early 60’s, only the name Manoug Manougian might ring a bell.
Anything related to the Haigazian University project seemed to have disappeared from history books. Half a dozen of photographs of the rocket launchings remain in Lebanon, along with the famous postage stamps, issued in 1964, to commemorate the 21st anniversary of independence. It depicted one of the Cedar rockets traveling close to the moon–quite an intriguing stamp for someone who has never heard of the LRS.
It only took a trip to Florida, where Manoug has been living and teaching since the late 60’s, for Joana and Khalil to discover that all the footage and photographs had been delicately kept on his bookshelves, next to some of his aged Asimov novels. His passion and dedication for science fiction and rockets stems from his childhood, and it still shows as he tells his story on camera.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the archival footage. The quality of the nearly 50 year old film shown in the documentary is spectacular. Impeccably scanned black and white 16mm film from the 60’s is surely not to miss if it’s playing at a theatre near you. Close to the final part of the film, Joana narration reminds the viewer that a fundamental question needs to be asked: “What would have happened if the project hadn’t come to an end?” What follows is a sequence of animations illustrating Beirut in the not too distant future, had the LRS continued its exploration of rocketry.
Wishful scenes of an LRS space museum, as well as a satellite in the shape of a Cedar orbiting the Earth, a futuristic subway and transportation system and, finally, a homage to Carl Sagan’s golden disc project sent on Voyager I in 1977, containing sound-clips of animals and humans, in hope of reaching Extraterrestrial life. Only in the documentary, the golden disk contained clips of Lebanese chatter.
It’s apparent from the documentary that Joana and Khalil care very much about the story they’re telling. Their project did not end after the release of the film. They worked on art installations that were exhibited in Sharjah, took part in radio shows attempting to persuade listeners to recount their memories of the Lebanese Rocket Society, and even built an exact replica of the Cedar 4 rocket and installed it at the Haigazian University courtyard. They give hope–ambition–that the stars are our destination.
Who knows? Maybe that hopeful and ambitious quote from first paragraph might still be a possibility.
The Lebanese Rocket Society will be screened at the Ayam Film Festival on the 16th of March at 8:00 PM at Metropolis Empire Sofil, Achrafieh.
Another avant-premiere will be hosted by Nasawiya and The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) also at Metropolis Empire Sofil on the 28th of March at 7:00pm.