More than 30 years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, families have been unable to find the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Seventeen thousand people were disappeared during the conflict, and there are more than 100 untouched mass graves lying beneath schools, hotels, agricultural plots and busy roads. The eye-opening and deeply moving documentary The Soil and the Sea reveals the truth of these seemingly normal spaces, filling the everyday comings-and-goings of the landscape with the stories of those who have been erased from history.
Here, director Daniele Rugo discusses the film’s importance in starting a national discussion, his decision to focus on landscapes and voices, and the seeming impossibility of closure for affected families across Lebanon.
JADE TURNER: HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THIS PROJECT?
DANIELE RUGO: This is the second film I’ve made in Lebanon, and it is, in a way, a follow-up to that film, About a War , which I directed with Abi Weaver. That film was about a former militiaman who fought in the Civil War, and it showed how the conflict can be seen from the point of view of the perpetrator, as opposed to the victim. After making a film with the perpetrators, there seemed to be a need for one that addressed the victims and the legacy of the conflict. This film came about from conversations that started while we screened About a War in Lebanon in 2019. As we met with the audience, we understood the legacy of the conflict was still ongoing.
JT: HOW DID YOU FIND PEOPLE TO SPEAK ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES? WERE THEY WILLING TO SHARE THEIR STORIES?
DR: From the beginning, we worked very closely with an NGO called Act for the Disappeared, which is the only NGO in Lebanon that looks into the missing and has gathered the location of more than 100 mass graves. Even after more than 30 years since the end of the war, the topic of mass graves is still taboo among civil society. It is taboo for the political class, obviously, because the people who are in power are the militiamen who have now put on suits, but it’s also taboo for the people working with the relatives of the missing. For the relatives, trying to get exhumations going and raising awareness might also mean conceding some of the 17,000 disappeared are actually dead. There’s difficult work to be done with the families, because many of them naturally hold on to the hope that their loved ones will return. Others accept the passing of their loved ones and would like, as someone says in the film, just a bone to bury so they can gain closure and move on from this ambiguous loss.
Finding people who were willing to speak was not at all easy. In the film, everybody speaks anonymously – apart from one lady who reveals her name – and this is because there is still a lot of political pressure. There is the sense that the families might be harassed for demanding justice and accountability. In many cases, the perpetrators are known, but they’ve never been confronted. It’s left to films like this to get the story out there, but the political climate makes it very difficult to find people who are willing to participate. Even among those who are willing to work on the dossier of the disappeared and contribute to healing the pain of families find the topic taboo.
JT: THE FILM USES MANY LONG TAKES OF BUILDINGS AND EMPTY SPACES ACCOMPANIED BY POWERFUL VOICEOVERS. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS STYLE FOR THE FILM?
DR: There is a long history in documentaries of centring the face of the victim. Their face becomes a way to channel pain and trauma, but it’s also a way for the audience to find some kind of catharsis and empathy. This means that you’ve done the work with the victims so you can now move on. There’s comfort in seeing a person suffering and crying, however it tends to obfuscate or overshadow the more structural elements of violence and its political context. We wanted to avoid that.
We also wanted to show this is not something that can be individualised because it is so widespread and involves the whole country – especially how the country has moved on without dealing with its difficult past. This is exemplified in the landscapes that look completely ordinary and mundane. They’re quite serene – you can see no traces of the violence that unfolded there. If it wasn’t for the voiceover, you wouldn’t be able to see any history of violence. The erasure is very deliberate and it’s part of a countrywide amnesia that we wanted the audience to register. We want the audience to stay within this discomfort, where the present and the past cannot be put together. You cannot reconcile the voice and the image, and we wanted to build the film with this gap so you can’t simply empathise with the victim and move on. You’re not allowed to do that. We wanted to empty the picture so we could fill it up with voice. The picture has to be empty enough to be receptive to something else, otherwise you’re overloading the audience into a type of sensational spectatorship that we wanted to avoid.
JT: THERE IS A SMALL AMOUNT OF ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE IN THE FILM. WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO INCLUDE THESE SEQUENCES?
DR: It was important not for the obvious reasons one would usually use archive in documentaries – which is to corroborate, illustrate or reinforce what you’re saying – but precisely the opposite. It was important to show that, even when there is visual evidence, our access to the past is not easy and does not always yield evidence or explanations for what has happened. We can’t get the past to speak to us in a meaningful way in this situation. There is so much mediation between us and the past that the best we get is a fragmented, slowed down, grainy picture that does not explain the present or provide us with access to the truth. The images just add more to the overall difficulty of finding the truth – there is another gap.
You have access to the archive, but the archive does not explain. You have access to the testimony, but this does not make itself evident in the picture. You have access to the places, but you cannot extract visual evidence of what happened back then. And at the end of the film, you finally see the bones, but you cannot match them to a human being because there’s no DNA. Even the forensic anthropologist cannot provide you with the closure of a full picture.
JT: HAVE YOU SHOWN THE FILM IN LEBANON? WHAT WAS THE AUDIENCE REACTION?
DR: Yes, the film has been shown a lot in Lebanon. Ninety percent of the team who worked on it are Lebanese, so it resonates in a different way because there’s a personal element. We decided to premiere the film in Lebanon, because it was meaningful to do so, and we’ve worked with partners around the country to screen it in the south, north and of course, Beirut. It’s screened in traditional cinemas as well as community halls and schools. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and people have organised their own community screenings. There has really been a sense that this film has filled the gap for something that is extremely alive and very raw, but also at an impasse.
In 2020, the parliament passed a law to create a National Commission for the Disappeared, and this is slowly trying to document the fate of the disappeared. But there is no public initiative that would bring all of the stakeholders together. The film has been perceived as doing some of that work, as the arts often does when the political class is unwilling, and we’ll be screening again in Lebanon in the spring – the film keeps going.
JT: WHAT DO YOU HOPE AUDIENCES IN THE UK TAKE FROM THE FILM?
DR: As a filmmaker, I always hope people engage both with the theme and formal arrangement of my films, especially as this is a little less traditional than what you may have come to expect. But I’m also keen for audiences to engage with the question of disappearance and mass graves. In almost any conflict, mass graves are created, so the film should resonate with everyone who is thinking about the legacy of wars and how many of them we as Europeans, or in the UK, are involved in, either by supplying weapons or humanitarian assistance. The invisibility of violence is something that should resonate with audiences globally because we have so many experiences of this kind.
I also want to humanise these stories. From Europe, we tend to look at the Middle East as a place that is very ‘other’ to us. Cinema can play a huge role in shaping our perception, so every time one can humanise some of those stories it’s an example of our shared humanity, as opposed to our differences. We know how to be deeply touched by film, and when we sit down to watch something we are prepared to be moved – we want to feel this way. It’s great that cinema can be used to channel a message.
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