The Orange Book Prize in Africa for the Tunisian Yamen Manaï

PARIS: This disastrous August 4, 2020, Fadia Ahmad should have been in Beirut, perhaps even in her house in the Sursock district, with her family. But a feeling of anxiety had pushed her to shorten her stay in the Lebanese capital to return from August 1 with her children to Alicante, where she was born in 1975.

Thus, that day, the Lebanese photographer was jogging along the sea in the Spanish city when, on the other side of the Mediterranean, a double explosion in the port of Beirut ravaged the city, causing more than two hundred dead, six thousand five hundred injured and leaving three hundred and fifty people homeless.

“It’s as if a part of my soul was gone,” recalls the photographer who divides her time between Beirut, Paris and Alicante. Fadia Ahmad then decides to go to the country to document the disaster, camera in hand. She films the city as closely as possible, collects the testimonies of the victims in order to preserve them for history in this country where the past does not pass. “I felt that it was a mission and a duty that I had to accomplish for my country,” she explains. His documentary, Beirut, the Aftermath (“Beirut, the backlash”, Editor’s note), has since traveled around the world, from festival to festival, with the aim of “keeping track of this tragedy”.


From the tree-lined garden of her Beirut home, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, Fadia Ahmad answered questions fromArab News in French.

The film begins with a parallel: you are seen running along the sea in Alicante, and firefighters from Beirut prepare to go to the scene of the fire in the port. Why did you start your documentary with this reconstruction?
Because that was the starting point. Because, just as I was jogging in Alicante, the firefighters in their barracks were preparing to put out a fire they thought was harmless in the port of Beirut. From that moment, it was the apocalypse. From that moment, the life of all Lebanese and of Beirut would change forever. That’s why I did this reconstruction in Alicante, and another in Beirut with the firefighters. The rest of the film is 10,452 steps between the Mar Mikhael district and the Sporting Club, on the corniche.

You are a photographer, but you preferred the camera to the camera, for the first time. Why?
It is important to keep a document that can be used for later, for the history of our country. It is a document that has a very important archival value. It is a work of memory that I consider very important both for Lebanon and for the Lebanese people.

Is the film mainly intended for Lebanese, for Beirutis, or is it aimed at an international audience?
It aspires to international influence. The objective is that everyone can understand the how and why. It’s a film that the Lebanese don’t necessarily want to relive, because the wound is still there, very strong. It is a tragedy that will follow us for many years before we can get out of it.
It was a way for me to raise the voice of every Lebanese in the whole world so that this microcosm becomes a macrocosm and to convey the following message, on a human scale, from human to human: we must give ourselves the hand, we listen to each other.

Photo Fadia Ahmad.

Internationally, it is true that Lebanon may not be a priority today, with everything that is happening in the world, Covid-19, Ukraine, Russia, the crises economic… It’s not easy for anyone to live with, but I have to be listened to.

The documentary traveled to several festivals. How was he received?
The film really went around the world. We were selected in several festivals and we won prizes. I say “we” because, for me, this film represents all of Lebanon. So, for each prize or each selection, the whole of Lebanon will have been listened to and our voice will have carried.

Is a screening planned in Lebanon?
The documentary was already screened in Lebanon last May. It was very moving and very difficult, because the spectators relived the tragedy; many walked out in tears. Many Lebanese relived this moment that they wanted to forget. But many were very touched; they thanked us for having made this documentary and wished that it could prove memory and archives for Lebanon.

What was the biggest obstacle during the production of this documentary?
The coronavirus, because the country was immersed in the pandemic. We weren’t allowed to be in the street, but everyone was there because there had been the explosion, and three-quarters of the city was in ruins. This was the biggest obstacle.
We also encountered financial obstacles. The Swiss embassy supported us, but we had to do what we could for the post-production. The team was very understanding. The biggest hurdle was the coronavirus and the trauma we were all going through.

You have this very personal look in the documentary, especially through the voiceover…
I come from contemporary art. Obviously, I wanted this documentary to be more poetic, more emotional. That’s why, in the voiceover, you listen to the story of my journey, the why of these 10,452 steps. It is not a cold or static documentary.

“CHAOTIC SCULPTURE II” 2021 by Fadia Ahmad.

Where are we today, more than two years after the disaster?
The reconstruction is done gradually. The city revives, timidly, but we try to revive. We must not forget that everything you are currently experiencing in France has been experienced in Lebanon for two years: the lack of electricity, water, fuel in service stations, medication… We’re really at rock bottom, but despite everything, we’re trying to get out of it.

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The Orange Book Prize in Africa for the Tunisian Yamen Manaï