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Filming the Cedar Revolution

Mai Masri talks about her new documentary, The Beirut Diaries.

11:00 PM, Feb 6, 2007 • By DAVID KENNER
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Beirut

NADINE, THE YOUNG narrator of the documentary Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videotape, stares out from posters plastered throughout my Beirut neighborhood. She gazes off into the distance with a faint, optimistic smile. Presumably, she is looking at a city very different from today's Beirut. Last week marked the beginning of what Hezbollah calls the "final phase" of its anti-government protests. Long lines of burning tires blocked the road to the airport, and rock-throwing protesters clashed with soldiers. Three people were killed, and dozens more were injured, in an echo of the country's horrific civil war.

Beirut Diaries, directed by filmmaker Mai Masri, chronicles Lebanon's Cedar Revolution. Masri funded the film herself, and it is currently making the rounds through film festivals throughout the Arab world. When I spoke to Masri about her reasons for choosing this subject, she spoke of the importance of mass movements in a region where civic expression is often repressed. "I think it's very positive when people express themselves," she said, "that's democracy."

The film begins with the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Millions of Lebanese flooded to the streets in protest, resulting in the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon. It was a time of great hope for Lebanese liberals. Nadine intones, "You Lebanese, you great people, you have finally awoken." People from all religious sects were joining the protest movement. Liberal and nationalist enthusiasm was surging. Icons merging the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross proliferated.

Beirut Diaries focuses on the tent camp in downtown Beirut that served as the physical and emotional heart of the protest movement, and it captures the divisions which threatened the camp, even during the height of the protests. These divisions, which have deepened in recent days, eerily foreshadow the current political battles. A young boy discussed how fistfights had broken out between the followers of Michel Aoun, now a Christian ally of Hezbollah, and other factions at the camp. At one point, a man accused various protesters of exploiting Hariri's death for political gain. As the argument escalated, Masri's camera is pushed away from the gathering crowd. A protester subsequently appears before the camera, "There has been absolutely no type of beating," he explains calmly.

Despite these conflicts, a large majority of the protesters appeared determined to overcome their past sectarian differences and restore full sovereignty to their country. On its best days, the tent camp was half-protest movement, half-celebration. Masri spoke of how her subjects, "are people who are looking for a role to play . . . they wanted to belong, to find a cause to fight for." And the film thrives on the emotion of its characters. There is "the most handsome man at camp," and another who gives his name only as "the Terminator." The Terminator speaks eloquently about how Lebanese used to be divided by their religious sects, but now, "our religion is Lebanon."

Masri's subjects dreamed of changing the fundamental order of Lebanese politics. They wanted to abolish the sectarian political system, where each religious sect is allocated a fixed amount of power. They believe this arrangement encourages identification based on religion instead of national identity. Masri argues that Lebanon's sectarian system perpetuates the rule of a select few political families, who have achieved tribe-like rule over the various sects. Change has been, "the dream for a long time in Lebanon . . . by different generations," Masri remarked. "And each time it has failed."

This time would not be different. What Americans call the Cedar Revolution, and Masri refers to more modestly as the "March 14 movement," concluded when Syrian troops sped out of Lebanon and the mainstream political parties declared victory, ending their support of the protests. Masri remarked, "towards the end [the students] felt disillusioned . . . they had more dreams and more hopes than the politicians." The parties had no more use for those who wanted to change the nature of the political system. Nadine and her friends did not see their cause rejected, but trivialized. Where they saw a cultural revolution, the politicians saw a useful kickoff to election season. Caught between laughter and tears, a protester exclaimed, "They're making fools of us . . . people are not crying because the protests are over, they are crying because they don't know what comes next."