The story of Under The Bombs happens during a cease-fire in the Lebanon-Israel conflict of 2006. A Christian taxi driver brings an untraditional Shiite woman from Beirut to the heart of the conflict in the country’s south. While they scour the rubble of local towns for her son, who was sent to live with her traditional family while she was staying with her husband in Dubai, they discover that despite their very different backgrounds they have much in common. And during their trip through the desolate countryside, the two travelers develop a deep bond as a response to the death striking all around them.
Franco-Lebanese, Philippe Aractingi was born in Beirut in 1964. He is founder of “Fantascope Production”, a production company based in Beirut, Lebanon, which since 1989 has specialized in content-driven films, mainly documentaries. Since its establishment, it has co-produced and produced more than 50 films with several local international TV stations, such as Discovery Channel, France 2, France 3, TF1, ARTE France, M6, and LBCI Lebanon. As a director and writer, Philippe Aractingi has made over 35 films, ranging from reportages and documentaries, to more personal films made for French and American television, in the Arab world (Lebanon, the Gulf region, Morocco and Egypt, but also in places as diverse as South Africa, Sri Lanka and Mongolia). After 12 years in France, he returned to Lebanon to produce and direct his first feature film “Bosta“, the first post-war musical made in this country. Released in 2005/2006, “Bosta” attracted record crowds, in 2006 speeding to the number one spot at the Lebanese box office, with over 140,000 entries and screening for 22 weeks. Selected to represent Lebanon at the Oscars, “Bosta” is also the first non-Egyptian film to hit the Egyptian and Gulf market.
In July 12th 2006, war broke out again in Lebanon. Ten days later, in the most precarious of circumstances, Philippe Aractingi began shooting his second feature film “Under the Bombs“. Made guerrilla-style from its conception to its completion, “Under the Bombs” was completed in less than a year. Selected in the 64th Venice Film Festival, Sundance, and Dubai Film festival, the film has won more than 18 prizes so far, among these the Human Rights Film Award in Venice, the Golden Muhr , and Best Actress at the Dubai film festival. Co-produced by Philippe Aractingi, “Under the Bombs” is also Lebanon’s selection for the Oscars 2009. Philippe Aractingi now lives in Lebanon and France.
Bijan Tehrani: How and when did you come up with the idea of making this film? What was your motivation in making this film?
Philippe Aractingi: The idea came very quickly. The war started on July 12th, and the idea came to me on the night of July 14th. It was anger and visceral reaction, something that comes out of your gut; when you see your country being shelled, the choice – at least for me – was either to bear witness, or start crying. I thought I should do something. I decided to film in order to show, to testify… It was my way of changing that anger in me in a positive and creative action. Initially I did it to protect myself to give in to hatred, but at the end, once I have finished the film, I understood, that I did film only to bear witness. To be there for them, the victims.
BT: When did you actually begin to make this film? When did you start shooting?
PA: The film was done in different periods. To give you a timeline: The war started on July 12th, I got the idea on July 14th, I called my actors on the 15th, started shooting on the 21st. On the 22nd or 23rd I took a boat to France — because I am also French — to be with my family in France. I edited the first day of shooting, and showed it to French television. I convinced them to give me some money to go back to Lebanon straight a way. They gave me some money and I started preparing myself to go back, but there was a blockage. So by the time that I got through Cyprus, the war was finished. I got back on the 17th of August, and the war finished on the 13th. The day that I got in to Lebanon the crew was already there in the port waiting for me, and we started shooting on the same day. The boat that took me from Cyprus to Lebanon is actually in one of the scenes in the film. We started shooting with only two actors, all the rest were real people. We shot for ten days like this, with the simple philosophy that we would react to what is going on, rather than have a preconceived idea of what to do. We would see a bridge destroyed, and go improvise a scene on top of it. We would see the UN troops coming in, and improvise a scene there. After ten days of improvisation I went back to France and wrote the script with Michele Leviant, who, by the way, is Jewish. I got some more money, and went back in December to shoot the heart of the fiction.
BT: How did you come up with the story? Was it based on real characters?
PA: It is partly. Some of it is stuff that I had imagined; some of it is stuff that I had heard about while I was doing my research and shooting, and part of it was being very quick and active. War gives you a high quantity of adrenaline that makes you think and react quickly. It was amazing, the amount of good ideas that we would come up with during this small time period. We lived this film, we didn’t just make it.
BT: The interesting thing about the film is that it does not obviously take a side, but shows the suffering that results from war. I would imagine that it would be very hard to not take a side. How did you manage this?
PA: From the very first day, although I had a lot of anger, I knew that I did not want to do a propaganda film. Most of the people were talking about who started war, who’s fault was it… And so on and so forth… People, the press, would often forget that in the middle of this chaos there are kids, families, who are not concerned with the politics. And this was my case throughout my experiences. I wanted to remind people that war is not about who is right and wrong, but about these people who are completely innocent and in the middle of it. For me, it was not important to express my political point of view, but important to express the point of view of the innocents. Although I did this film with a lot of anger, I think I did the film for the victims, and for them I needed not to be partial.
BT: Something that helps to get to this personal feeling in this film is to base it on these two characters, instead of just basing it on the war itself. People unfortunately get used to hearing about wars on CNN, and become indifferent about war in some ways. I think the characters helped to bring war to a personal level for the audience.
PA: Yes. I was making a film while there were maybe 1,000 or so journalists, people from CNN, news agencies, and they were all doing films, documentaries, etc. And here I was as a filmmaker trying to give a different point of view, express something that has not been seen before, and to make a difference. Not for the sense of being different, but in order to give more depth into what war is really about. Look at what is going on now in Gaza. People are saying the same thing. Look at TV. Depending on what you look at, like Al Jazeera, you get one point of view, or CNN, and you get another point of view. And both think they are objective and right. But in the middle of this confusion you have hundreds of people who do not give a damn about Objectivity and are dying. They have not asked anything from either Hamas or the Israelis. They are just trapped in the middle of this, and will be traumatized for years to come. People think that it is right to make war, to kill. I think in this film, I am saying ‘You who claim war is a necessity, are you sure that you’re making the right choices?’
BT: By not taking sides with this film, you ensure that you do not lose a part of the audience.
PA: No, I do take sides. I do take sides against those who make war. Being the Hezbollah or the Israelis. I take side with the innocent victims.
BT: You are trying to show that they are both wrong.
PA: They are both wrong. But in that sense I do take sides.
BT: When I was watching this film it reminded of the Mario Monicelli film called “The Great War,” which was an Italian film in the 1960’s. The plot has nothing to do with your film, but the sense that arrives from two characters in the middle of chaos is so similar.
PA: This is interesting. In Italy the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and we had seven minutes of applause; it was great. I found that Italians really understood the film well, because it reminded them of the Neo-Realist movement. I did a Neo-Realist film in video form, shall we say, because video allows one to go quicker and faster.
BT: How challenging was making this film?
PA: It was challenging in different aspects. It was challenging because I had no story in the beginning; I barely had three pages. I was taking my actors into a situation in which I didn’t know what to do, I had to improvise. Nada Abou Farhat, who plays Zeina, was used to me and played in my first film. But Georges Khabbaz, who’s a big star in Lebanon and who plays Tony in my film, was not used to me and did not know what I was doing. He was always panicking because I was taking him into improvisation and he was not used to it.
We went to areas where there were cluster bombs all over the place. We had to adapt all the time. It was an organic process. We were careful of where to put our feet, and it was dangerous. It was also challenging because we didn’t know if the bombing was going to start again, and we were always afraid. One day we heard that an operation had happened in the north of the country, and were scared that Hezbollah was going to respond. We took back our suitcases, and we put them in the car and kept on shooting. But we were always listening to the radio thinking that if anything happened we could get away quickly. It was also challenging to face death in front of us. The scene with the graveyard was difficult, and hard to cope with. It was hard to stay calm and do the film without falling. It is a human challenge as much as a technical filming challenge. I always say that I didn’t do the film, I lived it.
BT: Were other people in the film professional actors? Or were most just ordinary people.
PA: Well, I tried as much as possible to keep only two actors. There is an exception to this, which is the lady in the hotel with whom he sleeps. And there is another short little scene that is done with my assistant, who is also an actor. The rest was done with real people, to whom we would ask to play their own roles. Like the little boy who really lived the war. We would ask him to say the lines that were scripted, but also what he really lived during the war. We were always trying to find real people, because the way they express themselves, their emotions, their point of view, was very realistic. For example, the scene when Zeina finds out that her sister is dead; Together with a friend we scripted her lines and went into the village to shoot the scene. We founded this young girl who came to help us. People would come to us spontaneously. They wanted to share, to help… Because they’d lost everything.
Anyway I asked this young lady to act and to say to the actress that her sister died. But instead of saying this, she pronounces words that only the Shiites would. She said “your sister is in heaven now, don’t cry”. Because in the Shiites mentality, dying in the wartime is going straight to heaven. Her lines were ones that I couldn’t write because I didn’t know all this. It was very authentic. Most of our lines were done like this.
BT: There are some recent films that have been addressing issues with Israel, including the recent “Waltz With Bashir“. I hope that your film can also be seen in Israel one day.
PA: It has been shown in Jerusalem, and has won a special mention prize at the film festival there. I am not sure that it can be distributed. Although a lot of Jewish people have helped me doing this film.
BT: It is a quite sensitive issue.
PA: Yes. “Waltz With Bashir” is also denouncing war, and mine is as well. Both are talking about recent wars, and it is interesting because both films are talking about the results of war. The after effect of war. War gives rise traumatized people. People that might respond to their trauma by creating suffering for other people. War is not just an operation that starts and ends during a certain time period. The news talk about it when it happens, but they forget about side effects. Those that you carry on with all your life. The side effects are even more destructive then the war itself. They create a vicious circle of endless troubles. War can never be surgical!