New documentary, Beirut, la vie en rose, by Spanish cinematographer Eric Motjer, last month had its world premiere at DocsBarcelona, which focuses on the best documentaries from around the globe.
The film shows the decadence of the lives of the Christian elite in Lebanon, and proffers a quick backdrop to the political and social context within which the events take place through an opening shot that explains the geography of Lebanon, a country that has witnessed 15 years of civil war and a number of invasions. But the film is not the tale of woe and strife we are used to seeing in documentaries about Lebanon. Motjer changes the script by focusing on the Christian elite that he claims "continued to enjoy their wealthy lives as they have done for generations".
The Christian elite
This group live in their own bubble and even conflict is treated in a light-hearted manner. After the Civil War, one woman describes how she had a T-shirt made for her and her friends emblazoned with the slogan "Alive and tanned, Summer 82" – in reference to the Israel's invasion of Lebanon – around a picture of an Israeli boat and a sunset. While many citizens around them suffer, the elite have parties, go to fashion shows and hold auctions. As one person interviewed in the film says, the group have the luxury of "enjoying life and loving life".
Beirut is romanticised by this demographic. They reminisce about it having once been the "Paris of the Middle East", but before you can feel sorry for them, that same group suggest this description of the city is still apt. Even conflict does not get in the way of their lifestyles, indeed war becomes an excuse for the parties to be even more lavish and hedonistic, so everyone can forget about their troubles. They live in the lap of luxury and spend their leisure time skiing.
But the four characters that Motjer primarily follows in the documentary are not entirely oblivious to what society is like around them. They build malls and restaurants near the border with Syria, as they say trade will boom once the Syrian civil war ends. They dream about the era before the conflict began, when religious tension was not so high, but even they have started to recognise that this moment in history may never return.
Seeing a different side of the country
It's a unique film that shows a completely new side to Lebanon. "We started the project about six years ago," Motjer says. "Two friends were in Beirut working on a television show and they met socialite Viviane Edde, a diarist of the elite for the magazine Mondanite.
She said she wanted to introduce them to some friends and invited them to a party. When they arrived, they found themselves in a place they thought couldn't be Beirut, especially if you consider the West's view of the Middle East.
"The occidental media portrays the region as a conflict zone and so for us finding these people living as if nothing has happened with this approach to life, I found it really amazing. We wanted to make a film that explained how they live."
Motjer says the Christian elite represents a lost era in Lebanese history. "We wanted to focus on the Christian elite because apart from the fact that they let us film them, they represent what Lebanon was, a time that will probably never come back," he says. "They have this nostalgia for the past and this way of life because they lost power, they lost their status in a way."
They are also part of a generation with an attitude towards ostentatiousness that could now seem vulgar. "It's also a film about the decadence of their generation," Motjer says. "There are some attitudes that would seem almost racist in a way, but this can be seen in elites all across the world."
The importance of music
The party atmosphere is reflected in Motjer's decision to use a pumping electronic soundtrack composed by Eloi Casellas for the film, with songs such as La Cle des Champs by N'to and Diamond Veins by French 79. "It's a region where music is important in the culture," Motjer says.
“I thought putting electronic music in is interesting because it goes against this tradition in documentaries where you should use music in the same rhythm and level as the images. When we started to edit the film with electronic music it created a contrast with their narration and their attitude to life that made the film work.”
The song choices were also inspired by Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, an Oscar-winning fictional film that deals with the lives of the elites in Italy. "I really liked the way Sorrentino used music in that film," Motjer says. "It's hard to film decadence visually. What I found was that the electronic music contributes to this feeling of decadence as it shares with the viewer the atmosphere of the film without judging characters. It is for the viewer to decide what they think about the characters."
Motjer doesn't want to condemn them, nor trivalise their lives. He keeps the viewers grounded by showing news footage of political assassinations and crumbling buildings. But he also shows that while people may live in the same town, often they inhabit completely different worlds. Beirut, la vie en rose shows the world you can live in when you can afford diamond-encrusted, rose-tinted glasses.