Mahmoud Kaabour on his new documentary about Beirut blast: 'I needed to grieve behind the camera'

The Lebanese director's first film in eight years tells the story of Nicole Torbey, whose husband was injured in the August explosion

Mahmoud Kaabour took an eight-year break before making this new short film about a family after the August Beirut port explosion. Courtesy Paulina Westerland
Mahmoud Kaabour took an eight-year break before making this new short film about a family after the August Beirut port explosion. Courtesy Paulina Westerland

The world premiere of short film My Family and the Explosion on Dutch TV channel Humanistische Omroep, or Human, today, will signal Mahmoud Kaabour’s return, after an eight-year hiatus.

For several years in the early 2010s, the Lebanese director, 42, who first emerged in the industry with 2004’s Being Osama, about men in Canada bearing the name, was one of the leading lights of the film scene in the UAE, making documentaries under the umbrella of his Dubai production company Veritas Films.

All I could do was head back to Lebanon and see for myself

Mahmoud Kaabour

His second film, Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, A Thousand Times), a 51-minute poetic tribute to his larger-than-life Lebanese grandmother, won the Audience Award for Best Director at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2010. Then came Champ of the Camp, about a Bollywood singing competition in the communities of South Asian construction workers in the UAE, which had a spectacular premiere at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, in a historic outdoor screening at Burj Khalifa.

Now Kaabour is back with My Family and the Explosion, which tells the story of how members of one family were affected by the blast at Beirut Port on August 4 last year, when one of the biggestnon-nuclear explosions in history devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. It follows resident Nicole Torbey, her husband and their daughter, as they attempt to put their lives back in order in the months after the catastrophe.

Nicole Torbey in a scene from 'My Family and the Explosion'. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour
Nicole Torbey in a scene from 'My Family and the Explosion'. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour

“When the explosion happened in Lebanon, I was sitting in a playground in Berlin with my kids; I could not believe what I saw on YouTube,” Kaabour tells The National. “All I could do was head back to Lebanon and see for myself. Even though I left Lebanon as a child, I knew the country. I have shopped in its markets and taken very long walks between my grandparents’ and parents’ houses. It’s the city that inspired Grandma, A Thousand Times. So I really needed to go back and do my grieving behind the camera.”

Once there, he called on a crew of friends to start filming the city in its now-shattered form. It was difficult for the filmmakers to see their beloved city this way, but they were driven by a need to document what had happened, and show the world what was happening. At first it took the form of television journalism. “We did several reports that ended up on news media around the world. I’m not a journalist, but we didn’t mind that; we wanted to keep Lebanon in the news.”

On one of the filming days, Kaabour was speaking to doctors and nurses at LAU Medical Centre-Rizk Hospital when the medical facility’s administrator introduced him to Torbey, who was looking after her husband after he had been injured in the blast.

A scene from 'My Family and the Explosion', which tells the story of Nicole Torbey and her injured husband. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour
A scene from 'My Family and the Explosion', which tells the story of Nicole Torbey and her injured husband. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour

“The first shock we had to absorb was the state of her husband,” Kaabour recalls. “I remember my cameraman couldn’t even come close to him. Nicole was quite prepared to speak. She started painting a big story of how the explosion happened literally 400 metres away from their home. Their house door was flung off its hinges and landed on her husband’s head.”

Kaabour knew instantly he wanted to tell Nicole’s story. And just like that, he was back in the director’s chair. “It’s the type of filmmaking that’s hardly planned,” he says. “You’re getting the story as you’re filming it.”

Disconcertingly, the 13-minute documentary also depicts how it doesn’t take long for people to try and use a situation for personal gain. “I tapped into this phenomenon of disaster capitalism that was happening in Lebanon,” says Kaabour. “Interested parties were going out and trying to buy destroyed homes from people; some of the interested parties are related directly to politicians who sit in the Lebanese cabinet and parliament. Nicole received four calls in one day about her written-off car, and she could not explain how people got her number.”

His passion for filmmaking is undeniable. So why did it take so long for him to make another film? “The fact is, I burnt out,” he says. “Running a boutique documentary company out of the UAE was quite taxing. I did these two films with disparate success, but they took so much energy from the family. I needed a break.”

The August Beirut port explosion caused untold damage to the Lebanon capital. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour
The August Beirut port explosion caused untold damage to the Lebanon capital. Courtesy Mahmoud Kaabour

He says he “fell into the trap” of projecting a successful image of himself, rather than being honest about how hard it is to make documentaries. “As a family, we struggled a lot. I won the $100,000 cash prize from Robert De Niro [who co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival] in Doha for Grandma, A Thousand Times, and I would say I spent more than half of it on renting an office for a film-production company in Dubai.”

Sensing that making independent films in the UAE would only get harder, especially after the cancellation of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai international film festivals, Kaabour and his family decided to shut down his company and move to Europe. “I think Berlin was a rite of passage that I needed. Six years in Europe passed relatively quickly, setting up in a new continent with a kid and learning a language."

It was also a time of change in his personal life. He went through a divorce and worked on creating an online documentary channel for ZDF in Berlin. He struggled with the idea of directing again. “I worked with coaches and therapists, reflecting on the parts of filmmaking I was struggling with so much. At the end of the exercise, I came out still embracing my dream to be a filmmaker. I needed time off to have a big life experience and come back and try again.”

And this time he will do it differently, he says. Now, he’s set up a new base in Dubai, while keeping a foot in Europe, registering as a freelance film director in Germany and as an agent in London. “I have missed the Middle East so much,” he says. “The vibrancy, the warmth of the people.”

He is also working on a project called Handala, The Boy Without a Face. “Handala is an illustrated image of a Palestinian refugee child. He always has his back to us; we hardly ever see his face. His creator, Naji Al Ali, used Handala to criticise an array of human rights violations against Palestinians and Arabs.”

Mahmoud Kaabour has set up a new base in Dubai,  registering as a freelance film director in Germany and an agent in London. Courtesy Paulina Westerland
Mahmoud Kaabour has set up a new base in Dubai,  registering as a freelance film director in Germany and an agent in London. Courtesy Paulina Westerland

Al Ali was gunned down in London in August 1987, but Handala continues to appear on walls across the world. Kaabour has spent the past three years capturing the image wherever it has cropped up.

It’s a hugely ambitious multimedia project, one he says will be another few years before completion. “It includes an augmented reality and animation component,” he explains.

“It’s a film that’s going to play a lot on the theme of being 10 years old. My parents had to flee Lebanon, and we took refuge in Syria during the Lebanese Civil War. My mother used to say to me at that age: ‘You have to be strong like Handala.’ Somehow, I felt that our destinies were intertwined.”

For now, Kaabour is working to make sure My Family and the Explosion is available in the Middle East later this year.

Published: April 4, 2021 02:53 PM

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