Letters from Beirut is a political documentary that owes more to Chris Marker than Michael Moore, and it’s worth seeking out.
Last week at Bluestockings Books, I attended a “Through The Lens” work-in-progress screening (co-curated by Rooftop veteran filmmaker Mark Read) of Letters from Beirut, an experimental doc directed by Richard Rowley of Big Noise Films. Big Noise is radical media collective who have produced some of the most coherent and watchable movies from the frontlines of major rallies since the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle, and though I haven’t seen all of their work, this film seems like a bold and welcome new departure for contemporary activist filmmaking. The film centers around letters written by Hanady Salman, a Lebanese woman who doesn’t see a division between her role as a journalist and her role as a mother, a neighbor, a friend. As she lived through the 2006 war in Beirut, Salman wrote open letters to the world, filled with heartbreaking and uplifting stories, measured and overwhelming feelings, and rich philosophical ideas. The film balances her readings with footage from Lebanon, ranging from interviews with distraught neighbors who find the ability (or the need) to laugh to near abstract visual poetry outlining the dichotomy of natural progressions and man-made destruction. Letters will NOT give you a history of the ongoing conflict nor details of this brutal war, so the best way to appreciate this film is to read up on the facts and then take in Letters from Beirut as an emotional and intellectual counterpoint. This 10-minute video which Big Noise produced is one of many places to look first for background.