You are kindly invited to the press screening of Jocelyne Saab’s newest film WHAT’S GOING ON?, tomorrow Thursday, September 30th, 2010, 12:00 PM, at Planete Abraj, Furn el Shebbak.

What’s going on?
Jocelyne Saab turns a surrealist lens on Beirut

There is a moment in Jocelyne Saab’s latest film when the male lead leans across to the female lead and writes on her arm: “What’s going on?”, which is also the title of the film.

A clear answer eludes him, and us. Saab’s aptly-named film invites interpretation and defies easy explanation. What’s going on? may be baffling at times, but it is also big, bold, beautiful and magnetic.

“My aim was to fascinate,” says Saab, the critically-acclaimed director of the 2005 film Dunia (Kiss me not on the eyes) and a string of others going back three decades. “I’m not asking the viewer to understand everything, but just to dream for a while.”

Saab’s surrealist piece follows no chronological, clear plot, but instead comprises a series of magical, colorful sequences set to music, with a sparse dialogue that draws heavily on literature and mythology.

Saab seeks to explore the theme of literary creation. Celebrated author/director Jalal Khoury plays a writer who conjures up his characters and manipulates them, setting them in situations, leading them to each other, then sitting back to watch how they will interact and his novel will evolve.

At times, he cannot resist getting involved – at one point literally stitching up the bleeding, torn heart of one of the main female characters, the strong but fragile Khouloud (played by Khouloud Yacine). It is hard, apparently for him as much as the viewer, to tell what is real and what exists only in his imagination.

In other scenes, the characters seem to manipulate him, as though he, too, is a puppet.

Toward the end of the film, this is made most explicit when one of the characters appears as a prostitute. She says she is going to leave her husband, who has been ill for years, but “won’t die.”

If the writer won’t allow him to die, she announces, “Then I’m leaving the novel.” Although a sex worker, she is the most autonomous character in the film.

What’s going on? too, was an imaginative work that took on a life of its own.

“At the start you never know quite what you’re going to make, but this surrealist way of making a film inspired me, it came very spontaneously,” Saab says.

“You make a film like this because you feel it.” The actors were encouraged to interact with the script and location and to express themselves. At one point, a group of women are carrying a coffin across an olive grove, shrouded in black, chanting. The chant turns from Arabic, to Spanish, because that was what one of the actresses spoke and it felt natural to her.

Beirut looms large in the film, not simply because of the beautiful locations used such as Gemmayzeh and the seaside (even the Sporting Club takes on an air of mystery under Saab’s bewitching lens), but also because the film shows and mirrors its complexity.

Saab drew on her experiences making her 1976 film Beirut Jamais Plus.

“I was going around at six till ten every morning – because that was when the fighters slept – to see what the city was turning into. I tried to find what looked nicer, thinking that could lessen the pain,” she says.

“But it was so absurd. It developed my surrealist eye.”

In What’s going on? Saab sought to “feminize this city made so masculine by the war.” Women and equality are a major theme.

Saab collaborated closely with poet and author Joumana Haddad, one of the stars and co-writers.

Haddad plays Lilith, the mythological woman thought to have originated in Sumerian texts, and who appears as goddess, demon or witch in a host of ancient texts.

While the women who flit in and out of this film show the younger male lead, played by Nasri Sayegh, life, knowledge and death, the men in the film always follow, and are always on a quest. Sayegh’s character represents the writer’s alter-ego.

“The writer wants his young hero to find a way to look at women that is different from his own past. He wants him initiated,” Saab says. “Each woman is going to teach him something, each has her secrets.”

Saab was inspired to make the film when UNESCO nominated Beirut the Book Capital of the year, and the Lebanese Ministry of Culture appointed her “cinematic ambassador.”

Khouloud literally lives in a large book. Lilith shows Nasri Souk Okaz, an ancient Arabian poetry festival that has mysteriously appeared in modern incarnation in Bourj al-Murr, an echoing, towering carcass of a building in Beirut that is associated with civil war atrocities rather than literature and beauty.

“The city lives in a cliché, we’re back in 1975 [saying]: we’re the best, tourists are here, money is here,” she says.

“But in fact, there’s still censorship. We need to talk more about women and equality, if we want to say we’re really free.”