Portland filmmaker focuses lens on Lebanon

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There are images of water and bathing rocks in a shallow stream. Beams of light breaking through a hole in a centuries-old cave. Hushed voices arise from nowhere.

“Hopefully they will see the light soon.”

“The darkness is taking over. We must remember how to see the light inside ourselves.”

No, these are not scenes from the new Terrence Malick film. They are from Portland filmmaker Christopher Sakr’s new documentary about his native Lebanon, Light.

With more than $11,000 raised through Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site that helped to fund the recent Academy Award-winning documentary Inocente, Sakr, a Portland State alumnus, returned to his native Lebanon, where he was born in 1987. He filmed for more than a month, gathering footage and deciding to let the film “write itself” upon his return to the United States.

The result is a winding and ethereal look into Lebanese culture and life, highlighting the struggles and joys of a people many in the West know little about.

A premiere gala for Light was held on Sunday in the grand ballroom of the Portland Art Museum. After the film, 350 guests enjoyed traditional Lebanese cuisine from Ya Hala Restaurant and danced and drank into the early hours of Monday.

This celebration of Lebanese culture, Sakr explained, was in part what he wanted to accomplish with this film.

“In having this experience, seeing the things that I saw, meeting the people that I met, it turned my eyes back to the Lebanese community here in America,” he said.

Many of the guests in attendance were a part of the Portland Lebanese community. Light, for Sakr, who is usually a narrative filmmaker, was less about anthropology than it was turning an eye and hand back toward his native country, community and family.

“What I really wanted out of this was to start a conversation with many of the different Lebanese groups here in America,” Sakr said.

After a breathless opening sequence tracing the history of Lebanon from the dawn of civilization, Sakr turns his lens to the city of Beirut to show the faces of children, shopkeepers and the faithful outside of houses of worship.

Much of the film, however, took a critical look at modern Lebanese culture in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War, which transformed the tourist economy in a place once dubbed the “Switzerland of the Middle East” into one struggling to find its once-vibrant identity.

But Sakr avoided platitudes by using three narrators, diagnosing and considering Lebanon’s problems from different perspectives.

One of the central questions the film raises is the cultural influence of modernized capitalism on a post-civil-war economy. One narrator suggests that a once-thriving middle class has been gutted by an ever-widening gap between the nation’s richest and poorest.

But another narrator suggests that a desire by many in the middle class to appear wealthy creates an illusion of success that drives them into financial difficulty.

“You can’t feed your kids, but you can put gas in your Mercedes,” the narrator says.

For many in the film, the answers don’t come quickly or easily. But the dirtier Sakr’s hands get digging through problems, the closer he approaches the core of a culture worth celebrating and cherishing, one that might hold the answer to the very question it asks itself.

“When you have four million people in a country one-tenth the size of Oregon, you get close to your neighbor,” said Michael Elie Layoun, one of the film’s narrators.

That unity was on full display Sunday. Collected laughs arose when the film rolled its eyes at notoriously bad drivers in Beirut. Silence spoke for all when mountains of water bottles were seen encroaching the cedar trees, the same trees adorning Lebanon’s flag.

And one narrator’s comment that family is everything was confirmed as the evening’s festivities wore on.

But Sakr’s work is just beginning. Hoping to reach out to the Lebanese community in America, he announced that Light would be available for purchase online at lightcomehome.com.

“I hope it can start the conversation, and that it will live with you the way it still lives with me,” he said. “Besides, if there is one thing we all have in common, it’s that we miss home.”

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