Hayat Fakhereldine

Edoyan’s Film ‘The Sea Between Us’ Explores Aftermath of Lebanese Civil War: Screening at Global Cinema Film Festival


MONTREAL — The Lebanese civil war’s aftereffects continue to traumatize people even today. Among other things, the war played an important role in the shaping of the Armenian diaspora. Marlene Edoyan’s documentary film, “The Sea between Us,” portrays aspects of the conflict through two strong-willed women of different backgrounds and poses the question of whether reconciliation is possible.

Beirut panorama

The Filmmaker

Edoyan served as both director and producer of this film. After a first degree in media studies in Lebanon, she earned bachelor’s degrees from both Notre Dame and Concordia University, in mass communications/media studies and art education respectively. After working on international animated films, Edoyan began making documentaries for film, television and festivals. She founded Fauve Film in 2012 in Montreal as a production company for “author-driven social and political projects that have a unique vision,” and explore “stories of lesser-known communities.” Her first full-length documentary, “Figure of Armen” (2012), focused on the daily lives and struggles of Armenians after independence.

Edoyan has a deep personal connection to Lebanon. Her grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Edoyan herself was born in the largely Armenian town of Bourdj Hammoud but grew up in a different neighborhood near Antilias, eventually attending the AGBU Tarouhi Hagopian School. She said, “Every generation seems to have some kind of calamity happen to them. For me, it was the Lebanese war.”

Film director and producer Marlene Edoyan

During the war, her parents moved their family to California, but eventually moved back, so Edoyan experienced the turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s in Lebanon. She said, “I was more aware of it toward the end, and I was older. It was atrocious and it scarred me for life.” Her family moved afterwards to Canada when she was around 18 or 20 years old, and she has been living and working there ever since.

She always kept her ties with friends and family remaining in Lebanon, going back every few years. During this period, she said, “I was evolving as a person, and the way I saw Beirut and society there was changing.” Slowly but surely the city was building up again and from the post war years to the early 2000s, it seemed as if it was going through a new renaissance.

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The Origins of the Film

On the surface, she said, it seemed as if the Christians, the Muslims, and all the different sects were getting along. In 2014 she went there to show her film, “Figure of Armen,” at the Lebanese Film Festival and met a more mixed group of young Lebanese who were different, she said, from the people she grew up with. These very open-minded cosmopolitan youth, Edoyan said, “found the language of art and cinema to come together and building a new ideology and thought for what the new Lebanon should look like.”

However, this was in the heart of the capital, and she realized it was only being done in specific circles, such as through university people. For the young people stuck in the suburbs, there was no coming together. Edoyan said, “There was something interesting here. Whatever was happening was on a superficial level. There was no real effort by the government or by the people, except small groups or pockets of people and organizations like NGOs, to do any real work to find reconciliation and forgiveness. The animosities of the past were still there.”

When the Syrian war started and refugees came in to Lebanon, tensions began rising again. Like the Palestinian refugees in the prior period, the new refugees were seen as a potential threat. She said, “They brought the old sentiments to the surface again. There was a lot of xenophobia and ‘othering.’ Something was definitely happening in Beirut and I wanted to explore that. The physical barricades of the past had fallen but the psychological barricades were still there.”

This motivated her to begin research on her new film in 2016. She was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which gave Edoyan insights, and so she returned to speak to all types of younger and older people. “I realized that in order to talk about the Beirut of today, I had to step back and understand what had really happened, why the older generation had done this war and where the tension stemmed from,” she stated.

She included the Armenian community among the many groups of people she studied, but in the end settled on only two women from different backgrounds as her main characters. The reason, she said, was that “I couldn’t tell the story from too many angles. It would be too chaotic and hard to understand. There are 18 different sects. The division was left-right, but it was more complicated than that.”

Furthermore, she said, “The fact that I have chosen mothers to tell the story of war is not a coincidence. For me it is really important to see the perspective of women. Often women are ignored in times of war. Women usually are shown only as victims. They are not seen as solution makers or people who can create resolution in times of war.”

The Main Characters

The two women she chose to show their motivations for what they did during the war and how they reacted were very charismatic. She said, “They had no problem sharing their personal lives in front of the camera.” Their families too became part of the project and Edoyan spent much time to get to know them well.

The film is in the school of cinema verité. Absolutely nothing, Edoyan insisted, was scripted and the participants were paid nothing. The film follows the characters in their lives, but Edoyan did admit that she provided a lot of direction. If people talked over one another or lost focus in conversations, she would intervene to get them to stick to one theme at a time, without telling them what to say.

During the development phase of the film, she worked with a Lebanese cameraman and began to understand what the characters and the neighborhoods could give to the film. She returned with a Canadian team to do the full production filming but kept a soundman from Beirut who understood Arabic. The team was only three or four people in order not to be too intrusive in people’s homes.

The two main characters, Edoyan said, had their hearts broken from the war. Wafaa Khayrallah’s father financed the Christian Phalanges Party (Kataeb) and she and her husband were still involved in it. Hayat Fakhereldine, on the other hand, lived in a more multicultural environment and dealt with people as a social worker.

Wafaa Khayrallah

Initially, Edoyan said, she wanted to highlight Hayat’s work with women for their emancipation. She also worked with young men and was finding new ways of educating them. Edoyan said, “Hayat would tell me this is my way of making young men, future fighters, aware that they have choices in life. They don’t need to go to war. They can learn a trade. They can work. They can provide for their families.” Edoyan found this to be a powerful alternative to violence, exclaiming “This is not a fully bullet-proof solution, but it is a solution.”

Hayat wanted to get people to live peacefully side-by-side in a more unified city. In her own family, there was intermarriage between Christians and Muslims. Hayat also worked to calm tensions in her primarily Shiite neighborhood of Nabaa (part of the municipality of Bourdj Hammoud) between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese.

However, what Edoyan did not know until filming was that Hayat’s nephew Ali was a Hezbollah (a Lebanese Shiite Islamist party) fighter who was just killed. Edoyan said, “Ali’s death really changed the narrative arc for Hayat. This is one concrete example of how none of this was scripted.”

In contrast with Hayat, Wafaa appeared more traumatized from her childhood. Edoyan said, “I think the scars ran deeper. She is fearful of those who don’t resemble her, of going into neighborhoods that are not Christian.” She personally had participated as a fighter in the civil war and is shown in the film trying to persuade her son Anthony to carry on her legacy and point of view. She tried to train him to shoot a rifle but Anthony, only sixteen, was against political parties and fighting.

He was a prime example in the film of the younger generation. The Internet connected him to a whole different world and he would pay no attention to the political talk of his parents. Interestingly, Edoyan felt it was harder to get the younger generation to speak candidly on film as they were media savvy and cautious, fearing perhaps future repercussions. She initially had a young girl as a third character but she pulled out as she was uneasy sharing everything with the public. Consequently, Edoyan focused on her two main characters, who are middle aged, along with their families.

As she finished the film, on the one hand, Edoyan was left inspired by the protests led from October 2019 by young Lebanese against corruption. At showings of the film, she said she would say the film ends where the new revolution picks up.

On the other hand, at present, the same people continue to stay in control of the Lebanese government. She concluded, “There is a bright new generation ready to take the reins, but no one is giving it to them. It is a very, very complicated situation. I don’t know what the solution is.”

What’s Next

“The Sea Between Us” premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in 2019 and there was going to be a special premiere in Canada with the two main protagonists, but the spread of covid cancelled this. Covid also forced Edoyan to only participate virtually in four other festivals. The film is still playing in Canada, and this weekend will be screening online at the Global Cinema Film Festival (GCFF) of Boston, Mass. As the effects of covid become more controlled, Edoyan hopes to be able to have more physical events, including a showing in Beirut.

While Edoyan feels she will make more films on Lebanon in the future, her next feature-length project, “Spirits Rebellious,” will be shot in the Armenian village of Gandza in Javakhk (in Georgia). She said she first visited there in 2010 and fell in love with the people. She declared: “They really live in a unique situation. You get to this village, and you think, you are in a Pissarro painting, in an Impressionistic painting. It looks like everything stopped in the 19th century.”

Winters are very harsh and life is difficult in this region, where Armenian refugees fled Ottoman oppression starting in the 19th century. The poet Vahan Teryan was born in this village in 1885, and today it has a museum dedicated to him and takes great pride in literature, Edoyan said. A lot of children are born there so there are two schools. The children get higher education in Tbilisi and Yerevan, but many come back. Old and new, she said, are found side by side, and though geographically cut off, the Internet opened horizons to the outside world. Consequently, young people want to introduce modern ideas to village life.

Edoyan said she has been building relationships with the villagers over the last year and has already obtained financing for her film. She is also working on a medium-length documentary, “Malika,” about a Sri Lankan migrant worker in Lebanon who bought land and a house in her home country only to find when she returned there that her family stole it from her by forging documents.

For more information about her film at the GCFF, go to https://www.worldwidecinemaframes.com/ and https://festival.filmocracy.com/gcff/, and for passes, see https://www.goelevent.com/GlobalCinemaFF/Pass/Sale.

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