x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Lebanese filmmaker to make a documentary on his controversial uncle

A Lebanese fllmmaker is setting out to make a documentary about his uncle, who was a part of the Black September organisation.

Photographs and newspaper clippings and documents are part of the history of Fouad Shemali.
Photographs and newspaper clippings and documents are part of the history of Fouad Shemali.

"It all started from a drawing of a man that we had hanging up when I was a kid. At first I discovered that he was a poet. Then I started asking more questions but nobody would ever answer. Finally I asked people outside my family and discovered that he was part of Black September, and that he had played a role in Munich."

This, says the Lebanese filmmaker Elias Moubarak, is how the inspiration for his first documentary developed. My Uncle, The 'Terrorist', which he is due to start filming in the coming months, will follow the 26-year-old as he attempts to learn the truth about Fouad Shemali, his uncle, but also a man considered to been a major figure in Black September, which was active in the early 1970s, and mastermind of some of its early operations, including the kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

In the process of making the film, Moubarak intends to speak to family members across Lebanon about their thoughts and memories of Shemali, who died from cancer in 1972, perhaps finding leads that will take him further afield. "I wish I could go to Europe as well. He lived in France and Switzerland, as well as in Jordan."

Despite the nature of the documentary, Moubarak says family members have given him their full support. "I wouldn't do it without their approval," he says. "It's obviously a very sensitive subject matter, but I'm sure I can handle it."

My Uncle, The 'Terrorist' will attempt to reveal who really was the man in the picture, not so much looking into his exact involvement with the Black September organisation or what he actually did, but how he got there. "I want to understand how the character, a family man, brother, son, poet and lawyer turns out that way, to understand the full process."

And, while he intends to remain behind the camera for much of the film, he hopes his viewers will feel the presence of the interviewer without actually seeing him. Moubarak will have a major role in the tale as it unravels. "My feelings and emotions are going to be part of it. Not in a literal way, but in the types of questions I'm going to be asking. It's not only the story of my uncle, it's the story of the director discovering who his uncle is."

Although Moubarak hasn't yet started filming, he's already received financial support from the Dubai International Film Festival. Having taken his project to Syria's annual Dox Box creative documentary festival last month, My Uncle, The 'Terrorist' won the first Dubai Film Connection Award, a new partnership between the festivals that sees one work-in-progress production awarded US$5,000 (Dh18,400 and an invitation to the next festival in Dubai.

"This money should help me cross the bridge between production and development, where I can actually start shooting, use some of the same footage going in the movie to make a trailer and use this to find more funds," says Moubarak.

Moubarak, who has also received funding for the film from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, says he intends to visit Dubai in December to try to find co-production partners. "The prize isn't just about the money, it's about the contact and getting to the festival."

The subject matter of the documentary might seem like a controversial choice for the inaugural Dubai Film Connection Award, but Moubarak says that he believes they saw something in it that was relevant to current issues.

"I think they felt this documentary could have a lot of impact and a lot of significance with today's world. We're going to be dealing with a lot of subjects that are still very important. When it come to the family side, there are a lot of universal elements that everyone can relate to."

Also, with the director's direct ties to the main point of discussion, the film has an unusual and interesting approach. "A lot of documentaries have been made about terrorism and the Palestinian cause, but not a lot of them have this angle."

Moubarak hopes to complete filming and post-production of My Uncle, The 'Terrorist' within a year. But, while he says he has already conducted enough research, having scoured articles and books covering Shemali, he's not ruling out any twists coming from the people he interviews.

"I know how the film will start and how it will end, but much of the middle depends on how much people refer to other people who I should talk to. I think I've made enough research to be in control as much as possible, even if it takes another direction."

Moubarak, who studied Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University at Byblos, says that while My Uncle, The 'Terrorist' is his first major project it's one that has been at the back of his mind for many years.

"Sometimes you choose your project, but I think this is one of those projects that chooses you. Even before I started studying, I thought that one day I'd do a movie about this. If I didn't do this documentary I'm sure I'd regret it."