How one man’s personal discovery led to a documentary about Lebanon’s rich and diverse culture
Ela is a published writer and a freelance journalist based in Florence, Italy. She is the editor of a local, bilingual newspaper in Florence, teaches storytelling and writing workshops and is involved in several journalistic projects. Ela Vasilescu is also the writing voice for the documentary “Growing Cedars in Air.” Follow her on Twitter & Instagram @ElaVasilescu.
We all have a past. Our heritage is what connects us as human beings. We are all unique and it is our uniqueness that allows us to leave a fingerprint on the world.
Mark Abouzeid, a fine-arts photographer, photojournalist and visual storyteller, has spent the last 15 years of his life capturing the living culture and intangible heritage of people around the world. He has come to specialize in oral tradition projects relating to the culture of groups including Jordanian Bedouin, Moroccan Berbers, Senegalese tribesmen and Tunisian Octopus Fishermen.
Like many Restorative Narrative practitioners, Abouzeid does not rely on the violence of conflict to carry his work. “I never feature dead bodies, crying mothers or flies in the mouths of babies. I do not support the politics of conflict,” Abouzeid said. “I may work in war zones, surrounded by natural disasters, but my eyes always find that one unique act of humanity, transforming incredible trauma into a symbol of hope.”
In 2013, Abouzeid interviewed his dying father about their family history and heritage, something they have never spoken about before. What he discovered after the four-hour dialogue inspired Abouzeid to find his “home,” his roots.
Two months after his father’s funeral, while traveling to film a series for peace, Abouzeid arrived in Rayak, Lebanon, his ancestral home. For the first time, his past was revealed to him through stories, pictures and family members he never met before.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to go home. Not my parent’s house, in whatever country they happened to be living in at that time, but instead, my ancestral home, the land of my dreams,” Abouzeid said. “Roots were something I have never known, will never know. I was born to travel, to embrace new languages and cultures, to reject attachment.”
His journey to Lebanon inspired “Finding My Lebanon,” a short film meant to motivate people belonging to any culture, to look into their past, learn from their heritage and never let go of their childhood dreams. The teaser video “A Day in the Life” hit 1,500 views in less than two days, the production’s Facebook page gathered more than 2,000 followers and recently it has been accepted to the Cannes Film Festival 2016.
An initiative called My Lebanon was also built to invite people from all over the world to share their Lebanon through videos and social media. From the outset, this was a personal story for one man and his children. It has become so much more.
Soon enough, Abouzeid learned that he was not the only Lebanese who felt displaced and longed for his “home.” Every person he met opened their doors to him. Renowned names from all over the world such as journalist Robert Fisk, cookbook writer Barbara Masaad, journalist Rania Abouzeid and many more, joined Abouzeid on his path of discovery by sharing their intimate stories, offering their experiences and resources and contributing to what is now becoming a feature length documentary on the culture of Lebanon today, “Growing Cedars in Air.”
“Going into this movie I assumed I was the way I was, primarily because of how I was raised and because of my life’s experiences,” Abouzeid said. “One of the things that came out while I was working on this project was just how much my story is common among other Lebanese people, giving me a point of community and how much my way of looking at life is quite Lebanese. It’s rare to get a story about a grown man who suddenly finds out why he is the way he is.”
The name of the documentary comes from the cedars of Lebanon, the national emblem of the country, and its people, who no matter where they live and lead their lives, will always have their roots deeply embedded into their ancestral soil. The indie documentary tells the story of a people who can flourish wherever they settle without ever losing their cultural identity.
Interestingly, if asked about their culture, a Lebanese person would probably reply that there is no Lebanese culture per se. The beauty of this country is that it hosts and sustains a combination of many cultures, religions and histories.
The documentary’s structure, inspired by Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” presents the stories as individual building blocks narrated by protagonist and organized around central themes that ultimately join together into one collective story. The protagonists invite us to discover a real Lebanon, a Lebanon that doesn’t have the scars of war as its main feature, a Lebanon with welcoming people, breathtaking views and incredible cuisine.
The people of Lebanon have a saying: “Life happens between wars.” Somehow, war becomes just a date on the timeline. They find a way to rise above and live in the moment, concentrating on the beauty of the present and trying to make the best of it. Unlike most of the world, the Lebanese build statues to honor their emigrants and never miss the opportunity to speak about their heritage.
After traveling and filming in various locations in Lebanon, Europe and United States, the documentary is in its final stage of development with plans to be released at the end of 2016. “Growing Cedars in Air” is a story meant to inspire all of us to go search for our past, to learn from it and to understand how it helps define us.