Lea Najjar • Director of Kash Kash
“It was necessary to constantly refocus on this microcosm and find a way to express something bigger through it”
by Teresa Vena
- The winner of Best Documentary Film at this year’s First Steps Awards talks about her approach to the singular world portrayed in the movie and its protagonists
Once a year, the young generation of German filmmakers competes in different disciplines for the First Steps Awards. In the fiction-feature category, this year’s Best Film Award went to Sophie Linnenbaum's intelligent and unique The Ordinaries [+see also:
interview: Sophie Linnenbaum
film profile]. Meanwhile, in the documentary section, the winner was Lea Najjar's intimate portrait of Beirut and its inhabitants, Kash Kash [+see also:
interview: Lea Najjar
film profile]. The title of the film refers to a popular game involving pigeons. We talked to the director about her approach to this singular world and the doc’s protagonists.
Cineuropa: Where did your inspiration for the film come from?
Lea Najjar: For a long time, I had been searching for a common denominator through which to portray Beirut. Then I found this pigeon game, which has spread throughout the whole country. There is a whole political network around it that connects the regions and people across Lebanon. This seemed a nice perspective from which to paint a portrait of the city.
How did you get to know the men you portrayed?
We had a long research phase that took half a year. In the beginning, we wanted to make a film all across Lebanon, from the northern border to the southern one. But when political unrest was stirred up and the revolution started, we realised that it was not realistic any more, because it would be difficult to travel with all the road blocks, for example. So we focused more and more on Beirut. And for the men we portrayed, they all know each other, so if you know one, you get to know the others as well – it's a network. In most neighbourhoods, you have a “pigeon coffee shop”, where they hang out together. And we hung out with them.
How long did you follow them for?
We started our research in 2018 and began shooting in the autumn of 2019. Then the revolution started in October, and we had to stop in between. The film was no longer a priority for much longer; people were on the street dealing with other stuff, and we joined in. Then COVID-19 came along, and we rescheduled again; then the big explosion happened in Beirut and we stopped yet again. We nearly lost hope and thought we wouldn’t be able to finish the project. But a few weeks after the explosion, the men started playing again, so we continued with the shooting, too. And finally, we filmed the rest in autumn 2020.
Was it difficult for you as a woman to get the men to open up to you? How did you feel among them?
I did the whole research process with a woman as well. Being a woman was a gift and a hindrance at the same time. They were nice to us, and they liked spending time with us. They didn't see us as a threat. They wondered, though, why these girls wanted to spend time in all this pigeon shit. They also felt a bit “honoured” because they have a slightly bad reputation in the neighbourhood. And of course, before we started, we got permission from their wives and mothers. We visited them and drank a lot of coffee together.
Did you develop a relationship with the pigeons, too?
You really do get attached to the feeling you get when the pigeons take off and land. It's impressive to watch and to hear them. Then it was also fantastic being able to spend so much time on the rooves. There is a fresh wind, and you are away from the loud noises of the city. The sunsets are amazing. It's a fantastic view of Beirut.
What were the biggest challenges in terms of the production of the film?
Besides the challenges related to the political situation in the country and COVID, it was important to try to overcome the feeling that what we were doing was a crazy idea. It was necessary to constantly refocus on this microcosm and find a way to express something bigger through it. The explosion in 2020, for example, was hugely traumatic, and we sought a way to talk about it in the film.
The movie has already travelled to several festivals. What have been the most notable audience reactions?
I like the fact that people who do not have any relationship to Lebanon still find a way to connect with it through the movie. These are characters you will love or hate, and it's great that people are able to see beyond the strict or harsh facades.
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