By Wassim Mroueh, Alex Taylor
BEIRUT: Many Lebanese believe that sectarianism is a major problem plaguing the country’s society, but opinions vary as to how to root out this phenomenon and prevent the next generation from sliding into the same conflicts.
Jad Shahrour, a writer and filmmaker, chose social drama to help abolish sectarianism in the country by exposing the ongoing sufferings of the victims of Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, which to a large extent, was of a sectarian nature.
As part of a team assembled by the NGO Search for Common Ground and funded by the EU and UNDP, Shahrour co-wrote a 13-episode series entitled “The Team.” It is a show about a football team made up of Muslim and Christian players from the Beirut neighborhoods of Ain al-Rummaneh and Shiyah who must overcome their divisions to achieve success on the pitch.
“Drama is more effective than any other tool in delivering a message,” says Shahrour, who is an experienced political activist.
“This time, you are not promoting an idea through a political speech or a seminar ... but the idea is reaching people at home through TV.”
UNDP country director Luca Renda agrees, which is why the organization has contributed to the series as part of its peace building initiatives that target youth.
“In this case we’re targeting people from [ages] 14 to 19 and you can’t just simply go to them with a message ... You have to catch their attention with something that is entertaining and something that touches their daily lives and problems – what they live and feel,” he explains.
The concept of “The Team” was produced by Search for Common Ground for use in numerous countries – from the Ivory Coast to Nepal – but adapted to the given country’s history and enduring conflicts.
In Lebanon’s case, “The Team”’s plotlines shed light on the social problems resulting from the Civil War and how these larger issues touch the daily lives of the characters.
“We chose the topic of the Civil War and the resulting social problems across the country ... We focused the most on the districts of Ain al-Rummaneh and Shiyah,” Shahrour explains, pointing to the high number of casualties in the two rival neighborhoods that witnessed the early battles of the Civil War and remain volatile districts.
The 13 episodes were aired on LBC in July and the channel is considering broadcasting a rerun after the holy month of Ramadan which ends Aug. 19. All the episodes and behind-the-scenes stories are available to watch anytime on YouTube and on the show’s website, www.theteamlb.org.
To really bring the drama to life, Shahrour chose docudrama. He found and interviewed real individuals telling their own stories of suffering from the Civil War to match the plights of the characters in “The Team.” The short interviews with the corresponding scenes from the relevant episode are posted to YouTube and the website, entitled “The story behind the story.”
“We looked for the story which matches the drama in reality ... We said let us present the people that really suffered,” Shahrour says, who directed some of the segments as well.
“This includes, for example, two people from different sects loving each other, someone wounded during the Civil War or a woman who lost her husband during the war.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t want to remember my past at all,” says Rekal Yazbek in one of these short videos. “It left a deep wound in my heart.”
During the Civil War, Yazbek’s husband, a Lebanese Army soldier, was captured and killed at the age of 23 while in the northern city of Tripoli during a spate of sectarian killings.
“Whatever I do for my children, they still feel that something misses them,” she adds.
She explains how her husband’s relatives identified his body in a hospital in Tripoli. “His body was badly mutilated, his hands and legs tied,” she says, adding that her daughter had been only 4 when her husband was killed.
“What is the fault she had made to deserve to be deprived from saying ‘Daddy?’” she asks.
In addition to the consequences of sectarian strife left by the Civil War, “The Team” also delves into other contemporary issues facing the Lebanese, such as class and socioeconomic divisions.
Nicolas Mezher, an actor in the series who plays one of the footballers named Christopher, talks about his character’s story: “I fall in love with a girl who sells flowers, and my mother doesn’t like it so she forces me to stop seeing her ... Because she’s poor and sells flowers, the mother doesn’t like the idea of her son with her.”
Valerie Abou Chacra is another young talent acting in the series as the character Hind, who is a sister of one of the players. She stresses that the show discusses issues familiar to all Lebanese, and which are not just religious in nature.
“[The writers] concentrated on the conflict here in Lebanon and especially the biggest conflict between the religions. At the same time, [they] brought different daily conflicts that every Lebanese might face – they included these small complications so that they can relate to everyone,” she says, highlighting the story of two characters who compete over university admissions, until one is admitted only because his family has more money and connections (wasta).
Yet the main objective is to reach out to youth to get them to look at one another as Lebanese rather than as “the other,” despite the messages they may receive from older generations.
“The adults are sometimes portrayed as the ones who have the most prejudice against which the young people have to struggle because the prejudices and preconceptions are imposed upon them and it’s difficult for them to understand,” says the UNDP country director Renda of the series.
“Overcoming differences doesn’t mean forgetting the past or forgetting history – it means approaching the other in a different way and overcome the barriers in this society that prevent people from speaking to each other just because the other belongs to a different group,” he continues.
Shahrour laments that sectarian feelings continue to become more deep-rooted in people, even today.
“Unfortunately ... it is being passed to new generations and no one ... is trying to prevent this,” he says. “Speeches by politicians are sectarian, and they are being watched by children.”
Shahrour believes that for a true reconciliation to take place between all groups in Lebanon, all warlords who committed crimes during the Civil War should be brought to trial.
When asked whether he believes drama would prove effective in combating sectarianism which is entrenched in the Lebanese society, Shahrour says with determination: “Try is a good answer, I have to try.”