SIDON, Lebanon: A cultural exchange project between Lebanon and the Netherlands ran into local reluctance in Sidon over filming interviews, as people refused to open up on camera. Eric Maddox and Jana al-Mawed spent the day in Sidon trying to film interviews about locals’ thoughts on Lebanon for a project called the “Virtual Dinner Guest.”
The initiative, a joint venture between Unite Lebanon Youth Project and Dutch NGO Open Roads Media, aims to spark youth conversations and cultural awareness through film.
“The most important thing I have learned is when to be silent,” said Maddox, coaching 20-year-old Mawed on interviewing skills while on the bus to Sidon. “People will naturally want to fill an uncomfortable pause, and sometimes that’s when you will get your best answer.”
However, neither Maddox nor Mawed accounted for the reluctance many in the country have for expressing their real opinion on film for an unknown project.
Many subjects refused point blank to express their opinions on camera, while others gave light, undefined concerns, without being specific.
“He had a lot say, actually,” Mawed said of a man outside an auto-repair shop who had refused to be filmed. “But, they were negative, and he didn’t want to share them on camera. He’s a Syrian refugee, [so] he was scared, you could see the sorrow in his eyes.”
When asked why they would not do anonymous interviews, Maddox explained, “Filming their faces is an integral. Without [eye-to-eye], you lose the humanity of the project.”
Mawed, a student at the American University of Beirut of Palestinian origin, is part of the team of local students filming the short video with counterparts in the Netherlands. Their Dutch partners posed two questions: “What is one personal experience you would like to pass on to your children?” and, “What would you like the world to know about Lebanon?”
It took 20 minutes, but Mawed eventually found a man renting bicycles who agreed to speak on camera.
The man, in his 50s, took several moments to ponder his answer to the first question posed by the Dutch students. “Beware of those you have done good to,” he timidly shared. “But be honest and trustworthy.”
Mawed paused, attempting to pull a more in-depth answer from her interviewee using the trick Maddox had explained earlier in the day. But the man simply stared back in silence.
Again, Mawed said the man had been talkative off-camera but was reluctant to give opinions on screen. “He was suspicious that we had another agenda,” she explained.
Maddox wanted a range of voices from around the country to speak. “It’s important for us to get diverse opinions. We’re also not limiting our interviewees to Lebanese people; we want to know the experience of everyone who makes up the demographics of this country,” he said.
Eager to add more female voices to the film, the young AUB student approached some women. However, they appeared even less keen to speak on camera than their male counterparts. “The last [women] I approached said no because there was a man standing near us. I don’t know, I guess it’s a cultural thing,” she sighed.
Ultimately, Mawed and Maddox did successfully interview several passers-by: a Palestinian mother of five from Syria, a migrant worker from Ethiopia, a young fisherman, and an elderly man selling tormus (lupin beans).
As the sun set, the team decided to call it a day. “I didn’t know what to expect because this is [my] first time,” Mawed admitted. “Overall, I’m satisfied. I admire their honesty [but] people are afraid. They don’t want to be recorded. Those who were recorded even said that they would get in trouble.”
Mawed said the importance of connecting cultures had attracted her to the project. “I am not able to travel right now; why wouldn’t I travel virtually to get to know new people and their cultures?”
Yet, at the end of the day, it was the reflections on Lebanese society from her hometown that taught her the most about her own society.