Lebanon Takes Center Stage at Avignon Theater Festival

By Al Jadid Staff

The 63rd Avignon Festival was held from July 7-29 in Avignon, France. Founded by Jean Vilar in 1947, the annual theater festival is one of the oldest in France, and one of the most popular and historically significant. This year there was a special Lebanese presence.  The Lebanese participants included-- besides the associated artist of the festival, the Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad -- Lina Saneh, Rabih Mroue, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Zad Moultaka, Yalda Younes, Yasmine Hamdan, Daniel Arbid, and Ghassan Salhab.


Vincent Baudriller, artistic director of the Avignon Festival, emphasized this Lebanese special presence at this year’s festival in an interview conducted by Georgine Ayoub, who covered the festival for the Beirut and London-based Al Hayat newspaper. The associated artist Wajdi Mouawad, is a Lebanese-Canadian actor, director, translator, and playwright, born in Lebanon whose family fled the civil war and moved to France in 1977 and who finally immigrated to Montréal in 1983.  Three of his plays, the poignantly poetic, 'Littoral', 'Incendies' and 'Forêts', were presented in the Palais des Papes' Cour d'honneur over 11 hours. Writing in French, Wajdi Mouawad, because of his multiple talents and history, has the ability to appeal to different generations and cultures.  Profoundly influenced by the Lebanese civil war, his plays are stories about origins -- their mystery and burdens -- but also about childhood, family history, civil war, justice, solitude, and the reparation of trauma by breaking silence. The stage becomes the site of epic stories and narrations, and the audience shares the anxiety and bewilderment that accompany unexplained violence, dispossession, loss, and death.


As for the other Lebanese artists, Saneh, in an interview with Georgine Ayoub, described the special bond between her fellow Lebanese artists present at Avignon, a bond created by their shared experience of the 15-year long Lebanese Civil War and which she believes has given them a unique approach to theater. Saneh’s works appear in simple narratives to effectively showcase her ideas. She explained that the dominant voices in the Lebanese artworks attempt to shake the viewer’s conscience by describing the horrors of war as well as shaking the perception of the oppressor-victim duality, which she refuses to buy into. “We all consider ourselves as involved in the war. We are all responsible for it in one way or another, even if we didn’t kill anyone,” she told Ayoub.


Saneh also feels that theater has a responsibility not to pander to the emotions of the audience. She explains, “We are cautious not to incite emotions. Certainly, the people might respond if we did, but this would only create more violence and polarization, and also allow leaders to control their people. I have the Lebanese audience in mind when I say this, and I don’t allow myself to manipulate that audience.” And despite the fact that the play is showing in a French theater festival, she still feels that it is written for the Lebanese people.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige showed a multi-media installation of videos, photographs, and sounds to create a space of absence, bullets, and simplicity that aims to recreate Lebanon’s memory, highlighting in a double-film shown in the space entitled “Khiam 2000-2007,” named after a detention camp in southern Lebanon occupied by Israel until 2000, and which was destroyed in the 2006 Lebanon war. The resulting piece deals with questions, as stated on the Avignon Festival website, “of what is seen, what is not seen, making the invisible speak, rendering it faithfully, but also calling up the ghosts to question Lebanon’s present.”


Zad Moultaka’s vocal ensemble piece, “The Other Bank,” used a child set to the backdrop of bombs in Lebanon, to pose the question: “What if I were born on the other side?” Through the piece, which deals with the hate and violence that is born from the partisanship and internecine violence, a catharsis of sorts is reached. In Moultaka’s second piece, “Non (No),” he utilizes the stomping feet of Yalda Younes to recreate the sounds of war, deafeningly loud and terrifying, to remind the audience of the powerlessness daily combat creates.
At one point during the interview, Saneh referred to the other Lebanese artists as ‘we.’ Asked what they really had in common by Ayoub, she said that through their work they must further an important discussion: why they must both forget the war and also never forget it. At this year’s Avignon Festival, both arguments were heard.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 15, No. 60 (2009) 


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