“What comes after August:” Rebuilding collective strength through feminist filmmaking
The Window1 (2021, 16’) is a film by Sarah Kaskas, produced by Liliane Rahal (Karaaj Films2). Based on personal experiences and stories from queer women living in Lebanon, the film was written, shot, and edited in less than one year and deals with the memory of the devastating explosion that happened in Beirut on the 4th of August 2020. In The Window, Basma and Mariam reunite in their old bedroom and attempt to resolve their shared trauma and broken relationship.
The shooting of this film gave strength to the team who participated in this experience. As the producer Liliane Rahal states in the interview: “It was the first time that I had the feeling that cinema was keeping you alive in your own crumbling country.” The following interview with Sarah Kaskas and Liliane Rahal was conducted to document the shooting experience and the collective work around this short fiction film and its sororal dimension. Beyond our different experiences as viewers and our various readings of The Window, our detailed discussion of the technical and practical processes of making this film constitutes the best way to reflect on the importance of creating alternative spaces to work together in order to challenge the hegemonic and heteropatriarchal narratives in and of film history.
The Window made its premiere in Amsterdam at Roze Filmdagen Film Festival on the 14th of March 2022, and its North American premiere at Aspen Shortfest on the 6th of April 2022. Since its release, Sarah Kaskas and Liliane Rahal have been able to maintain the festival strategy previously discussed in this interview. The film has been selected in several prominent queer film festivals including Inside Out in Toronto. The Window also received selections at major film festivals that are not exclusively queer, including 3 Oscar-qualifying ones (Aspen ShortsFest, Kortfilmfestivalen, and OFF: Odense International Film Festival).
Liliane, Sarah, you collaborated on films and artistic projects for a while. Can you tell us how this collaboration took shape and whether we could talk about friendship in work?
Sarah: We have been working together since 2016, maybe even before. We made small projects that were commissioned. The first project we worked on, on our own, was a short documentary called Bread & Tea (16’, 2016).3
Liliane: It started mainly with music, before the films. We recorded our own album. Sarah is a composer, vocalist, and guitar player. I am a percussionist. So we started to work together in music and then films, and both together. I want to mention that we did everything for Bread & Tea. We filmed with two cameras; we each had one. Sarah did the sound recording, the editing, the music.
Sarah: I used to write mostly fiction. With Bread & Tea it became a start of shifting towards documentary and experimenting with reality. So we made Bread & Tea and a few years later Underdown (72’, 2018).4 Now basically it’s time for experimenting with fiction as well.
Working with Liliane is pretty organic most of the time. Last July I made a short documentary that was commissioned by Beirut DC called Struck (6’,2021).5 “Karaaj Films,” our company, was the executive producer but it was the first time since 2015 I was working on something that was not produced by Liliane. Even then, Liliane was someone I interviewed in the film and whose advice I took. And the same thing happens with music. I think we involve each other in things even if they are independent from each other.
Liliane: We weren’t very synched from the beginning. We had the same interest and vision and passion for it but it wasn’t an easy start, neither in music nor in films. Now with time it’s getting much better. For The Window, it was the easiest collaboration with Sarah. We reached a point where we know a lot about each other; how we work, how we think.
The grain silos of the Beirut port occupy an important place in the film. They act as a magnet for the camera, rather than a repellent. This can be disturbing for the audience as the treatment of this ruin and its approach by the camera follow a movement contrary to that of the explosion. It sounds to us that this overwhelming presence of the silo can be considered as reflecting Mariam’s feelings, who can’t leave the city despite its violence towards her. However, if the dialogue between the characters lets us consider the image of the silo as a reflection of Mariam's feelings, the film, by its editing and its narrative structure, indicates that it is not with Mariam that we look at the silo. The shot on the silo actually appears to be seen from the window.Sarah, could you tell us more about the title of the movie? Could The Window be considered a third character of the film or as its narrator, a sort of alter ego of the person who tells this story?
Sarah: Yes, definitely. The Window is like a vessel of what’s outside. You have the city outside, you have the trauma outside, and it’s a vessel to look out to that. For me it holds a lot of meaning on several levels: just like you can look outside and see the reality, you can also turn your back to it. I worked with that with the blocking of the actors. But also you can look inside through a window and thus focus on what’s happening inside as if it was your soul, not only blaming what’s outside. This was something I really held on to as a visual theme.
On a more literal level, The Window as a title and the filming in one room with so many windows was a very big trigger: during the explosion we lost all our windows. This was also the meaning behind this title. Usually the first title is a working one and most of the time you go in a different direction but with this film, before I actually wrote the first line of the script, I started with this title and it stayed that way. In Arabic the title is “ما بعد آب” (“What comes after August”) so it has a different perspective to the story.
Liliane, can you tell us more about the production process? How did you support as a producer in the writing and development work of the project with Sarah? What was your production pattern? In terms of funding, did you look for and answer a call for projects or did you canvass specific funders?
Liliane: In the beginning of 2021, Sarah approached me with the script. I liked it instantly and I personally related a lot to it. We started working together on the script mainly based on personal experiences, stories from women living in Lebanon and from queer women in the Arab world, which means stories from our community. I immediately approached specific funders; I didn’t respond to open calls. Luckily enough it worked from the second try. The script was almost ready and we got the money. At the time I was really excited to gather the team. It was the first time that I had the feeling that cinema was keeping you alive in your own crumbling country. Usually you feel that you live to make movies but it was the first time we felt that this project was giving us this strength. It also set off a healing process because you were literally facing it every day. It was a really nice feeling.
We filmed at the end of July because we wanted to do it before August 4. At the time we had also heard that the silos were about to be demolished because they are dangerous so we felt it was urgent. We wanted to document the silos because we know that one day they will no longer exist. For us they should be kept.
Sarah: I call it a scar. It’s something I discuss in my short documentary Struck. To me when you are able to see the trauma, it’s a reminder of what you overcame. I’m not saying you’re healed or you’re fine or you’re over it, but it’s a scar and a scar is a permanent reminder of what you went through. We wanted to document the silos as a scar because it is part of our collective trauma and our collective history. In Lebanese cinema and in Lebanese history, we don’t have one agreed-upon version or perspective of it, but a scar that big is something you cannot look away from. It feels impossible to start again after all the trauma we have endured and the characters are a reflection of that. Everything that is seen and heard outside the window is the reality of our current state. Beirut is wounded and the scar of the silos is a reminder of the crimes inflicted upon us by the corrupt regime. Basma and Mariam are engulfed in this reality. Several times, they gravitate towards the door and try to leave the tiny room but they keep each other inside even though the door is unlocked and life is carrying on outside. It’s the endless loop of toxicity and codependency both in their relationship with each other and with the city itself.
I filmed the obscure images of the silos myself using an old camcorder through a glass cup and cut the shots together as they talked about the moment of the explosion. I wanted to represent the blurring of memory and the different perspectives of the same story. This part of the film is very personal because I’ve been struggling with gaps in my own memory of that entire night and the people I was with when it happened have been filling in the blanks every time they talk about their personal versions and experiences.
The space in which the former couple interacts is set back and out of time. In this huis-clos, the bodies – those of the actresses but also those of the team – are continuously (re)negotiating their proximity. This results in a highly choreographed mise-en-scène.
Sarah, were these movements, of the body of the actresses, and of the body of the artistic team, already scripted in the writing of the film or were they orchestrated in an improvised way by adapting to the constraints of the place of shooting?
Sarah: The improvisation came in rehearsals. We filmed at sunset for 4 days and we only had about 40 minutes to shoot per day. So we had no time to allow different improvisations to take place on set. During rehearsals I played a lot with the movements of the actors because I feel the body and the gaze in that film are always saying something that the words are not. They talk a lot but actually their eyes and their bodies are saying other things. When they are facing the port and the silos, when they are turning their back toward it, how they turn in circles around each other, I know that I needed these movements and I wanted the camera to almost be invisible. It was more about what we need to feel and see, the physicality of the actresses over what they are saying.
About the two actresses Sophia Moussa and Tamara Saade, working with them was a great experience. They gave so much to it, including during the rehearsals. One of the things we even played with was reversing roles. It was moments of connecting them and disconnecting them from each other because all became part of the play between them. How much they want to be together as characters and how much they cannot. This is something they really played with and gave so many layers to.
A good amount of time of rehearsals, not only with me and the actresses but also with Pauline Maroun (DOP) and Tatiana Dahdah (sound engineer), consisted of knowing where everyone was standing and how they were moving in every shot. Besides the fact that there were six people in the room which made it crowded, the sunset was a big challenge: there were windows everywhere so there were reflections everywhere and the sun was moving so quickly that the shadows were also shifting. So we really needed to know everything before we rolled. For sound, Tatiana did an extraordinarily impossible job because the room had so many challenges. One of them was that the main generator for the whole street and area was right underneath the window.
Liliane: It was the beginning of the huge shortages of electricity that started gradually when we began rehearsals until we reached the shooting.
Sarah: Tatiana really took her time in prep: going to the location, testing so many different microphones, finding solutions with acoustic treatments. Then this became a collaboration with Pauline as well because the acoustics panels had to stay out of frame. Pauline and Tatiana had to move together and keep the frame clear of everything.
Liliane: For the continuity of light Pauline did an amazing job because we were not shooting following the script continuity. As a producer, I didn’t want to compromise what they wanted in terms of equipment because I really trusted that they would do their best. I trusted their choices.
One of the striking moments of the film is when Mariam reminds Basma of the pressure she had put on her by making decisions for her. This dimension of the relationship makes it possible to associate the movement of the camera towards the silo with Mariam's desires.
Sarah, during the writing of the film, did you think of this dimension of their relationship as a way not to assign the film to a narrative of “a couple of women?” Is it a way to show that being two women is not the only issue and characteristic of their relationship? On the other hand, should we consider the story of this couple as a way to queer a recurrent trope in Lebanese films in terms of narratives, meaning the frequent question: to leave or to stay?
Sarah: In Lebanese cinema, queer films are usually about younger queer people who deal with issues with drugs or with their mothers. I really wanted to challenge that and to talk about women we relate to – queer women who are in their mid-thirties. Representing queer women in this film just had to be because there is no representation, and the core inspiration is us and what we went through. Right before the explosion it felt like the queer community had a voice and it was building and getting louder with the revolution. We were more present, we had platforms that we were using without fear, without shame. And then after the explosion it felt like all of this disappeared and these platforms disappeared and the support was gone. The momentum that we built during the revolution was gone and this was something I really wanted to talk about as well. At the same time, it’s the story of any relationship anywhere in the world in terms of dynamics when something hard happens, they split, and there is no closure.
Liliane: The story is not only about queer women; being queer in this film is very normalized and the film is unapologetic about that. We got this feedback from a lot of people: that anyone can relate to this story between these two people regardless of their gender and sexual orientation.
Sarah: In the film, Mariam reverting back into what society wants from her is not coming from a place of shame for being a queer woman. It’s the fear of losing her life. There is this narrative that after a certain age, women should get married, and breaking this system comes with difficulties. You have to stand your ground, to believe in it, to fight for it. After a near-death experience, the whole dynamic between the characters changes. They have completely polar opposite reactions: one wants to save herself by leaving and the other falls back into the safety of what’s known and acceptable for a woman.
The credits highlight that the set was composed by a majority of women. During a discussion after a screening, Sarah, you declared: “we were all women on set and we danced around each other to make the film.” This reminded us of the quote attributed to the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman (“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”) and of one of the songs of the 2019 Lebanese revolution (بدنا نرقص بدنا نغني بدنا نسقط النظام) which opposed the denial of life and joy in the way we build revolutionary movements.
Sarah, could you explain how, in theory and in practice, your film is an experience that deals with feminist and queer joy?
Sarah: First of all, on the surface, the intimacy and the strength we created together was such a proud moment and experience. There was no inflated ego. It was really everyone coming together, especially in such a traumatic location, and sharing these experiences together and going through such an intimate story. On a very strong level this is a big statement because the field is dominated by men, and so are the stories and narratives. The fact that we were all women was kind of a big fuck you to this norm. We found everybody that we needed, all these talented women who are not usually given this opportunity because it’s considered a man’s job. I feel that all of us were more empowered because of that.
Liliane, can you tell us how you choose and approach your artistic and technical team? In Lebanon the equipment rental houses necessarily send technicians to the assistant position. Usually, they are men. Were there any on your set?
Liliane: The second assistant was supposed to be a woman but the rental house changed the agreement at the last minute. In Lebanon and in the whole Arab world, when it comes to the technical crew, women’s work is most of the time underestimated, or even not respected. All of the camera crew were women, as was the DIT.6 When we faced a problem with the camera while shooting, a cable problem, sadly the guys from the renting house, which are all owned by men in Lebanon, blamed the assistant camera because she’s a woman, saying that she had surely plugged something wrong, etc. But the women in the technical team were collaborating with each other and solving the technical problems without the help of the rental house. Personally, I was really impressed with what they did.
How did I choose these women? Personally, when it comes to choosing technicians, I don’t like to compromise. They were women I had worked with many times before. For example, I am impressed by the way Marina Tebechrani, the 1st Assistant Camera, works. We were shooting handheld and with all the queues, we never had to repeat a shot because of the focus. This is also one of the challenges of shooting 40 minutes only per day. Without the presence of Marina, Tatiana, and Pauline, the way they memorized their queues, and how fast they were, that wouldn’t have been possible to finish in four days.
Hegemonic cinema history has made the work of women invisible by producing the figure of the director and by marginalizing the role played by technicians in the creation process. Do the credits constitute a kind of statement that speaks back to this traditional narrative of cinema history?
Sarah: The design of the credits was important. They weren’t scrolling. We wanted to give everyone enough time on the screen, in their own slide. Everybody had equal time, equal exposure, equal respect, and prominence in the center of the screen, rather than bulk-list everyone together in a scroll. Even having the song on the very powerful image of the port in the background, it was all meant to keep you there and read those credits.
Liliane: I want to add something about the shoot. The film was funded by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and it was a green set. We followed some rules they proposed, like a zero-waste shoot. It was the first time I had a shoot with zero plastic bottles and everything else was recycled. That was also a nice challenge. We had the perfect person for it: the caterer Sarah Abu Jaoude was super eco-friendly. She was taking care of this whole procedure and she would label the bottle glasses of the crew with their names and refill them on a daily basis. It was impressive for me. I was happy to see my set with zero waste.
Can you tell us a bit more about the editing process?
Sarah: There’s this really great thing that Liliane and I tend to do: at some point, Liliane disappears. She is there for the very first session then goes away. When you look at something every day, you lose perspective and your objectivity. That’s why Liliane disappears; when she comes back later, she can remember what we worked on a long time ago so she is able to see things much clearer than I or the editor, Maria Malek, would.
Working with Maria was extraordinary because she is sensitive and takes her time. I had never worked with an editor who’s so in tune with the emotional narrative; the development of what is being felt rather than what is being said. We would take a lot of time away from the screen. Cook lunch together, get to know each other personally. We created this bond because understanding where we come from, our lives and our experiences are important in such an intimate project.
When I was working on sound design with Lama Sawaya, we had a few sessions to discuss concepts. I had this aesthetic of sound that I wanted to work with, especially when it came to the gathering happening outside the room. I wanted it to be very intrusive. For me it represents society: whenever you are having a very vulnerable and intimate moment, there are always eyes set on you, or societal judgment, that makes you feel one way or the other. Basma and Mariam always fall into their bubble once they are connected. When they disagree, they put their walls back up in defense, and the silo reappears, and the outside gathering is heard again. Even the city, the buzz of the city, the ambulance’s sirens, all that comes back in. So, it was something I was really aware of and designed carefully with Lama. With the interruptions, even on a subtle level, your attention goes away from the intimacy that is happening back to a distraction that is happening outside. I think we can all agree that, living in Lebanon, you are always interrupted. The stress of the city, the pressure of it, the trauma of it, it always interrupts you. Physically or emotionally.
Liliane, can you tell us how you came back?
Liliane: We scheduled my comeback at the end. I was comfortable to leave them work alone but at the same time a bit suspicious because they could easily be drawn into their own world and not see things objectively on a daily basis. I always came back with my feedback that was an eye-opener on some things, on some details, because I had this distance. We did the same for the sound. I would give my notes and we would agree or disagree but adapt changes accordingly, as a team of course.
Regarding the distribution of the film, Liliane and Sarah, what’s your strategy?
Liliane: I worked with our funder Heinrich Böll Stiftung on a strategy for Lebanon and the Arab world. So, we designed a strategy to collaborate with feminist organizations to have private screenings, in community first and some online private ones too which will make it more reachable to the communities and the organizations that are working on social methods to reach certain goals. They would use the film to make some change. So we have a list of NGOs to make these screenings happen, but unfortunately they will have to stay private. This will be in parallel with the international festivals. And it will of course be followed by online Q&A or live discussions with the director.
Here in Lebanon, it has to be private. If you want to screen a queer film in Lebanon in theaters, you can’t do it unless you partner up with institutions where you don’t need a permit to screen.
Sarah: We had a lot of discussions and we kind of planned a path for the film. We applied to feminist film festivals, LGBT festivals, or festivals with LGBT categories. Giving this highlight to queer films or having a festival that is exclusively for queer films is really important: it’s a step towards normalizing films that are queer, about women, or filmed by women. This will pave the way for it to be more inclusive in the larger scope of festivals. But it was a clear decision to also apply to festivals that don’t have those highlighted sections because festivals should be more inclusive even without those categories. So, as a strategy, we went both ways to infiltrate with all of these tactics because they all work with The Window. There are a lot of boxes that are ticked with The Window. Not just the story and the film themselves, but the crew behind it as well.
Liliane: I have to consider that big festivals are better because it makes the films more reachable when you start this way. But, on a personal level, I would like to have it in a festival that appreciates the story and the work. I would actually compromise for these kinds of festivals.
This interview was conducted by Danielle Davie and Anaïs Farine on January 14th, 2022.
- 1. The film was named The Window in its English version and What Comes After August or ما بعد آب in the Arabic version.
- 2. www.karaajfilms.com and Instagram Handle: @karaaj.films
- 3. Scene excerpt: https://vimeo.com/528704593
- 4. Trailer: https://vimeo.com/528698425
- 5. Trailer: https://vimeo.com/598826582
- 6. Digital Imaging Technician.