When Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiry's feature film The Insult (2017) was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018, the Lebanese media scene was abuzz. Doueiry, whose first film, West Beyrouth (1998), arguably kickstarted the production of Lebanese films through its unprecedented commercial success1, had done it again. A year later, Nadine Labaki's Capernaum (2018) said to have elicited a fifteen-minute standing ovation after its debut at the Cannes film festival was also nominated for an Academy Award.

These films gained intense scrutiny and attention in the Lebanese public sphere. Suddenly, the stakes regarding the question of Lebanese national cinema seemed higher, perhaps due to the perception that "these films are interpreted as carriers of national narratives"2 in international contexts. The success of these films both in terms of international appraisal and commercial circulation suggests that something new is happening in Lebanese cinema. While Doueiry and Labaki have long been household names in Lebanon and are arguably emblematic of the field from a commercial point of view theirs are the films that have garnered the most international success in terms of appraisal, distribution, and circulation there is also a budding new generation of filmmakers emerging whose films reflect the shifting nature of the industry. More and more filmmakers are producing films that depart from the experimental conventions and haunting aesthetics of established Lebanese directors to instead produce, like Doueiry and Labaki, a more audience-oriented cinema that simultaneously strives for critical acclaim.

According to a veteran Lebanese producer who works for one of the top production companies in the country, today's filmmaking scene is far more populated than it was just ten years ago. When their company first began making films in the early 2000s, they received far fewer submissions. The films they would ultimately choose to produce were usually the obvious choices. Earlier generations of Lebanese filmmakers tended to gravitate toward similar topics and themes, mainly grappling with the haunting legacy of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1999).3 They often chose to represent this violence by mobilizing esoteric, existential, and melancholic modes of visual storytelling. Most of these films, while frequently gaining recognition in international festivals, were not always easy to come across and were little known to local audiences, partly because of their avant-garde aesthetics and partly because many of these films never were picked up by distributors.4

The quantity and quality of submissions that they receive today has developed substantially as new voices continue to emerge onto the scene, diversifying the kinds of stories being told. Today, Lebanese art-house films are emerging from the shadows of their exclusive inner circle to enter into mainstream consciousness. The feature films that are being produced are also enjoying relative commercial success and are becoming more accessible to local audiences, with films like Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya's Very Big Shot (2015)5 and Oualid Mouaness' 1982 (2019) being bought by Netflix, for example. There are also films like Jimmy Kairouz's narrative drama Broken Keys (2020) that has officially been selected as the Lebanese entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards and Ahmad Ghossein's All this Victory (2019), which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival so will surely gain a certain degree of visibility and has already been picked up by foreign distributors.   

What explains this new landscape? And why is it not yet reflected in academic or critical accounts of Lebanese cinema? The answer, I have begun to find, lies both in pervasive myths surrounding Lebanese filmmaking and patterns of production and distribution in an increasingly global market. The shifting nature of the Lebanese film industry is an ideal departure point for examining the categories of national and transnational cinema. Combining my own insights with semi-structured interviews with those working in Lebanese cinema, I present a call that sounds simple but has proven elusive: it is time to embrace Lebanese cinema on its own terms, in all of its facets. Lebanese filmmakers navigate a volatile infrastructure, yet the need for foreign funding does not mean they relinquish their agency or simply seek to please the West. Falsely overemphasizing the role of foreign players erases the labor and range of creative work of Lebanese artists, hiding a contemporary Lebanese cinema that is dynamic and diverse.


More expansive Lebanese filmmaking has been propelled in part by changing funding structures. Whereas many earlier Lebanese filmmakers depended on European funding agencies and were thus influenced by European productions, many members of this newer generation of filmmakers have managed to secure more multinational funding, including from regional organizations like the Doha Film Institute and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. Bou Chaaya's Very Big Shot was made exclusively with funds from local and regional sources. Many of these filmmakers, who were born after the civil war or are too young to remember it, have been educated in the United States. This new generation of US-trained filmmakers has brought an alternative perspective to Lebanese filmmaking, as they operate within a different cinematic model than their predecessors. Unlike European films that can depend on grants and subsidies from public funds for survival, US films are contingent on audience reception and tend to be more narratively driven.

The audience-oriented Lebanese films that are being produced today reflect changes within the global film festival scene, where narrative films that create a unique visual language through, for example, cinematography and production design are gaining more traction, and it is no longer as common to see the slow, atmospheric films of festivals past. This factor, along with the international success of Doueiry's and Labaki's films, has diminished what my producer informant describes as a stigma among Lebanese filmmakers surrounding narrative films, the perception that "if you tell a story, your film is no longer considered an art film."

Given these recent changes in Lebanese cinema, we need a reconsideration of the field. I argue against two oft-cited points. The first is that, because of the industry's reliance on foreign funding and the technologies of recognition that inform circulation and appraisal in international festivals, Lebanese films are made exclusively with a Western gaze in mind. 6 The second oft-repeated point is that there is no Lebanese film industry. Each point is far from inaccurate and in fact holds truths. But each only tells a part of the story and does not do justice to the whole picture.

There are a multitude of negotiations that inform the filmmaking process in Lebanon and that ultimately frustrate and destabilize attempts to impose singular meanings. Cinema is the type of art that involves the participation and contribution of many different people and entities. My purpose here is to account for some of this multiplicity to complicate earlier assertions that centralize the failures and shortcomings of Lebanese films. The mere fact that Lebanon is among the top nations in the region to produce acclaimed feature films in spite of the nation's various challenges and its lack of infrastructure7 necessitates that we tell a different kind of story.

This different story must decenter the Western gaze. It is true that uneven technologies of recognition frame the production and circulation of films from the Global South. Many Lebanese films do indeed conform to Western "discursive schemes"8 for understanding the Arab world and thus often produce ideologically suspect narratives.9 My point here is not to refute this claim nor is it to romanticize these films by ignoring the problematic polemics they often engage in. Rather, I ask, what would an analysis that decenters the Western gaze look like? What if we ask instead about how filmmakers negotiate practices of recognition rather than taking them as the singular force driving the meaning of these films?

In a similar vein, how does the local popularity that some of these films enjoy decenter the Western gaze? I have discussed elsewhere the affective resonance of West Beyrouth among Lebanese audiences. I looked at how the film's externally directed gaze, which is established through Doueiry's use of universally familiar news footage to reference the civil war and the tourism aesthetics that the filmic frame evokes, was central to its local success. This gaze I argue functions redemptively by reconfiguring Lebanon's image in a global mediascape, thus providing local audiences with a way of making sense of their recent traumatic history.10

My conversations with Lebanese filmmakers have nurtured my sense that an exclusive focus on the Western gaze as an overdetermining force in Lebanese cinema undermines the local efforts and negotiations that animate these films. While one Lebanese producer admitted that Western audiences and funders probably unconsciously influence the ways that some of the films they produce are written, she insisted that this does not mean that their company caters exclusively or excessively to the West. Their company refused to work with certain directors whose films seemed to underscore the barbarity of the Arab world. She gave the example of a foreign director who approached their company wanting to make a film about rape in the context of the Syrian war because he insisted that this is the kind of film that would appeal to funders. The film did enjoy relative success, but, according to this producer, their production company had no regrets about not producing it.

Such a refusal marks a particular kind of negotiation that is important to take into account when attempting to understand how filmmaking practices in Lebanon are embedded within transnational modes of financing and production. These transnational frameworks surely shape the films emerging from the country, but local actors also exert agency. Being attuned to these dynamics allows us to understand "the complex and shifting matrix of local, national, and global positionings" 11 that these films operate within.

The multinational and regional funding that has structured the production of Lebanese films in recent years has arguably provided filmmakers with more independence and flexibility. One director, who is in the postproduction phase of her first feature film, informed me that she had multiple sources of funding that included French, Swedish, Danish, Arab, and US agencies, and that she often received contradictory advice from these funders. "American funders would tell me that the story is too subtle" she explained, "while French funders would tell me the film is too written." She managed these varying expectations while prioritizing her own vision. She did acknowledge how foreign funders often attempt to impose their own stereotypical conceptions onto films but they do not always get the final word. She gave me an example of how funders wanted her to make a particular male character more oppressive and "more of a dictator figure" presumably to conform to the trope of the angry Arab man. She pushed back as she was insistent on providing a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal. "The last thing I want" she explained, "is to come off as a Lebanese woman making a film about how awful Arab men are."

This director challenged the idea that her creative process was restricted by her funders, making the case that those who chose to fund her film did so because they believed in the story, while those who requested major changes did not end up being involved. The production designer who worked on her film seemed to confirm this idea explaining that unlike in advertisements where the director is essentially the employee of a specific client, a filmmaker's film is chosen and funded because of their particular vision, and so in this regard they have much more agency in shaping the final product. While the degree of such agency can be debated, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge local filmmakers' agency as a significant factor animating the "dialogical relationships between national and transnational"12 systems if we are to do justice to the study of cinema cultures from the Global South. Perceptions from local filmmakers about their own positionality within transnational systems of financing are significant in that they encourage modes of inquiry that "configure the Global South not simply as a victim of the North . . . but instead as part of the world that has agency."13

My insistence on centralizing the experiences of Lebanese filmmakers is part of an attempt to understand how local or national contexts "exert the force of [their] presence even within transnational film-making practices"14 to offset modes of analysis that situate Lebanese cinema within closed-circuits of power. As one production designer explained to me, "when you are on the ground shooting the film, there is no constant obsession with the West." Instead, his priority is to convey a particular feeling that transcends narrow categorizations. He recognizes that often films from the region are criticized for capitalizing on trauma and poverty for international recognition. A recent film he worked on required the crew to travel to a war-torn location. While there may be troubling ethics to such cinematic voyeurism issues that this designer struggled with himself he also drew my attention to the severe emotional toll this exposure to massive destruction had on the crew members. As film professionals, their priority became about channeling and relaying the grief they were experiencing through their contributions to the film. As he put it, "we were driven solely by the grief we felt for a nation that lost everything a reality all of us can relate to." This affective labor shapes these films in ways that deserve recognition and subsequently nuances the meanings that we ascribe to them.


In Lebanon, moviegoers now have access to a much more diverse body of work. The category of transnational retains analytical value when we don't privilege it at the expense of national contexts and local experiences. While it is true that the production and circulation of films are never contained within rigid national boundaries, these films also "emanate from a clear socio-cultural and political context that also needs to be identified."15 The Lebanese film industry is certainly marred by shortcomings, with no infrastructure or public funding to support it and with incessant national crises and political insecurity that impede the potential for it to be nurtured. Whereas other countries have entire divisions devoted to promoting the national film industry and well-funded divisions at that in January 2020 Lebanon merged its culture department into the Minister of Agriculture and Culture. On a governmental level, filmmakers have little to expect. To say however that there is no Lebanese film industry is akin to saying that Lebanon is not a country. The failures of the industry are a reflection and extension of the deteriorating national context, making its successes all the more impressive. These successes should not be dismissed, and it is by encountering Lebanese cinema on its own terms that they come into full view.

Zeina Tarraf (@z_tarraf) is an assistant professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.


  1. Lina Khatib, Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond (London: I.B Tauris, 2008).[]
  2. Aida A. Hozic, "Between 'National' and 'Transnational:' Film Diffusion as World Politics," in International Studies Review, 16, no. 2 (June 2014): 229-239. []
  3. Khatib, Lina. Lebanese Cinema.[]
  4. Examples of these films include those of Maroun Baghdadi, Ghassan Salhab, and Khalil Joreige and Joanna Hadjithomas, some of which Netflix released in October through its "Made in Lebanon" catalogue. See "These Award-Winning Lebanese Films are Now Available on Netflix," Vogue Arabia. The catalogue includes both critically acclaimed films that were previously difficult to access, films by Doueiry and Labaki, and commercial flicks that initially circulated in Lebanese theaters and aimed mostly for box-office success. To this end, the list generally conforms to the standard characterization of Lebanese cinema with some exceptions like Lucien Bourjeily's Heaven Without People and Mir-Jean Bou Chaya's Very Big Shot that reflect the industry's changing dynamics. The release of this catalogue is an interesting step that invites us to consider the relationship between shifting distribution patterns, streaming logics and the changing landscape of Lebanese cinema. It also prompts us to question the dynamics that determine what counts as "national cinema." []
  5. Bou Chaaya's film was bought by Netflix in 2017 and is the first Lebanese film to be sold to Netflix for worldwide online distribution. []
  6. Wissam Mouawad, "Lebanese Cinema and the French Co-Production System: The Postcard Strategy," in Cinema of the Arab World, ed. T. Ginsberg and C. Lippard (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020): 71-86. Mouawad makes the argument that transnational systems of funding frequently produce films that represent exoticized and stereotypical versions of the country that fit into preexisting Western schemes for understanding the Arab worldwhat he labels "the postcard strategy."[]
  7. A recent study confirms this point: "Media Industries in the Middle East: Independent Film," Northwestern University in Qatar in partnership with Doha Film Institute, 2016.[]
  8. Mouawad, Wissam. "Lebanese Cinema," 80. []
  9. See the following for an example of where I discuss one such film: Zeina Tarraf, "The Attack: Doueiry's Depoliticisation of Trauma in the Transposition from Literature to Film," in What Happened? Re-presenting Traumas, Uncovering Recoveries, ed. Elspeth McInnes and Danielle Schaub(Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2019): 19-33[]
  10. Zeina Tarraf, "(Re)Negotiating Belonging: Nostalgia and Popular Culture in Postwar Lebanon." Journal of Intercultural Studies, 41, no. 3 (April 2020): 355-369. []
  11. W. Higbee,"Beyond the (Trans)national: Towards a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema (s)." in Studies in French Cinema 7, no. 1 (2007): 79-91,87.[]
  12. W. Higbee and S.H. Lim, "Concepts of Transnational Cinema," 18.[]
  13. Wendy Willems, "Beyond Normative Dewesternization: Examining Media Culture From the Vantage Point of the Global South," in The Global South, 8, no. 1 (2014): 7-23, 9.[]
  14. Higbee and Lim, "Concepts of Transnational Cinema," 10. []
  15. Higbee, "Beyond the (Trans)national," 3. []