By Kummam Mohammed Al-Maadeed
What makes a nation’s historic achievement disappear and become a distant memory? This process of preserving history is a central question explored by the directors of the award winning documentary ‘The Lebanese Rocket Society’, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreigein. The film follows their journey to unearth the forgotten story of the Middle East’s first rocket launch in Lebanon in 1961. The narrative starts at the Arminian University, Haigazian, in Lebanon where Professor Manoug Manougian leads a group of students in an exciting project to create rockets from scratch. However, the scope of the project soon grew bigger than anyone had imagined. It began as a small class endeavour, but after the press did a feature story, people got excited and the military stepped in to support this educational initiative. The educational and scientific research laid the foundations of the Rocket Society, acting to unify the nation in times of conflict as Lebanon was a country full of divisions.
When thinking of Lebanon during the 60s, people remember the tense relationship between the Arab world and Israel. The film however, documents a lost chapter in Lebanese and Arab history, poignantly capturing the formation of the Lebanese Rocket Society, despite the political events happening in the background.
The story builds momentum as pieces of the puzzle are discovered and interpreted, reaching an intense climax after an interview with Professor Manougian, where he provides photos, videos and detailed documents about the legacy of this forgotten project; offering access to documents that the directors thought were lost forever. Manougian sutures the pieces together and narrates the story of how they started the Society; a narrative that is fuelled by failed rockets, an exciting quest to find the right formula, the involvement of the military and the request of another Arab country to start building rockets for their own needs.
It is interesting to see how a simple student project evolved and was misunderstood in the days when the Middle East played a key role in the Cold War. As Manougian explains in the film, Lebanon was filled with spies from different countries and building a rocket was not something to be ignored. He also describes how slowly the military took over the project. The instability of the relationship between the East and the West was at its highest during that decade and was shown through the fear of the Lebanese Rocket Society’s endeavoures, as they could adversely affect neighbouring countries, including Israel. In the end the Society was pressured to stop making rockets and the story slowly dissolved.
The directors’ passion about the story is obvious as they try to find anyone who has a memory of the launch of the first Arab rocket, but they are astonished at how this event was removed from memory. The viewers are left to question whether the reason behind the lost story is the lack of care to document and save historical facts in Arab countries or the success of the West to suppress positive Arab achievements.
An official pick of the Toronto International Film Festival and winner of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Arab Documentary Award, ‘The Lebanese Rocket Society’ is brilliantly made. The frames of newspaper articles provide evidence of the existence of the rockets and the slow pace of the film grabs the viewer while emphasizing the importance of the image. Also, the directors managed to create a smooth transition between the new and the historic footage recovered from Professor Manougian. Since most evidence of the launch of the Rocket is photos and old video footage, the style of the documentary is very photographic, linking the still images of the past to the modern images of the present. This style ensures that the viewer will be engaged by the film and will hopefully carry on this forgotten memory.
Documentaries should reflect the essence of finding new untold stories and sharing them with audiences on an international level. ‘The Lebanese Rocket Society’ doesn’t just do this, but it also show us how a small group of people who didn’t give up on their dreams managed to shock a nation.