Friday, February 7, 2014

'The Lebanese Rocket Society' (2012) directed by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

Ah space travel, that most romantic of scientific endeavours: defining new frontiers, risking death for knowledge and the joy of sticking a tentative toe in the galactic ocean.  This is the preserve of elite countries with resources and funds to spare: the USA, the Soviet Union, China, Lebanon.  Wait a minute.  Lebanon?!  Yup, unlikely as it might seem, in the 60s Lebanon had its own space programme; the titular Lebanese Rocket Society. They were big news in Lebanon, practically national heroes. And then everyone forgot them.

This documentary seeks to expose this 'secret' history; a noble chapter in the history of Lebanon obscured by civil war, coups and general misery.  The meat of the film is a detective story, Hadjithomas and Joreige scouring microfiche newspapers, the Lebanese film archive and tracking down the men who led this underdog also-ran in the space race.  

The leader is the charmingly erudite Professor Manoug Manougian, now a professor in Tampa, Florida.  Manougian is a great documentary find; a romantic space visionary (he resides in Tampa because it's where Jules Verne said rockets should be launched from) with the intelligence and confidence to put together an academic, scientifically space programme with limited resources in the turbulent Middle East.  The film is at its most interesting as Manougian lays out his society's achievements; from developing their own propellant to firing their first test rockets; so modest they look more like fireworks than anything NASA might come up with.

But soon these fireworks began to grow in size and people began to take note.  Bolstered by glowingly patriotic news coverage, public support and government approval the rockets grew ever bigger and more effective.  Throughout the film there's a repeated underlining that these rockets were the fruit of pure scientific endeavour, though as they chalk up more impressive successes the military soon butt in, the programme having obvious applications as weaponry.

The peak of their achievements was the Cedar IV, an impressive looking piece of rocketry that launched to a height of 90 miles, close to the altitude of low-earth orbit.  Now people started to take them seriously.  The rocket, which laned somewhere south of Cyprus in the Mediterranean, caused a diplomatic stink and with  paranoia rife among Arab countries in the mid-60s the rocket campaign was shut down and subsequently forgotten... until now.

This first half of the film is genuinely interesting material.  Unfortunately, once this history lesson is out of the way The Lebanese Rocket Society runs out of fuel. You sense the film spinning its wheels and though it tries a number of different approaches the film-makers never regain the momentum and curiosity we had over this first sequence.

Hindering them is the unfortunate tendency of reality not to conform to a story with a beginning, middle and end.  The Lebanese space programme has no real climax or breakthrough; efforts to put a mouse into one of their rockets and blast it up into space are stymied by an animal-loving wife, and the ambitions of putting a rudimentary satellite into orbit don't progress past pipe dreams.  Even their actual achievements are difficult to comprehend from the stock footage; the rockets blasting off and disappearing off camera in a second or so.  

As a history lesson the documentary succeeds, but as a piece of cinema it comes up short - noodling around trying to find something to pad out the run time with.  They settle for devoting a full third of the film to constructing a replica rocket to mark the location of the rocket society's laboratory.  It's a noble endeavour but only mildly interesting to watch. What's worse is that they tease you with shots of a rocket under construction, leading to think maybe these film-makers are going to singlehandedly blast off a rocket into space; but this is all a feint.

A low point in terms of interest is a segment detailing the paperwork needed to transport their replica rocket across Beirut to the university.  The procurement of government transportation permits is not exactly dynamic cinema material, especially as the bureaucrats are totally supportive of the venture.  You almost wish there was one stick in the mud who didn't want the hassle of something that looks very much like a weapon taken through his district, but no - apparently everyone wishes the film-makers well. Similarly anticlimactic is the replica rocket's trip across Beirut.  Within the city, a rocket like this is a potent symbol of the past, recalling the bombed out chaos of war that Beirut periodically suffers.  But everyone seems a bit blase, the only real reaction being the odd person snapping a pic on their iPhone.  

That diversion out of the way, the film takes a further swerve with a bizarre animated sequence that imagines an alternate reality Lebanon where the space programme was never cancelled.  From the looks of things having a successful space programme would have solved all of Lebanon's woes, transforming the country into a futuristic science fiction metropolis with Akira motorcycles and zero gravity nightclubs.  It's bonkers, completely at odds with the rest of the film, though at least mad enough to be interesting.

This is inarguably a compelling and worthy subject for a documentary, and when the film is actually exploring this hidden history it's genuinely interesting.  Unfortunately there's just not enough material for a 90 minute runtime and midway through there's a palpable sense of the film-makers having exhausted their resources.  The Lebanese Rocket Society has its heart in the right place, but the maxim "less is more" strongly applies.


The Lebanese Rocket Society is released on DVD on 10th February

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