Film student producing documentary about growing up in war-torn Beirut
In December 1975, the mutilated bodies of four members of the Lebanese Phalange, or Social Democratic Party, were found in an abandoned car in Christian-dominated East Beirut. This discovery led to the 15-year Lebanese Civil War between the Phalange, which was mainly supported by the Maronites, one of the principal Catholic groups in Lebanon, and the Lebanese National Movement party, which was dominated by leftist Muslims and Palestinians.
University of North Texas graduate student Tania Khalaf vividly remembers the war, which began when she was a child growing up in Beirut.
"I remember my mother screaming as my family ran to the bomb shelter alongside hundreds of others," she says.
This past summer, Beirut was ravaged by war again during hostilities between Israeli forces and Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah forces. The month-long war, which ended with a ceasefire Aug. 14, brought back memories for Khalaf, who was in Beirut at the time to visit her family and film a thesis documentary for her master of fine arts degree in radio, television and film.
Khalaf was unable to return to UNT as she planned on July 27 because the Beirut airport was closed and the whole country was under blockade. She decided to change the subject of her documentary to capture footage of the war. She also wanted to focus on how growing up in a war zone influenced her life.
Khalaf returned to UNT Sept. 4 - one week after the fall semester started. She recently received a $3,500 project completion grant from Women in Film.Dallas, a nonprofit organization that promotes and enhances the recognition of professional women in the film and video industry, to help her finish her documentary, called "Born in Beirut."
"I always wanted to express my feelings toward war, and I thought I'd do a documentary about it after I graduated," she said. "When the war started and I was restricted from leaving the country, I knew that this is the time I need to do it."
Khalaf has a bachelor's degree in drama from Lebanese University in Beirut and worked as a drama teacher and producer and editor for broadcast documentary productions before coming to UNT in 2003.
"I have a lot of passion for learning and wanted to be exposed to a new culture," she said.
She said she chose UNT's MFA program because of her passion for film and "for being able to share stories with others."
"I strongly believe you can enable social change through a documentary," she said.
In addition to having footage of the Lebanon-Israeli War, "Born in Beirut" will include interviews that Khalaf conducted with those who lived close to the two nations' borders and lost their homes, friends or family members to the rocket and mortar attacks. Khalaf often filmed wearing a mask on her face to protect her from toxins from phosphorous bombs, cluster bombs and uranium that were used by the Israeli Army.
Khalaf said the film will also include simple, hand-drawn animation to show the war through the eyes of a child.
"I will do the voiceover of the little girl in the animation," she said. "The challenge of this film is to set politics aside and think of the war in terms of human rights. It will be a struggle because my memories of the civil war resonate much more powerfully after last summer's experience."
The $3,500 grant will allow Khalaf to return to Beirut for a month beginning Dec. 12. During that time, she will complete the animation and additional interviews for the film.
"Born in Beirut" is one of several documentaries she has created as a UNT student. Last year, her film "still, life," which she produced with UNT student Meta Newhouse, received first prize in the Documentary Short Competition at the Austin Film Festival. The film follows two UNT art students who collect dead animals and photograph them.
Khalaf also produced "Walking Through Tall Grass," about a 3-year-old double amputee. She said she may eventually return to her original idea for her master's thesis film - a documentary about Lebanon's homeless children called "The Chicklets Kids."
But first, she plans to finish "Born in Beirut" and receive her master of fine arts degree in May.
"I hope the film will broaden others' point of view and perspective about the Middle East," she said. "We aspire for peace and wish to resolve all our differences through communication and stop resorting to war and violence."