After introducing her Sundance award-winning documentary Beirut: The Last Home Movie, Jennifer Fox left the auditorium, claiming that watching her own movies makes her sick to her stomach. With the nervous director gone, the lights dimmed and the film projector hummed as the two-hour movie played Monday night in the Bright Family Screening Room.
Beirut is an aesthetically gritty documentary that follows a rich Lebanese family, the Bustros, as they hole up in their 200-year-old mansion while the Lebanese Civil War wages on just outside their home.
“Why would people who can leave decide to stay?” asked Fox, who spent a little over two months recording the family.
The documentary is part of Emerson College’s two-night series It’s All True, showcasing nonfiction movies from both Emerson students and professionals in the filmmaking community, including Fox, who won the 1988 Grand Jury Prize Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival for this piece.
Laurel Greenberg, who teaches documentary production at Emerson, introduced Fox before the screening. She said she was honored to show students what documentary film is capable of, even having Fox drop by her classes.
“Our goal is to show outstanding documentary work,” said Greenberg. “And it’s very apt to show our students a documentary made by someone who was their age when she made it.”
The film, mainly seen through the eyes of youngest daughter Gaby, chronicles the eccentricities of a family that is simply not ready to let go of its beloved home, even in the face of utter chaos and destruction.
“The film is about the destruction of beauty,” said Fox. “And there is a seduction to war.”
Fox was only 21 when she traveled to Beirut at the end of 1981. For three years, she and her editor tweaked the script, creating a new cut annually. And then Fox spent years looking for distribution before finally breaking through at the Sundance Film Festival in 1988.
Certain scenes become almost comical as the family’s stubbornness persists. Just outside their home lie burning cars and smoky rumble from buildings that no longer stand. Yet inside their gated mansion, a hired gardener still trims the leaves off the bushes, striving to make everything look picturesque.
In one scene, the daughters are getting manicures as the discerning sound of machine guns permeates the background. In another, the whole family gathers around the television to drink alcohol and watch Walt Disney’s animated film The Jungle Book. The documentary presents a bizarre juxtaposition between the explosions and destruction of the outside world and the family’s denial that death is knocking at their door.
According to Fox, she had only spent a year in film school at New York University before following fellow student and friend Gabe Bustros to Lebanon during the civil war. Fox said she found herself captivated by this dysfunctional family and saw the potential for a feature length film, even though she and her small crew were risking their lives every day.
“I wanted to experience a war,” said Fox of her naïve younger self. “Not because I thought it was scary, but because it was exciting.”
Almost 30 years later, the film can still be found playing festivals and is available for purchase on Fox’s website. Fox still apologizes for the film’s running time, something she says wouldn’t be as long in the current climate of documentary films.
“It’s made for the cinema, so it’s a little slow at times,” said Fox.
Still, she is proud of her first feature, even if she can’t stomach watching.
“I cried during my screenings,” said Fox upon recieving a positive response at the Berlin Film Festival and Sundance. “A film doesn’t exist until it has an audience.”
Since then, Fox has made a number of documentaries and multi-part mini series, including An American Love Story and Flying: Confessions Of A Free Women. Currently, Fox uses her experience to lecture on the craft of documentary filmmaking everywhere from South Africa to Sweden.