Interview with director, producer on documenting initiative to use recycling as a way to heal sectarian divides
Producer and assistant director, Lauren Santucci, also a writer and photographer, worked with grassroots projects in Greece and Serbia during the European refugee crisis, becoming a reporter for Help Refugees and covering the Serbia-Hungary border in 2016. She also investigated police brutality and violence against refugees and migrants. Her documentary short film Ongoing and Serious Threat follows three U.S. wartime allies from Afghanistan as they experience the process of the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program. Santucci also holds an M.A. in International Relations and Art History from the University St. Andrews, having focused on forced migration and conflict resolution.
Rowsome and Santucci took a brief rest from pre-production in Lebanon for the following interview.
Alice Rowsome & Lauren Santucci: Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city, but it is a far cry from Beirut. Only 30km away, the Syrian conflict reignited tensions between Sunni neighborhood Bab al-Tabbeneh and Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen and hundreds of people were killed in violent clashes that ended in 2014. Although the fighting has stopped, Tripoli remains scarred by the violence, poverty and corruption.
Neglected for decades by the government, Tripoli’s is now being threatened by another crisis: waste. On the coast, right in the middle of the city, a huge 35 meter-high pile of trash, estimated to store 600 tons of unsorted waste per day, is dangerously building up. And inside some of the war-torn neighborhoods where tensions remain, residents are throwing their trash on the streets that demarcate the old frontlines. For example, there is a street called Zeyla that lies between a Sunni and an Alawite neighborhood is layered with trash. The problem is huge.
Unfazed by the enormity of the issue, a group of women from Jabal Mohsen has decided to start a recycling project to mobilize people to clean up their streets. They want to use recycling to transform and bring together the Alawite and Sunni communities. Can trash provide an unexpected platform for recovery and reconciliation? That’s what our documentary is looking to find out.
Our film will follow the women on their journey to form a recycling partnership between neighborhoods with a history of extreme tension and violence. We want to highlight women’s responses to war and sectarianism. Conflict is often understood by the role of men in the fighting, but what is the other half of the population enduring?
KM: Has the trash become a public health crisis? And are there any members of the communities who depend on the trash in personal ways to find or sell items that can still be used?
AR & LS: Trash is all over the streets and beaches of Tripoli. People throw their garbage from their windows aiming at garbage containers, but often miss, which has led to large piles of trash that are rarely picked up. On the beach and on the streets, it is extremely common to see enormous rats, day and night.
Not only is sewage pumped into the sea, but the large 35-meters waste dump over the coast produces a black toxic liquid, locally known as ‘bin juice’ that flows into the sea, contaminating marine life.
According to a study by the American University in Beirut, exposure to waste and burning trash leads to serious health problems. People who live in proximity to these dumps, which is practically everyone in Tripoli, are 400% more likely to catch respiratory and digestive health issues.
Living in Tripoli, we have noticed that if the wind is strong, the entire city ends up smelling of trash. And although studies haven’t been conducted yet on the health impact of the dump on locals, many complain to suffer from nausea, light-headedness and stomach problems when the smell of the trash is strong.
It is not common, but some residents do make an income by sorting through the trash for scrap metal to recycle.
AR & LS: Alice met Rabab and her girlfriends on a photography assignment in February when she was working in Beirut. Khoder, one of the women’s son wanted to turn his university recycling project into a reality in his hometown, Jabal Mohsen, but had encountered a lot of difficulties finding male volunteers to help him. Rabab talked to her friends about helping with the project and they began to meet every day to sort waste and encourage neighbors to start recycling. After their campaign, six hundred households in Jabal Mohsen began sorting their own recycling.
KM: Having dedicated herself to recycling, what is Rabab's hope now for Tripoli? How does she see her advocacy tying into the broader atmosphere in Tripoli and more broadly, Lebanon, at this time?
AR & LS: Rabab is determined to get the whole city, and all of Lebanon, to recycle. Now that the war in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbeneh is over, she thinks sectarianism can be forgotten. She hopes the waste crisis can reunite Sunnis and Alawites and encourage cooperation. Although her husband disagrees, she feels [that she] and her friends can overcome sectarianism by working with the women in Tabbeneh.
KM: How has this grassroots work brought together communities formerly embroiled in conflict? Do you think the dialogue and cooperation is sustainable?
AR & LS: The women are focusing on getting the project up and running smoothly in their own community before expanding. There is very little integration between the two neighborhoods since the conflict. Although it will be very difficult in the beginning, Rabab strongly believes that dialogue and cooperation can lead to a sustainable peace. She is confident that she will find women in Tebbeneh who are open to collaborating. Convincing some of their husbands, however, might prove difficult.
KM: Grassroots peace and dialogue efforts are often led or influenced by women, and cinematic narratives like Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now? (2011) are examples of dramatic films that illustrate peace initiatives between communities, initiated by women. How do you situate your short documentary film Khadra within the broader canon of narrative and documentary work about women fomenting social change?
AR & LS: Where Do We Go Now? (2011) is definitely our main inspiration for the film. The women in this documentary have such similar, warm, funny, sassy personalities, but also such a strong will to unite and just get over sectarianism, war and so on, with a very can-do attitude.
Women are at the heart of society, they are all mothers, sisters, daughters, and play the role of cooks, nurses, teachers and they are the ones who end up picking up the pieces in times of conflict, who suffer and have to adapt the most. And, ultimately, these characteristics mean that there is more that unites women than divides them. Putting women at the forefront of peacebuilding or social change initiatives, especially when it comes to uniting communities and regions, is such an important thing that should be encouraged and highlighted.
We hope that this documentary will be our first in a series of films documenting women as peace-builders and environmental activists.
KM: What's the status of your film right now, and where do you plan to screen it when it's completed? Will you screen it in Tripoli?
AR & LS: We are still in the pre-production phase—we will be releasing a teaser trailer early November and then we will come back to Tripoli to film the women in their efforts to work with the women of Bab al-Tabbeneh.
The film will be screened at Bertha DocHouse in London, which is the first theater in the UK dedicated solely to documentaries. We are planning a Tripoli screening at a space called Shift, that sits in between the Sunni and Alawite communities of Tripoli and supports projects that emphasize collaboration and social cohesion, as well as a collaborative art space called Warche 13. Beyond that, we are still in conversation with media channels about a commission or acquisition.