The Lebanese Rocket Society

So it was my first go at TIFF this afternoon. I saw The Lebanese Rocket Society, a documentary about Lebanon’s short-lived, and long-forgotten space program in the 1960s.  It was made by the artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.

I wanted to see it as soon as I read the description, which included a lot of my favourite dissertation-relevant things.  It’s a work of commemoration, by and about two artists who want to return the Lebanese Rocket Society to public memory.  The Society operated between 1960 and 1966, so it’s about the Cold War, too, and a Middle East shadowed by American/Soviet tension, the continuing repercussions of decolonization and the Second World War. Kim Philby even turns up for a moment. Finally, it’s an alternative history of technology and innovation.  I mean, it’s about a bunch of kids who built a rocket! Just because they like rockets!

Anyway.  This isn’t a review of the film, more of a response.  I’m not a critic, but I got to thinking about stuff as I watched.

Hadjithomas’s and Joreige’s film documents the Society’s story and their own work on a sculpture, which reproduces the Cedar 4 Rocket (one of the society’s later models) as a memorial, which they then install on the campus of Haigazian University, where the Rocket Society had its origins. The film recovers the Cedar 4 Rocket from collective oblivion, both as a sign, and as a communal narrative. This dual work—telling the story, commemorating the object—in turn salvages a moment of collective optimism in the Lebanon of the 1960s, so the rocket comes to signify both creation and loss.  And, in the course of the film, it also signifies the possibility of recovery.

It’s difficult.  Mostly because they want to recuperate a sign now inextricably linked to violence; that is, the rocket, reborn here in white, and stripped of the marks of national identity that covered the original, in order to differentiate the copy as a tool of memory rather than exploration. While the first members of the Society were inventors and scientists, it is hard to separate such work from the military uses we inevitably make of the technology. Part of the film’s appeal is the way it traces the rocket’s many, conflicting meanings:  the exhileration of speed and innovation; the fascination of technology; the desire to see farther and know more; national defense and the high frontiers of the cold war; the possibilities of collective memory.

I admire their project.  I admire it because the intervening  years make it so difficult to reclaim these objects and stories as signs of anything but war.  My own academic work on literature and military geography turns on Yves Lacoste’s aphorism: “La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre.” War is good for geography (as a discipline) because geography makes war, and that’s true for a lot of other technologies, as well.  This perspective means I think of many things in military terms:  information and transportation technologies, surveillance, commemoration, the nation-state itself. I see militarism at work in our geographies, or the way we organize and remember our history, or the kind of literature we produce to describe our communities.

So when I think of rockets, I think of missiles. I think of the DEW line, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Diefenbunker and the High Frontier.  In Lebanon those associations are far more immediate and painful, and have been for forty years, a history of violence and resistance I wish I understood better than I do.

It was moving to remember that rockets are not always missiles, and to see two artists reclaim them as tools of discovery and community.  In the course of the film, the idea of space—and the technology that might take us there—unifies us in our desire to look outward from the planet.

And most moving of all, for me, was the sense of lost optimism, that for a while in the 60s people could imagine alternatives for Lebanon’s future. This optimism did not last, but I like to know that it existed, and the Cedar 4 rocket becomes a means of telling me that story.  I hope more people get a chance to see the film.

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