February 25, 2024

The forbidden love between two soldiers in a society riven by war is at the heart of “So the Lovers Could Come Out Again,” the sophomore feature from Lebanese filmmaker George Peter Barbari, whose debut, “Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living,” premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama strand. Barbari will be presenting the project at the Crossroads Co-Production Forum, which takes place Nov. 5 – 9 at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

“So the Lovers Could Come Out Again” is the story of two young soldiers holed up in a building controlled by Christian militias during the Lebanese civil war. As the fighting intensifies, the two men begin to find safety in each other, sharing their hopes and fears and recognizing that both are running from the past, as well as the war that rages inside them. Each of­fers the other their perspective on life, love, death, the universe, being, and how difficult it is to simply be themselves in a brutal world, forming a passionate bond considered unacceptable — even unthinkable — by their countrymen.

The film is inspired by real-life events that took place during a bloody conflict that lasted from 1975 until a 1990 peace agreement. During the war, Beirut was divided by a “green line” separating the city’s Muslim and Christian quarters. Christian militias took up positions in one of the residential buildings overlooking the demarcation line, from which their snipers could fire on opposing fighters and civilians. During the war, says Barbari, the building came to be known as the “house of death.”

When outsiders finally entered after the ceasefire, they discovered graffiti scrawled in Arabic on the wall that read: “If my love for Gilbert is a crime, then let history show that I am a very dangerous criminal.” The missive was signed by Tarzan, a pseudonym used by an anonymous soldier during the war. The implications of that love letter were clear, even if the reality of romance between two men was something that most in the patriarchal, conservative, religious country would deny.

When he first heard the story, Barbari says he was drawn to “the absurdity and the beauty of…these two men, in those circumstances, finding each other and making the most of it,” describing their forbidden love as “incredibly heartbreaking and beautiful.”

“People will see these men and judge these men right away as savages — men who kill other men. And if they hear about the story, they might judge them as blasphemous — men who love other men,” he continues. “For me, it was just these two human beings finding each other in the most absurd circumstances and making the most of it.” The two soldiers, he adds, “had to kill to be together.”

Barbari’s first feature, “Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living,” described by Variety’s Jay Weissberg as an “impressive debut” told with “originality and compassion,” revolved around four teenage boys in northern Lebanon losing their virginity to a prostitute. “There may be films that resemble in certain details ‘Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living,’ though nothing readily comes to mind,” Weissberg wrote, “and even were there something to compare it to, it wouldn’t lessen the way it burrows inside until you find yourself flooded by the fragility of life, with all its beauty and sorrow.”

Barbari’s debut, “Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living,” premiered at Berlin.
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

In both features, says Barbari, he tries “to portray human beings as humanly as possible,” adding: “Every person has their own story. Every person has their struggle.” The two soldiers at the heart of “So the Lovers Could Come Out Again,” he adds, “were people, too. And we don’t know why they were there, doing what they had to do.”

The director’s ragtag first feature was shot on a shoestring budget of just $10,000, with many of Barbari’s collaborators offering their services for free. Producer Christelle Younes, of Beirut-based Bee On Set Productions, is again onboard to produce “So the Lovers Could Come Out Again,” though Barbari notes that despite the acclaim for his debut, “it’s still such a struggle to make independent cinema in the region.”

“The funds in the region don’t support films that don’t play it safe,” he says, particularly when it comes to queer cinema. He recalls how the head of one regional fund said he need not apply with “So the Lovers,” telling the filmmaker bluntly: “We don’t help queer films.”

That opposition has only strengthened Barbari’s conviction to make his sophomore feature. “The story has to be told,” he says. “For me, the only films [that get made] should be offering something new to the world — telling a story that’s never been told before in a way that’s never been done before. So it has to be something new and it has to be unsafe.”

The Thessaloniki International Film Festival runs Nov. 2 – 12.

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