By Linda Shapiro
Photo by Richard Anderson
Filmmaker Hisham Bizri turns everyday life into visual poetry with an emotional pulse.
Hisham Bizri starts talking about filmmaking, and he becomes a poet, a scientist, and a Utopian philosopher by turns. Bizri’s work has been shaped by his experiences growing up in a country in turmoil and by his belief that films are living organisms with the potential to “create possible worlds" that give people hope and comfort.
A native of Sidon, Lebanon, Bizri grew up watching European art cinema and classic American westerns while civil war raged around him. He has lived in the United States for over 20 years, making films that reflect his personal experience of mediating between his Arab/Muslim upbringing and his Anglo/American culture. “I make references in my films to things that have been informed by my Lebanese origins and Lebanese history, but also by my exposure to the West. The works of Bach, Joyce, and Proust—all these shaped my mind," says Bizri, an assistant professor of film.
“People in my country and everywhere are unaware of the tragic and the magic in everyday life. I’m fascinated by the human spirit that can create such wonderful things in art and at the same time destroy so much. How can the sublime and the ridiculous coexist?"
Visual poetryWhile his films have been shown in Beirut and internationally, Bizri wonders how well he’s been able to communicate to his countrymen. “It’s difficult for them to get into my mind, and it’s a dilemma for me. I’m not sure what difference I’m making," says Bizri, who has seen Lebanon radically altered over the past couple of decades. “I have a very difficult presence there now. Lebanese culture is in decay. Education and media have become commercialized. We’ve lost our sense of poetry."
In 2007, Bizri won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded for “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." This year he was awarded the distinguished 2008-2009 Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome. Together these fellowships will enable this internationally acclaimed filmmaker to work on two films that have been brewing for some time. Song for the Deaf Ear will be a meditation on war and violence in Lebanon created from material Bizri has shot over the past few years, and from film archives. Cairo Psalm, loosely inspired by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, will explore the theme of spiritual exile by following the lives of characters who have been dispossessed of their native country, culture, and religion.
“There’s always a tension between abstraction and representation in my films," says Bizri. “I want this film to reflect the sense of anxiety, melancholy, and despair that people are currently feeling in Egypt."
The process of creating his films—which he describes as “visual poems"—involves a complex balance of technical skill and visceral intuition. “There is so much that the eye can see but doesn’t; I try in my films to make that visible," says Bizri. “But because the camera can record anything, you must be vigilant about creating something while you’re recording. Otherwise it becomes boring, like most contemporary cinema—the same old stories."
While the skill of looking through a camera with clarity of intent must be carefully honed, the filmmaker’s passion also needs plenty of room to maneuver, he suggests: “Film becomes universal when you make the viewers feel the emotional impulse of the scene they are watching. Creating the right rhythm is the most important thing in art. It’s the rhythm that carries the emotional potential and shows you the soul of the filmmaker."
Bizri brings to his classes not only his brilliance as an artist but also a dedication to students that makes him “one of the University’s great treasures," says department chair John Archer. “Lots of students are anxious, depressed. They are desperate to communicate and don’t know how to do it," says Bizri. “Film is a way to know the world of emotions, soul, spirit, and the unconscious. If you come at filmmaking from the angle of passion, you can make students see that in beauty they can discover a kind of peace they won’t find in the increasing commercialization of cultures around the world."