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Evaluating the Existence with All its Possibilities: Sarah Francis

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Evaluating the Existence with All its Possibilities: Sarah Francis

26.03.2024

Text: Burcu Teker

Evaluating the Existence with All its Possibilities: Sarah Francis

Sarah Francis, one of the new generation filmmakers striving to expand the boundaries of her art and take its narrative to a global scale, is a Lebanese film producer and visual artist challenging long-standing cultural stereotypes. Through her insightful portrayals of Middle Eastern societies, she defies preconceptions, offering a glimpse into the reality of these communities. As one of the featured guests in the Documentary Cinema section of the 20th Akbank Short Film Festival, taking place from March 25 to April 4, the young director will engage in a discussion following the screening of her award-winning documentary Birds of September. Before her talk, let’s get to know her a bit better.

Growing up in Beirut in the early 1980s, her story begins with the discovery that films serve as both a means to question the world and a key to redesign it. The possibility of creating her own becomes an inspiration, shaping her education around this idea. She reflects, “It was the promise of something spacious and exciting enough to contain all of my enquiries and experiences with the world, like living several lives all at once. It held a sense of possibilities… In retrospect, I guess I demanded and expected a lot from it. It was idealistic, but it was perhaps an act of emancipation, of rebellion, a sort of personal pact with the world.” expressing the relationship between visuals, words, sounds, and the magical ability to delve into the inner worlds of people through their seamless combination.

"Filmmaking is a way for me to indulge in formulating my questions better, rather than finding definite answers."

Since completing her education at Saint Joseph University’s Institute for Theater, Audiovisual and Cinematic Studies (IESAV) in 2005, Sarah Francis has worked as a freelance director for numerous local production companies. Her struggle to connect with the small yet challenging and chaotic city where she grew up becomes a turning point when, in a moment of questioning her relationship with the city, she encounters a glass-panelled advertising truck in traffic. The truck, serving as a catalyst, transforms into the driving force she was seeking. The ability to experience the sensory elements within an isolated, secure bubble that can silence the invasive chaos… Thus, capturing glimpses from the lives of anonymous strangers who seem imprisoned by their destinies, she transforms a glass van into a mobile confessional. With this symbolic vehicle, she embarks on a journey through the streets of Beirut, writing and directing her first feature-length documentary, Touyour ayloul / Birds of September.

Premiering in the main competition at CPH:DOX, the documentary has been showcased in over 30 international festivals and museums, including Art of the Real, DOXA, FIFOG, Stedelijk Museum, and DMZ Docs, garnering various awards. The film serves as an indicator of Francis’ belief that filmmaking is a way to question human relationships with each other and the environment, going beyond finding definitive answers to exploring further questions: How do we coexist?

"I have an imaginary shelf for ideas or thoughts that are looping in my head. I just drop them there on that imaginary shelf and let them ferment for a while."

As a director who enjoys bringing her projects to life with an intuitive approach, prioritizing the depiction of the perception created by the journey rather than a narrative based on events; she is interested in portraying the elements that constitute the world we perceive as pieces of a puzzle, and exploring new approaches. Following her short films, Tukoos Nawal / Nawal's Rituals in 2014 and All the Temporary, Quick Notes from Home in 2016, she accomplished her second feature-length documentary, Kama Fissamaa' Kathalika Ala Al-ard / As Above, So Below, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. This time, she delves into the repetitive motion of adults swinging back and forth on a swing, using it as a reference to their constantly shifting and undulating internal worlds, never static but in perpetual motion. With a minimal approach centered around the relationship between humans and the symbolism of the Moon, she engages in a thought-provoking existential exploration, contemplating the constant need for redefinition of the elements surrounding us. "The sound is also an important element for me.” says Francis. “Sometimes the subject or the landscape is absent from the image but it’s there in sound. It conveys impressions from places or moments, which are familiar to the viewers, and thus they are able to become co-creators of what is being presented."

The director, who highlights the importance of an ethical perspective on the razor’s edge between fiction where someone’s truth is used as a tool and reality, sees identities as variable, flexible, and always redefinable concepts. This aligns with the idea of being able to rediscover oneself at any moment, opening doors to new opportunities. Similar to her intermittent engagement with painting in 2020, reconnecting with her visual art career, her directorial vision parallels the notion of being able to constantly rediscover oneself. Francis, whose paintings have been exhibited in various art galleries and featured in group exhibitions, is currently focusing on her solo exhibition while simultaneously developing her third feature-length film.

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