Interview Series: Nora Niasari, Film Maker

Since my arrival in Sydney in 2009, hanging out at the School of Design, Architecture and Building at University Technology of Sydney has been the best way to meet great people doing great things (that I can subsequently write about). This is where I met Adrian Lahoud, but also Tarsha Finney, Sam Spurr, Craig Allchin and so many others who have come to be good friends.

Adrian got me involved in guest critiquing his studio quite early on. I think it was the first year he was running his studio on the Mediterranean Union, asking students to explore the local impacts of large scale infrastructure such as high-speed rail on Beirut. They’d just gotten back from Beirut. And for many of the students, being in Beirut, seeing the city with their own two eyes would have completely shifted the premise of their work. Not that Beirut is a particularly beautiful city, it definitely challenges your assumptions of urban systems.

There was one student there who caught my eye. She was young yet incredibly mature in the perspective on Beirut she brought to the studio. It felt like she ‘got’ Beirut and her work spoke volumes of her interest in telling the stories of the people of Beirut, rather than indulging in a tabula rasa design exercise. Her work also stood out because she didn’t produce an architectural design, complete with floor plans and exploded axonometrics. No, she presented something alive: she presented her own short film called ‘Vehicles of Memory’, a journey through Beirut through the lens of various taxi drivers, their reading of the past, their hopes for the future. As she sat in the back of the cab, using a local as an interpreter, Nora asks the cab drivers where the formal division of Beirut known as the ‘Green Line’ used to be. As they drive through the part of the city that was formerly the front line of the Lebanese Civil War conflict, the drivers (all older men incidentally) tell tales of their experience of the war, who did what, who you can blame for what. What struck me as I watched this excellent documentary film, was the lack of responsibility taken. They all referred to an amorphous group ‘they’, without offering any additional explanation or description to shed light on who they were. I suppose there may be more to it than simply eschewing responsibility. After all, the Lebanese Civil tore the country apart from 1975 to 1990, and for the large part, the warring factions have had to find a way to coexist in peace following the end of the war. Perhaps it is the sign of reconciliation and forgiveness that motivates their elusiveness.

VEHICLES OF MEMORY from nora niasari on Vimeo.

Nora Niasari is now Melbourne-based, but comes from an Iranian background, which I think helped her fit right into Beirut. Nora has since been back to Beirut several times to film another documentary called ‘Beirut: Under the Bridge’, the life and death of public transport in Beirut. If you’ve never been to Beirut, you might wonder what the fuss is all about, but public transport is definitely not the mode of transportation that is most used. There are several factors that explain that, but the main explanation is the lack of a unified civil society. With a past of conflict and resilience, the state has no legitimacy as the provider of public services, neither does it try to have. The last major infrastructure project was the construction of a 6-lane highway from the airport, bypassing the whole of South Beirut and landing right in the centre of the city, in an attempt to make the connection from the airport to the city as seamless as possible. Which would be all right if it weren’t for all the livelihoods that have been affected by the curtailing of the main economic spine of the southern end of the city that was the old airport road.

Beirut, Under the Bridge from nora niasari on Vimeo.

Nora’s documentary gives an exclusive insight into the daily challenges faced by public transport operators and station managers. What’s truly incredible is that she got access to these people, interviewed the managers, the soldiers, the Syrian day workers, and many more who are involved in the maintenance of this crumbling public transport infrastructure. For those not familiar with Lebanon, that is quite an achievement.

I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Nora about the documentary a couple weeks ago. I asked Nora what drew her to this subject area, an usual choice by many accounts. Interestingly, Nora’s take was that public transportation was actually a subject that was emotionally invested, as infrastructure and transport were some of the first reconstruction efforts after the war. The very fact that there is public transport in any form is almost like a vestige of a dream, the past hope of a better future ahead. Nora also looks at public transport as the sign of a healthy society, where mobility, both spatial and social are encouraged and supported. Is the corollary true? Does a lack of public transport indicate a society in a state of crisis?

Her investigation led her back to the 1920s, when public transport consisted in Beirut of the eastern most stretch of the Orient Express and a fairly developed network of trams throughout the city. As she found out through her interviews, Beirutis are still quite nostalgic about this era. It’s almost impossible to imagine today in a city plagued by traffic and where road rules are very freely interpreted. The trams were ripped out in the 1960s, but unlike Sydney, it was not only because cars overtook trams as the favoured means of transportation. Trams were discontinued because of a contractual glitch that forced the tram operator and Electricite du Liban to discontinue their collaboration. Without electricity, no tram. Shame really. For those who are interest, I’ve found fantastic images of the trams on a blog called ‘Old Beirut’. Worth a look.

Despite the shift to cars, the Lebanese government still saw the need to provide buses. According to Nora’s investigation, the story of designing the bus service in Beirut is fraught with colonial interference from Good Old France, keen to flog off several Renault buses designed to withstand the winters of Central Europe, but not the sweltering heat of a Mediterranean summer. Fundamental criteria for the specification you would have thought. These buses now live in large ‘cemeteries’ in limbo for over 20 years with no prospect of replacement or disposal. ‘I could have made the whole movie about the buses’ Nora reflects during our conversation.

Nora’s rise as a film maker has been pretty impressive. She’s been in several film festivals including the Beirut Film Festival, where she was awarded two titles: Best Director and Special Jury Prize. Her film will be touring a few festivals in the year to come but she’s quickly moved onto another documentary about another city facing trauma titled “Talca Interrupted”. This time in Chile, this is Nora’s first long form documentary. Another urban topic, another confronting context, another brilliant production, no doubt. The project is currently in production mode and has been invited for pitching at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) in February. You can check out the trailer here: http://vimeo.com/23307783 as well as follow its developments on Facebook!

Talca Interrupted (Trailer) from nora niasari on Vimeo.

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