Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have fashioned an engaging, though indubitably odd, film that studies the contribution Lebanese dreams made to the 1960s Space Race. It attempts to stocktake where that contribution stands presently. It also projects what it may have been in the future had it continued to exist.
The project was the brainchild of Manoug Manougian, who was present at the Cambridge screening. He was a mathematics and physics professor who, on an autumn day in 1960, put up a sign on the student bulletin board that read “Do You Want to be Part of the Haigazian College Rocket Society?” From this inauspicious beginning developed the Middle East’s only space project. The Cedar programme saw the construction of pioneering prototype rockets as well as the development of effective propellant fuels to launch the Lebanese contributions into the skies of the eastern Mediterranean. The programme progressed as far as making bigger more powerful rockets which, although never rivalling those of the US or USSR, were clearly sophisticated bits of hardware.
Always an educational and research project, the programme flirted with danger as rockets narrowly missed both Cyprus and a British naval vessel on reaching the end of their journey’s trajectory. By the time these rockets were being launched, however, political tension in the area was beginning to burgeon. This coincided with the Lebanese army becoming one of the project’s partners. Inevitably the rocket programme was perceived to be a contribution to the country’s military programme. Discretion being the better part of valour, the project was quietly allowed to die. No active cover-up seemed to have occurred though some forty years later very few Lebanese have any consciousness of it ever having occurred. A very few pieces of evidence remain in the public domain. A few pictures, one or two newspaper articles and a celebratory stamp is the sum total of the project’s existence.
There is a danger of being patronising when assessing both the film and the project itself. There are several hurdles to negotiate before a true assessment can be made. Firstly, language. It is predominantly made in Arabic peppered with a little French. Occasionally English is used. Not that this should matter much because the subtitling is good. Yet it is a small obstacle.
Nextly, the film assumes a certain degree of knowledge of Lebanese history and politics. For those of us who lived through the atrocities of the end of the last century there is enough residual memory to aid comprehension. I wondered though what the younger members of the audience made of it.
The major problem, however, is to resist the temptation to patronise. Calling the project an idiosyncrasy is unhelpful. The participants were serious about the contribution they were making. Yet the film adopts a slightly quaint stance that portrays the rocket makers as endearing amateurs in competition with the super-powers that dominated the Space Race at the time.
The film celebrates the achievements yet always seems to suffer from an inferiority complex. Thus the over-powering sensation after having watched it is that there must be a more interesting way of telling what is a potentially fascinating story. It has all the elements of a story that was rolling out at an historically significant time. Yet those elements are never quite formed into a persuasive whole.