The Lebanese Rocket Society (Documentary) – Review

The Lebanese Rocket Society

Brought to us by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society is a documentary about a phase of Lebanese history that exists between both of our civil wars, from 1960 to approximately 1966, in which a group of Lebanese students at Haigazian University launched rockets as part of a series of scientific experiments.

The above is not science fiction, as I had thought on many occasions when many blogs and newspapers wrote about the society over the past few months, despite it being quite difficult to believe given where we are technologically in Lebanon today.

The Lebanese Rocket Society‘s premise is bittersweet. For its main purpose, it makes you proud that these students not only decided to build a rocket, but also chemically made the fuel the rocket is supposed to use because only superpowers possessed it and were not going to dispense quantities of it to Lebanon. The students even built the radar sensors that they equipped the rockets with after a brief miscalculation which sparked a UN-debaccle with our neighboring Cyprus. Yes, we haven’t been nice neighbors all the time apparently. The Lebanese Army eventually helped them in their scientific experiments for the students were heading into financial difficulties with their ambition growing bigger.

The mere fact that the Cedar-named rockets were all built from scratch is a testament to the ingenuity and the creativity of these young Lebanese students. Too bad such advances are purely science fiction not because such brains are lacking but because of our country’s circumstances.

The most interesting parts in the documentary were, without a doubt, the sections where real-life footage from the many launches that took place were incorporated. The archive is unimaginably great and seeing it is worth the price of admission alone. It’s always interesting to dig up 20th-century material about Lebanon that is not of tanks bombing buildings and of a torn-out Holiday Inn hotel.

The documentary seeks out Manoug Manougian, the student who started it all, currently a math professor at a university in Florida. Manougian shares the archive he kept of what he calls one his life’s proudest moments. You can check out his personal page here.

The directors also find Harry Koundakjian, the photographer who documented the Lebanese Rocket Society’s experiments, as well as former Haigazian president John Markarian. However, even though the other participants in the society’s experiments are mentioned, nothing is said about them nor are they mentioned again beyond the movie’s opening scene, which I thought did their work a disservice.

Moreover, The Lebanese Rocket Society goes off-topic often, notably with an entire sequence about the importance of the Arab Spring, as well as many other political subtle messages passed on notably about the importance of the Arab unity under Abdel Nasser. I still have no idea how the entire documentary’s premise fits in the mood of revolutions and freedom and whatnot spreading across Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria but the notion is present.

I also felt it was very misleading that – despite their army source telling them the army had a panel discussing the possibility of turning the rockets into weapons by having one floor of the rocket filled with bombs – the directors were adamant that these rockets were a scientific experiment and build the entire documentary on that premise. It was quite clear that the rockets couldn’t have been possibly done if the army hadn’t helped and if the army wanted to make weapons out of them, they would have been turned into weapons.

The Lebanese Rocket Society ends with a 10 minute or so animated sequence which asks the question: what if Lebanon hadn’t stopped the rocket experiment?

To answer the question, the directors believe we would have a metro network running under Beirut, oil rigs off our shores, an entire space program rivaling that of the U.S.A. (down to basically ripping off Nasa’s logo), etc.

The sequence, in my opinion, did the movie a grave injustice and it shouldn’t have been included at all. It was already established that the rocket experiment was stopped because Lebanon was asked to by higher authorities in countries North, South, West and East. One of the documentary’s strongest scenes was one where a drafting compass drew a circle from Lebanon to where our rocket would have reached. Sinai was accessible. It was already established as well that the rockets were not, eventually, a mere scientific experiment as the students involved kept repeating. Those students didn’t know any better, obviously, but the army did. How does that set up for a future as bright as the one they tried to portray?

Nothing is better than some Lebanese future pick-me-up every once in a while, but at least don’t have it that separate from all the facts the documentary had presented over the course of the previous 80 minutes, especially that the presentation of those scientific facts was very systematic and documented.

I personally recommend people watch The Lebanese Rocket Society when it’s released in cinemas on April 11th despite its shortcomings because it is a documentary that showcases a different side of the Lebanon that we thought we knew, one that has been erased from the collective memory of the country as a whole – all supported by some old footage that will leave you baffled.


The Oscars Debrief

This year’s award season to celebrate the high quality 2010 movies is over. The Academy has spoken and The King’s Speech is the big winner.

The ceremony opened up with a very funny bit of montage with this year’s hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, doing acting bits in the Best Picture nominated movies. We were able to watch them be part of Inception, The Social Network, True Grit, The King’s Speech, etc… and it was quite awesome. Anne Hathaway had some awesome lines, notably when, during her “role” in The King’s Speech she says: “we come from the future with good news… we have smaller microphones” or when she freaks out Natalie Portman in Black Swan as the green duck.

And then they started their opening segment which was very dull apart from a couple Hathaway lines about how it’s been a great year for lesbians and how getting naked isn’t enough anymore to warrant a best actress nomination, taking a stab at herself for her mostly nude movie Love and Other Drugs.

Soon after that, Tom Hanks came on to present the first two awards of the night, Art Direction (Alice in Wonderland won) and Cinematography (Inception).

Then, Kirk Douglas came up to present Supporting Actress and I honestly thought it was torture. He kept pushing on the nominees’ buttons and it was pretty interesting to see them getting prepared for the results only to see him divert the subject elsewhere. Melissa Leo won this, as expected, although many had predicted an upset (myself included). Melissa Leo then a very horrible acceptance speech where she dropped the F-word, only to become the night’s go-to joke about acceptance speeches. Literally, everyone who won something referenced her in his acceptance speech.

Melissa Leo

However, soon enough, it began to look like The King’s Speech was not going to own the night as many had predicted. The race was as close as it can be. Soon enough, even Alice in Wonderland had two Oscars.

Supporting Actor went to Christian Bale, as was pretty much expected. So if anyone believes the combination of a Screen Actors Guild Award and Golden Globe doesn’t make you a lock for an Oscar win, this night proved you wrong. The “weakest” frontrunners in the acting categories came out unscathed and victorious.

In the meantime, Anne Hathaway continued a pretty overzealous and energetic hosting job by dressing up as man and taking a stab as Hugh Jackman (Or Huge Jackass as she named him) by singing and dancing about it. And just when you thought she dwarfed Franco beyond measure, he comes up on stage in pink drag. That was probably his most memorable moment. He just looked like he didn’t want to be there.

Anne Hathaway Singing At The Oscars

Continuing with the awards, Inception received both Sound-related awards, to raise its total to three, leading the night. The Social Network scored two quick wins for Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay, as expected.

Then there was a bunch of awards for short films most of us hadn’t watched. Oprah then presented the award for Best Documentary. Inside Job won. I thought Oprah looked dead tired.

Documentary was soon followed by the nerve-wracking Film Editing. It has become known that the movie that wins Film Editing is the favorite to win Best Picture. And in a night where the combination of the awards handed out so far didn’t single out a clear frontrunner, this award looked like it might seal the deal. The Social Network won this and adding to its Adapted Screenplay and Original Score, it looked like we might have a Social Network sweep – again.

Russell Brand and Helen Mirren presented Best Foreign Language Film and Helen Mirren came across yet again as a superb class act by addressing the audience in fluent French. All hail to the queen!

For you animation lovers, this year’s animation phenomenon Toy Story 3 went home with the gold, winning two Oscars, one for Best Animated Feature and the second one for Best Original Song.

Speaking of Best Original Song, there were four performances, the highlight of which was A.R. Rahman and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine singing “If I Rise”. It was a chills-inducing performance and the song deserved to win. Gwyneth Paltrow sang nominated song “Coming Home” from her latest movie “Country Strong” and I thought she did well. Randy Newman, the writer of Toy Story’s theme song “We Belong Together” mentioned how weird it was not to have a fifth song nominated. And I agree with this. “There’s A Place For Us” by Carrie Underwood for the movie Chronicles of Narnia deserved a nomination.

Later on, Inception reclaimed its title for top movie of the night by earning its fourth Oscar for Visual Effects, a much deserved win – although my heart also wanted Harry Potter to snag its first Academy Award. Which reminds me, The Wolfman won for best makeup. And I thought it was an abomination how this movie gets to flaunt an Academy Award and the whole Harry Potter series has none. Having said that, Deathly Hallows Part 2 better bring it at next year’s Oscars!

Speaking of Harry Potter, there was a funny segment as well about how “musicals” have been an important part of the business this part year. The segment comprised of dialogue parts from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, The Social Network and Twilight, among other movies, transformed into song. I thought it was pretty cool, actually.

And since it’s not the Oscars without a proper “In Memoriam” segment, Celine Dion sang a beautiful rendition of “Smile” to a montage of the pictures of industry people that have left us, commemorating their memory.

Continuing with James Franco still looking like he’d rather be anywhere but the Oscars, we get to the final and most important stretch of the night. The last four awards: Director, actor, actress and picture.

Director comes up. Drumroll, please… and what do you know, it’s our first major upset of the night. Presented by last year’s undeserving winner Kathryn Bigelow (yes, I think The Hurt Locker is such an overrated movie!) Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech overtakes David Fincher for The Social Network, who looked like a frontrunner for this category. Tom Hooper delivered a remarkable speech, telling the story of how if it weren’t for his mother, The King’s Speech wouldn’t have been made. I have to say, British people make the best acceptance speeches. This win, however, brings us back to square zero in our movie frontrunner race. Best Picture is back up for grabs.

The Best Actress category was announced by last year’s Best Actor winner, Jeff Bridges. And honestly, I much preferred last year’s nominees introduction. It just seemed so bland and rushed this year around, like they simply wanted to get it over with. These are five women who gave it their all to be where they were, at least give them the decency of properly introducing them. I still get goosebumps when remembering how Stanley Tucci introduced the great Meryl Streep and how Oprah introduced newcomer Gabourey Sidibe last year… No surprise here, however, Natalie Portman won this. She acted surprised and I thought it wasn’t that credible. Sure, you’re happy and all but come on, you’ve seen this one coming since December. It’s not like Jennifer Lawrence or Michelle Williams or even Annette Bening had a late moment surge in votes. She looked very pregnant and gave a pretty boring speech. I was thankful she did not mention her “sexual activities” with her fiance but she enumerated too many names than I care to remember. Last year’s speech by sweetheart Sandra Bullock beats this by a country mile!

Contrast it with this:

Then it was time for yet another expected category with Best Actor. We all knew Colin Firth was going to win this, but what made the category extra-special was Sandra Bullock’s introduction of the nominees. She walked the line between seriousness and humor so meticulously. She radiated with confidence. I think she should host next year’s Oscars. She is just all kinds of awesome! So yeah, Colin Firth won. He opened up his speech about how he might have hit “the apex of [his] career” and then his speech became another snooze-fest. You’d think after all the rehearsals in the movie he won for and the fact that he is British and it’s in their genes to deliver awesome acceptance speeches, he’d do a better job.

And then it was time for the moment of truth. Which movie would turn out a winner out of the two that are seriously left battling it out?

The King’s Speech came out triumphant, bringing its total to four Oscars, tying it with Inception for first place. The whole cast and producers came on stage, a speech I did not care about ensued.

Following The King’s Speech “expected” win, the P.S. 22 Chorus closed the night with their rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, the winners joined them on stage. And we’re out people!

All in all, I felt last year’s Oscars had more prestige. I thought they didn’t give the movies nominated for Best Picture their due. Each movie had a segment introducing it last year. This time around, the movies were parodied and barely mentioned when their category came up. Maybe the Academy personnel should care about delivering a better ceremony show suitable for the Oscars than a show to attract young viewers?