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.