Alexis Guillier and his mentor, investigative reporter Alia Ibrahim, met in Beirut in mid-January to deepen his artistic research into the deadly fire that broke out on the set of a film by Lebanese director Gary Garabedian in the late 1960s.
Beirut, 1968, director Gary Garabedian is filming the final scene of his pro-Palestinian film, Koullouna Fidayoun (We Are All Freedom Fighters), in a small basement club called Purgatoire. The scene shows a Fedayeen bomb attack on a Tel Aviv night club. Without enough funds for a generator, Garabedian harnesses extra voltage from the mains to power the smoke bombs that will imitate the bomb. Something goes wrong. A fire breaks out killing Garabedian and 19 other crew members.
The catastrophe was one of the worst on-set tragedies in cinema to date but one that gained little traction. “What initially drew me to Guillier’s project was that no one I knew had heard much about the accident,” Ibrahim recalls. “I’m talking about journalists and people who were in the country at the time. People who would know.” We are left with two questions that Guillier’s documentary hopes to answer: How could a fire like this happen on a professional shoot and why was it so under-reported?
During the work-stay in Beirut, which was organized in collaboration with UMAM Documentation and Research, Guillier accessed archival material connected to the film and was able to gain insights into the cultural context around the time the accident occurred. He presented his project at UMAM’s Hangar, where an exhibition by artist Alfred Tarazi was taking place. Guillier and Tarazi hosted a conversation titled Looking at the Past Through Archives and Arts. “Every aspect of this accident is not only a reflection of what was going on in Lebanon at the time but also what is happening now,” says Guillier.