As a child growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Hisham Bizri’s mother would send him to the movies to get away from the dangers of war. In the basement of a neighborhood theater, as bombs and snipers went off above, Bizri would sit for hours watching classic Hollywood films by D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Chaplin, and the European films of Ingmar Bergman, F. W. Murnau, Roberto Rossellini, and many others.
“Cinema became for me a way to cope with the reality of war and a kind of paradise,” Bizri said. “I would see these films and be thinking at night of light, distant lands, and fantastic people, as bombs fell outside.”
Brown’s newest professor of literary arts didn’t start out wanting to make films professionally; there were no film schools in Lebanon so he didn’t even consider it an option. He began an education in physics and mathematics at American University in Beirut, founding a film club there that still exists today. Still, it wasn’t enough to satisfy his interest in cinema and at age 19, Bizri moved to Boston to study film at Boston University and Harvard. He studied also at New York University.
It was there that Bizri saw his first avant-garde films. “I was just completely mesmerized by those movies. They were movies that were devoid of any kind of necessity to explain anything,” he said.
Soon after, Bizri met and became close with American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whom Bizri considers a mentor and inspiration. He also had the opportunity to study and work closely with two other well-known filmmakers, the Chilean Raoul Ruiz and Hungarian Miklos Jancso. He cites filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos as another major influence. Bizri has since devoted his life to making films, both narrative and avant-garde. He’s made more than 25 movies in his career, and his work has been shown throughout the world, including at Cannes, Sundance, and the Berlin International Film Festival, and at the Museum of Modern Art. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Rome Prize from the American Academy, a McKnight Filmmaking Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Bizri’s current project is a narrative film titled White Magnolia. Inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses but set in New Orleans, it is the story of four struggling artists from different ethnic backgrounds traveling through post-Katrina New Orleans searching for lost love, ultimately discovering a shocking tie which binds them together.
While the premise — “love conquers all” — is a familiar one, Bizri is quick to point out that he’s as focused on the physical elements of the setting and the cinema as he is on the storyline.
“When I think of New Orleans, I think of the trees, the jazz, the colors of the walls, the faces, and I think of the light, and the smells and how can cinema create the experience. That’s what my film is about. The other stuff is the excuse.”
Bizri follows this philosophy in all of his filmmaking. “The elements that make a film are what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in a political film alone or a story alone. My cinema is about itself.”
Bizri says his inspiration comes from all over — a dream, a line from Henry James, a piece by J.S. Bach — and says it’s important to let the film, not his direction, be the creator of the fictional world.
“I try as much as I can to have the fictional world create itself rather than me create it. I’m the channel in a way and I let the film just grow organically and not so much play the director or artist, but really be the person who is channeling the emotions and feelings. I just let the film grow, as if the film is creating itself. This is poetry. This is fiction.”
Bizri says that when he’s making a film, he enters an almost hallucinatory state to allow the film to develop without too much of his own influence. One of Bizri’s avant-garde movies, an Italian film called Passione, was inspired by historical events and incorporates footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s about how passion can sometimes lead to one’s demise; it includes references to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the death of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Some of Bizri’s other works take inspiration from his home country of Lebanon and the war he witnessed as a child. Song for the Deaf Ear is a silent film that centers around footage of a man killed by sniper fire, footage Bizri shot on a return visit. Segments of the man lying on the pavement get increasingly longer as the film progresses are interspersed with moments of black and white film leader.
“I wanted to create this rhythm like breathing, as if the viewer was going to die. So the film is breathing and the film has the experience of dying, it doesn’t just show a man dying.”
At the end of the film, the only moment with sound, viewers see a home video of the man and his family, shot the summer before his death, enjoying a day together.
Bizri is very cautious about the way he portrays his country in his work. “Producers will say to me, ‘You’re Lebanese. Why don’t you make a film about the war, about religious conflict, and we will fund you?’ The things that I went through are so private and painful that I don’t want to share them with the world and say, ‘Please feel sorry for me. Look what happened to me,’ and get awards from Cannes. I’m not interested in that. We are survivors not victims.”
He also says he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of being known for only one type of filmmaking, as so many expect today. “I don’t want to have this kind of branding or say, ‘I work in this’ or ‘I’m working with this theme.’ It’s easy to talk about exile, it’s sexy today, but I don’t want to talk about it. Exile defines who I am but I don’t want to exploit it.”
Bizri comes to Brown from the University of Minnesota. He has previously taught at the University of California–Davis and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also in Lebanon, Korea, Japan, Ireland, France, and Jordan. He co-founded the Arab Film Institute in Amman. Despite his success as a professional filmmaker, Bizri says he’ll always return to the classroom. “Cinema is really the only great modern art we have. I believe that the art of cinema, like the art of music, can be taught and if filmmakers don’t teach students the art, it will die. We no longer have Hollywood studios where people would go and learn the art of moviemaking, like Ford and Hawks did. The only place we have that is the university.”
Bizri is teaching an advanced screenwriting class this fall and a class on the poetics of cinema in the spring where students will make films. While Bizri finds the majority of filmmaking programs today to be “labs for commercial filmmaking,” he feels that teaching within the Literary Arts Program at Brown will allow him to keep that element of art that he believes is important in cinema.
“Brown has a history of supporting the arts and humanities, and literary arts is at the center of creativity, experimentation, and integrity — with the novel, with the poem, with the film. The job called for a film writer — not someone who only writes scripts, but someone who uses their camera as a pen. That is what I do.”