The creators of the last music video shot in Beirut before last week’s horrific blast destroyed most of the city spoke to me about their ‘love letter’ to Lebanon’s capital and how they’re mourning the loss of everything that made it so vibrant.
JULY 16, 2020: CELEBRATING SUMMER
Friends Roy Sabbagh and Amro Jabri were in a celebratory mood.
They had just released their music video ‘Albi ya Albi, Adham Nabulsi-btaaref Shuur’, a mellow, upbeat cover version of the Nancy Ajram song of the same name, to joyful and positive reactions on social media.
Dubbed a ‘love letter’ to the Lebanese capital, it captured the last snapshot of pre-blast Beirut: shots of leafy streets, lively cafes, colourful graffiti murals, historical buildings, and everything that lends the city its magical touch.
The entire project, from initial concept to final video, took less than a month. Initially, Amro was planning on traveling to Beirut but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We had [several] Zoom meetings [where] we agreed about the general idea, which is making it about Beirut and about love and connection. We then divided [the concept] into different types of love: romantic love, love of the city, love of the people, then we came up with the storyline,” the Abu Dhabi-based film-maker explained.
The next step was creating the storyboard and shot list before sharing it with Roy, his manager Shadi Deeb who also lent his support as an Art Consultant, and Samer Khatib, the videographer who faithfully brought Amro’s vision to life. This included elements of the natural spontaneity that could be found in Beirut’s streets, such as this interaction.
A uniquely challenging situation, the four-man team coordinated everything remotely between two countries over the two-day shoot.
“We stayed [in constant communication] between Zoom and WhatsApp…they’d send me stuff, and I’d send them stuff. Whenever they were [confused], I’d send a reference from YouTube or I’d draw something or re-enact something,” Jabri, a Jordanian national, said.
Once filming was done, Amro spent several days editing the video, refusing to speak to anyone about the process in order to focus on completing it on time.
He admitted that it was strange editing it in isolation: “Usually, the artist is part of the editing process to see what’s going on and to give their input [but] he wasn’t next to me. I sent it to Roy, and he liked it, [which made me] very happy…because we were in two different locations and I was very stressed that things might not [turn out] how I’d want [them to be].”
Roy revealed his disbelief that two weeks later, the lively city showcased in his video would be replaced with crumpled buildings.
“[We recently] shot our music video in Beirut and Mar Mikhael with the purpose of showing [the] love of the people, love of the buildings, love of the city, show love of this country in different ways,” the acclaimed musician, singer, and composer said.
He noted that the opening shot featured the titles Beirut and Summer 2020 to show that the video was also a celebration of the start of summer.
“It was the last thing shot in Beirut that shows the buildings, the art, drawings…everything [that makes] Beirut, Beirut,” he said.
AUGUST 4, 2020: EVERYTHING SHATTERS
It was all over in a split second.
People were going about their daily lives in Beirut before a deafening echo filled the air.
“I was having lunch in Gemmayze, just facing the [site of the explosion] then I left and went to Downtown then the first explosion happened. One minute you’re walking around and everything’s beautiful, people are eating, living and in another, you’re seeing another Beirut,” Roy said.
One moment the sky was clear, the next it was filled with smoke, flying shards of glass, and white ash.
“I had friends with me in the car, but they left so I was alone [when the blast hit],” he said.
The musical artist recalled how the shock wave of the second explosion pushed his parked car, causing him to injure his head and lose consciousness. When he came to, people were banging on his car and helping him out.
Then came the screams and sirens as Beirutis scrambled to understand what has just happened and help out those that were injured.
“Everything was grey…[there were] people were running all over the place, people dead on the street, glass [falling] out of the window, people bleeding, [destroyed] buildings,” Sabbagh said, pain and anguish filling his voice.
Following his instinct to move away from the horrific situation, he called his brother who remained on the phone as Roy navigated his way around the city’s broken streets that were rapidly filling with injured people and dead bodies.
After passing by two destroyed hospitals, Roy came across the makeshift hospital the Lebanese Red Cross had set up in a parking lot before deciding to leave Beirut.
“I realised that there’s no blood on me so I had to keep a place for more injured people because I saw people literally lying on the street…I will not take a spot just to do a head scan,” he said.
It took him four hours to return to his home in Mount Lebanon, normally a 20 minute journey from the capital.
Initially, he had told his parents he wasn’t in Beirut when the blast hit before confirming that he was in the city but escaped with mild injuries.
“I [had to go] through small side roads because there was so much rubble on the main streets. The moment I arrived home, [it still hadn’t sunk in]. At night, I took medicine to calm down, but I couldn’t sleep,” Roy said.
After suffering through a sleepless night, Roy mourned the loss of his beloved vibrant city.
“All of this happened in a second, I [could’ve died] but I survived…[this] is what Beirut is now. I can’t stop thinking: what will happen next, I should’ve done something for those people on the street but I couldn’t,” he said.
A SILENCED ARTS & CULTURE SCENE
Sabbagh also reflected on what the devastating incident means for the future of the city and its artistic community: “I don’t know if [we as] artists can visualise things [right now]…I don’t know if we can compare the previous Beirut with the Beirut of now and [the] Beirut [of the future]…the buildings in Achrafieh, Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael…they were old, preserved buildings. Now they’re gone and I don’t know…will Beirut be real again? I don’t think so.”
AUGUST 8, 2020: RIGHTEOUS FURY
It’s been four days since the blast ripped through the city, displacing 300,000 people, injuring over 5,000 and killing nearly 200 others.
Mounting rage has led to widespread demonstrations on Saturday, August 8, 2020 that cumulated with protesters storming the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I don’t know how safe we feel. We’re not OK and we have to say that. And no, we’re not safe. And we don’t know what to do and we have to react that way. We have to understand that what happened is not OK and we’re not OK and we shouldn’t ‘get over’ things like that easily and we to understand that things aren’t going to be the same…otherwise, I don’t know how…nothing’s going to be the same now,” Roy said.
He added: “I don’t know what to believe right now…who’s responsible? Every single politician is responsible for this…they’re murderers and I don’t understand how some people are still standing behind them even after [what’s happened]…I don’t know what to say to them. You pity them, you rage…”
RUBBLE & RESILIENCE
Amro reflected on his initial reaction to the blast: “Seeing all that burn was very painful for me … I had spent so much time editing the footage and seeing details on the streets and people’s expressions…going frame by frame you get to see genuine reactions of people and of the city [in general], the buildings, the architecture, the graffiti. [When] I first heard the news and saw the first videos of the [destroyed] buildings…I remembered everything that I worked on and everything that we had put into that concept [of love] and thought ‘what a shame’ and ‘enough’.”
While sympathetic with everything that his friends, Beirutis and the country are grappling with, he remains firmly optimistic about the city’s ability to emerge from the rubble.
“Whatever happens…Lebanon’s been through so many [crises] but at the core there’s something about it that will never change. Beirut will come back bigger and stronger,” he said.
Jabri further reflected: “The people of Lebanon always come up with new ways to express themselves…through writing, music, filmmaking, photographers… with [our current] technology, especially the photo and video quality in mobile phones, everyone’s become a filmmaker, trying to express themselves in different ways.”
That sentiment extends to the arts and culture scene too: “I think the culture and art they will become better. The more you pressure people, the more they try to release the pressure and stress. Either revolution or artistic, creatively through…poetry, music, filmmaking, graphics, and graffiti.”
An apt example he cited of artistic expression is the below video, which shows a drone documenting the blast’s destructive aftermath. I leave it up to you to decide whether or not you agree.