Eli Jean Tahchi: The Importance of Telling Outsiders’ Stories
Originally from Lebanon and based in Montreal since 2011, Eli Jean Tahchi has directed a number of films ("La cassette migrante"/The Migrant Mixtape, "La femme migrante"/The Migrant Woman, "Jours de rage"/Days of Rage) that have won awards at mainstream and LGBTQ+ film festivals alike. A supporter of socially engaged cinema, Tahchi’s goal as a filmmaker is to tell and preserve the stories of cultural and sexual minorities.
He developed his artistic approach in Quebec’s metropolis, Montreal. “Relocating here helped to establish my identity as an Arab-Quebecer-LGBTQ-citizen-of-the-world artist,” he said in a recent interview. “When I started making films, especially documentaries, I felt it was my duty to use my art as a force for good.”
It’s a power he uses to shatter the illusions of widely held beliefs by shedding light on current cultural phenomena. “When I arrived in Montreal and started working at Lebanese and Arab shops, I was shocked to see that several members of those cultural communities had mindsets that were behind what you’d find in Lebanon today. That’s why there are still LGBTQ+ Arabs here living in fear that their secret will get out.”
That said, he doesn’t claim to make films that hold some universal truth. “The last thing I want to do is to judge anyone. What I want to do is create a dialogue between the documentary and the viewers, so they can put themselves in someone else's shoes for ten minutes or two hours, and see what life is like through their eyes.”
Before focusing the camera on anyone, Eli Jean carefully considers whether they’re the right person or not to tell the story. “Sometimes the answer is obvious. I’m a gay Arab man living in Montreal and I have something in common with them.”
Sometimes he can identify with situations that are close to his own experience. “While I’m not black, I certainly have experienced discrimination in my home country. I know that at school two of my friends and I were frequently bullied, me because I was maybe a bit effeminate, one because she was black, and the other because she was overweight. We were each different in our own way, but we were mistreated all the same because we did not fit the norm.”
Stories about people who’ve been ostracized are really compelling to him. “I want to hear from anyone who’s been an outcast because I was an outcast myself,” Eli Jean says. “I was different from the other boys. I didn’t play sports and I didn’t like girls the way they did, so I was always left out. That’s why I became interested in similar stories."
How his vision evolved
If he was still trying to find his voice during his early years, there’s no doubt that Eli Jean is master of his fate today. “I’m a writer and director because I’m more oriented towards making films d’auteur. I want to make films that tell my stories, about what’s around me, and about what challenges me.”
And while that take-charge attitude included editing when he was just starting out, he now happily embraces teamwork for that component. “I love having others help me fulfill my vision.”
Eli Jean’s perspective on art certainly has evolved over the years. Born in a small Lebanese village that didn’t have a movie theatre, his family moved to Beirut when he was six. In his late teens he got a Super 8 camera as a gift. “I’d film our neighbours and make up stories like the Mexican soap operas that were so popular in Lebanon back then. I didn’t have many friends. Unlike most boys who liked sports, I was mainly interested in music, dance, photography, video, and editing.”
Once enrolled in the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts for a bachelor’s degree in film and television production, his fascination with the Seventh Art really took off. “I remember being extremely impressed by experimental cinema. Films that were very symbolic and more than a bit bizarre were a revelation to me. I was having a really tough time getting a story down on paper that fit the standard rules for scriptwriting.”
He also fell head over heels with the work of Lars Von Trier. “I love how he plays with the figure of the woman and the image of Christ. Symbolism and theology have always been major interests of mine. I’m a Christian by culture, heavily influenced by the Church, by my village, and by my religious parents.”
Not long after landing in Quebec, in 2011, he enrolled at the Université de Montréal to discover new and more liberating dimensions to his art. “Lebanon is very inward looking, with the same political, economic, and religious issues. As an artist, it’s easy to get drawn into this vortex. You really need to take a step back from your country, from your surroundings, from your life, and from yourself.”
Censoring films d’auteur
State censorship was another reason Eli Jean decided to leave Lebanon. “The Lebanese government carefully reads all scripts before they get any funding, and even if they don’t get financing, all films must be viewed by officials, with the right to censor whatever they wish, before they can be shown in theatres. There are many taboo subjects that I couldn’t tackle in my films.”
The film industry in Lebanon is also anything but thriving according to Eli Jean. “Aside from the financing problems that force directors to depend on Europe even in pre-production, it’s practically impossible to get anywhere with films d’auteur. The Lebanese have little appreciation for their own film industry and prefer typical Hollywood fare instead.”
Ultimately, the young Eli Jean was captivated by the respect Quebecers have for filmmaking, mainstream and films d’auteur. That’s the reason he chose to settle in Montreal rather than in Toronto or Los Angeles. And just four years after touching down, he was making a film for Helem, an organization that provides support to the Lebanese LGBTQ+ community.
Eli Jean attended Helem monthly meetings for a year during the preparation period. “It was kind of a unique process for me because I’m a bit of an introvert. I don’t go out much and have a very small tightly knit circle of friends. But I did get to know these people, and some wonderful friendships resulted from the experience. It’s all in the film.”
We also get to see letters that were sent to Helem from Arab LGBTQ+ people, including Adib’s testimony. “We’d been all year looking for someone willing to show their face and tell their story to add depth to the film. Actually, it was the producer who referred Adib to me. I invited him to my place that very evening. He told me his story for the first time in front of the camera. The more I listened to him, the more I was completely caught up with his story. It was exactly what the film had been missing.”
When asked if he was worried about being automatically identified as LGBTQ+ by taking part in the project, he said he was totally at ease with that. Eli Jean pointed out that he had already made a film about veiled women, and he wasn’t a Muslim, or a woman, or someone who wore a veil. “I believe discrimination against women, gays, or anyone else is still a violation of their human rights. I wanted to talk about it simply because I was interested in it,” he said. "As a director I don’t have to be the same as my subjects, even if I can readily identify with them as a result of my research in preparing for the film.”
He came back to that same issue a little later in the discussion. “Yes, I did think about the consequences of making a film about the LGBTQ+ cause. But even if it did mean personal risk to me, I had to do it because I felt it was urgent for these stories to be told. The risk is that I still haven’t come out officially with my family in Lebanon yet.”
Neither does this prevent him from promoting his work online. “My mother might have seen the trailer for The Migrant Mixtape on social media. My films have been featured at LGBTQ+ film festivals and my parents are aware of that. I needed to talk about these things in my film.”
As we talked, a line from the documentary kept coming to mind. “I live in a country that I love, but it hates me.” Is that a feeling Eli Jean shares? “The words do resonate with me, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my country hates me,” he said. “Many of my friends in Lebanon really do understand me. And I really love that country. Unfortunately, I just can’t see myself living there. It’s heartbreaking when you come from a place where you have good memories, family, and friends but feel you need to be something other than who you really are to be accepted.”
Getting more exposure
Eli Jean is currently working on a film that will undoubtedly reveal who he really is. A few months ago, when the NFB launched a call for projects on the pandemic, he had the idea of showing how you can feel you’re in lockdown in many other ways: by not speaking the official language or by being an immigrant or a refugee. Not to mention being a member of the LGBTQ+ community who’s still in the closet.
Before giving the floor to others, Eli Jean weighed in on the subject himself. “I feel I’m in lockdown because I’m not 100% free,” he said. “Even though I have a beautiful relationship with my parents, I’m afraid of losing them. They live in a small village in Lebanon and they’re not very open-minded. Here I can live my life as I want to and not feel that I’m being restricted in any way. But I do worry about how that could jeopardize my relationship with my parents.”
That’s why Eli Jean felt compelled to include himself in the project. “Sometimes it’s easier for me to say certain things in a film than to say them in person. I don’t try to hide behind the screen, but so far it has been in my films that I’m more comfortable showing certain aspects of who I am.”