Many documentaries take pride in telling a previously unknown (or covered up story), from Mugabe and the White African to Fahrenheit 9/11, uncovering a story unbeknownst to us is always welcome. So comes this Lebanese-French made documentary from Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, where they explore the Arab world’s first space programme, why the students and teacher behind it are not current national heroes and why these previously celebrated events have been all but forgotten. The Lebanese Rocket Society is a flawed look at the subject, failing to truly excite but even so, it is a solid look at lost history.
The Lebanese Rocket Society starts with your curiosity and maintains your interest from start to finish, telling the central story with a grasp of some solid facts and a wealth of archive material. In fact, the directorial duo strike gold, looking into this story and meeting physics teacher Manoug Manougian (who aided the students with their space programme), who has kept all the material from the time. It is truly a find, to see a subject so well informed, and sadly the film feels no need to move on after this. Informed it may be but the film lacks a variety of talking heads (say some of the students at the time) and feels no need to go exploring. That said, there is a good amount of facts on display and the story is well brought to light by the filmmakers.
Even if the pace can be a touch slow and the momentum of facts has a few lags, the film neatly assesses this moment in history and how the turbulent times led to its vanishing. The directing is straightforward, outlining the progression, historical events and recession (albeit a bit briefly) of the rocket society. The intentions of scouring to rediscover and rejuvenate this story for modern audiences is noble and it is nice to see a documentary not rely on heavy dramatization. That said, the delivery is very straight-laced, which makes the somewhat wacky and bizarre final animated segment seem a bit jarring.
In fact this conclusion, animated by Ghassan Halawani, feels a bit like the film has reached a certain point and doesn’t really know where to go next. It is literal guesswork but there are still plenty of facts underpinning this cross-cultured, foreign documentary feature. The tone is mostly solid and the style feels somewhat art-house (especially the indie scoring by Lebanon based band Scrambled Eggs and the aforementioned animated climax). This is an interesting look at curio history, which could have gone further and wider but, all the same, it is good to have a film explore forgotten history for a modern audience – a fascinating watch.