In a previously-unpublished interview from 2019, the late Lokman Slim—assassinated last week—and his wife Monika Borgmann discuss living in Hezbollah’s Beirut; their film about Syria’s notorious Tadmor prison; the nature of political violence; and the question of fear.
[Editor’s note: The below is a previously-unpublished interview with the Lebanese activist and filmmaker Lokman Slim—who was assassinated in south Lebanon last Thursday—as well as his wife, Monika Borgmann. It was originally conducted in French, and has been translated into English by the author. While much has happened in Lebanon since the interview—from the uprising of October 2019 to the deadly port blast of August 2020—the conversation remains of utmost relevance to Lebanon, Syria, and beyond. In particular, Slim’s remarks about the personal risks involved in his criticisms of Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime are all the more salient in light of his abhorrent murder.]
It is June 2019, and Paris’ cafés are brimming with clientele. Sipping coffee on one of the city’s terraces are Lokman Slim and Monika Borgmann, whose film Tadmor (the Arabic name for the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra) has just been screened at a Syria-related event the day before.
To an outsider observer, the conversation might seem light-hearted; the gestures and expressions almost nonchalant. Without listening in, it would be hard to guess we were discussing the sordid reality of Syria’s prison system and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon with one of the group’s most outspoken critics.
Tadmor, which prompted this meeting, depicts life in Syria’s Palmyra prison, through the voices and bodies of a group of former Lebanese inmates incarcerated there under the regime of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad during the Lebanese civil war. Slim and Borgmann let the ex-prisoners reenact their own incarceration, giving viewers an inside glimpse at their daily routine, as well as the gruesome torture to which they were subjected at the hands of their guards (also played by ex-prisoners).
Since 2001, when they first met, Slim and Borgmann have worked together in what appears to be perfect unison. Their joint projects include their two films Massaker (2004) and Tadmor (2016); their NGO preserving the memory of the Lebanese civil war, based in the heart of Beirut’s southern suburbs; and their Middle East and North Africa Prison Forum initiative. They even complete each other’s sentences.
Al-Jumhuriya: Could you begin by telling us how you met each other, and how you started working together?
Monika Borgmann: In 2001, I came to Beirut with a project to film Massaker, a documentary drawing portraits of six men who took part in the  Sabra and Shatila massacres. A Syrian friend we had in common introduced us to each other. We soon discovered we had similar interests, and so we worked on the film together from 2001 until 2004. It was our first film. When it was finished, we founded our NGO, the UMAM Documentation & Research Center. We have been collaborating ever since, and we are also married.
The idea behind Massaker originated much earlier, perhaps three years before. I was a freelance journalist in Cairo, and I occasionally visited Beirut. It took time to find the film’s protagonists, and all those who appear in the film. We met them together.
Lokman Slim: I would say that beyond our individual circumstances, such as Monika’s German culture, or my experience of life in Beirut, we were drawn together by more abstract questions. These were questions related to the carrying out of acts of violence, as violence surrounds us.
When it comes to murder that becomes prosaic, there is also the question of memory; of how both victims and killers live with what they have done, or what they have been subjected to. What trace is there of victims that no longer have a voice, who have perished, but who shouldn’t be forgotten? Often we mix testimonies of survivors and those who no longer have a name or an address. This brings other questions: how to really exit a war, whether it be a civil war or something else. This was our common ground with Monika, and we happened to be in Beirut, with Monika having come with an idea regarding this particular massacre, which was Lebanese in name only. This event involved the Lebanese, as well as Palestinians and Israelis, and in the end all those who happened to be in Beirut, which was a much more cosmopolitan city at the time than it is now.
Borgmann: The questioning we shared was also always related to how the past impacts the present.
Al-Jumhuriya: Were you ever afraid of the repercussions your work could have on your lives in Lebanon?
Slim: I don’t like talking about fear. Fear is something very vague, it’s not quantifiable. I prefer discussing specific situations. Yes, we’ve experienced delicate, complicated situations, but ultimately the challenge has been, so long as we stay alive, to prevent these situations from paralyzing us; transforming into panic; a kind of fear that would make it impossible for us to reflect on them and go further. So far, this is how we have been operating: managing each subsequent situation and preventing…
Borgmann: ...preventing ourselves from becoming hostages to the situation.
Al-Jumhuriya: You are both vocal in your criticism of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Is it an issue for you in Lebanon?
Borgmann: We are based in Lokman’s family house in Dahiyeh [Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah’s presence is strongest]. We live in this villa with a large garden which has existed for longer than Hezbollah has.
Slim: [Our activism] has caused us problems, but it’s the price to be paid. We have an advantage on Hezbollah: we have seen others like them. I don’t exclude the possibility of seeing them fall one day. We have to get rid of the idea that it’s some kind of an ahistorical, eternally powerful substance. I don’t have that impression. In 1982, I witnessed the PLO leave Beirut, and I saw Hezbollah emerge. This organization rose on the ruins of others, and today my view is that, after their involvement in Syria—despite what is being said of their military might—Hezbollah is incapable of translating its military gains into political victories in Syria. And therefore I don’t see why they’d be stronger in Lebanon than they are in Syria. To me, it’s the contrary: even in the Shiite pro-Hezbollah communities, people are becoming skeptical. What was the point of supporting a wavering regime which owes its survival to [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin?
Al-Jumhuriya: What is your view of Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and in Syria?
Slim: In practice, Hezbollah exerts over Lebanon something that lies between tutelage and occupation. Hezbollah managed to infiltrate all the inner workings of the Lebanese state, so that they now control the decisions pertaining to peace and war, and also administer refugees.
The Syrian opposition has for a long time been very naïve in its analysis of Hezbollah’s role in Syria. Not everyone had the same naïveté, but it was still largely present. Hezbollah was still seen as a resistance movement whose fighting against Israeli occupation in Lebanon justified their misdeeds. Despite the intimate ties between Lebanon and Syria, I think many Syrians hadn’t learnt what the Lebanese had in 2005, when they started to demand Hezbollah’s disarmament.
The Syrian people have paid the price of Hezbollah’s continued blackmail in the name of its eternal war against “the Zionist entity.” The Syrian opposition thought they could address Hezbollah as an independent actor, and didn’t believe what the Lebanese were telling them; in particular that Hezbollah’s decisions were taken in Tehran, and not in Haret Hreik [a neighborhood in Dahiyeh known for its heavy Hezbollah presence; also the neighborhood in which Slim and Borgmann live].
Al-Jumhuriya: Despite the differences between Massaker and Tadmor, in both there is a layer of anonymity enveloping their characters. Was this choice purely pragmatic (to preserve the protagonists’ identities), or was it artistic as well?
Borgmann: All our protagonists had been through a long process which allowed them to find their own language, to the point that they no longer needed an interpreter. In Massaker, the film’s language found itself, as we couldn’t show the characters’ faces. This meant that, aesthetically, the film had to focus on body language. We asked all six protagonists if they had an issue with removing their shirts. Two said they did and kept them. The rest were filmed without them. As we approach the part of the film about the massacre, the characters are almost naked except for their trousers. Their flesh is showing, and so we get closer to their bodies as they start discussing the killings. Personally, I find that it was an advantage for the film that we couldn’t display their faces; it made the film’s subject more general. It no longer talked only about these six specific men; it could also talk about other massacres.
Slim: Of course, anonymity was their condition to appear in the film, but as this put us in a subservient position to the characters, I thought it should also allow us to bring about a level of abstraction regarding the event of the massacre itself. In Tadmor, it was a similar choice. The reasons which brought each specific prisoner to Tadmor became mere details, and the carceral experience emerged at the center of the narrative.
Al-Jumhuriya: What did you try to say about the genesis of violence with your two films?
Slim: The question of the origin of collective violence was mostly treated in Massaker. In Tadmor, we are at a point where violence is already at its summit: it deploys itself as an almost infallible system. The film illustrates it concretely through language, the physical and geometrical positions of prisoners inside the cells... We are trying to enter inside a system of violence which continues to function almost by inertia. Even when there is no reason to torture, the guards still do it. It’s a machine that is out of control.
Borgmann: If we had been interested in how this system came about, we would have been looking for ex-prison guards, but this was not our goal in this film. The purpose was to understand and describe the carceral system and give the voice to the survivors.
Slim: It wasn’t by pure chance that we addressed this issue. Once we finished Tadmor, we embarked on another adventure; a project whose ambition is to retrace the genealogy of carceral violence, not only in Syria, but in the Arab world more generally.
Al-Jumhuriya: Let’s talk about the MENA Prison Forum in more detail.
Slim: Our political engagement is very clear. We don’t approach the carceral system from a legalistic human rights perspective only. The MENA Prison Forum goes beyond preaching rights and resolutions. Acknowledging the failure of such approaches was one of the things that drove our work on this issue. We can continue signing petitions, of course. At the same time, we look into how these regimes have developed, with time, the practice of all sorts of violence. Pointing out this genealogy is necessary so as not to fall back into a kind of juridicism. At the same time, we can also continue making films. The whole idea of the MENA Prison Forum was to bring all these different energies together. It’s not enough to denounce the present forms of the carceral systems: we also have to understand how such a system could establish itself in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. MPF is a process we believe to be unending. We had our first meeting in 2016, then another one in 2017. We hosted a closed conference to launch the Forum. As it is a sensitive subject, in lots of countries, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t like their participation to become public, which is why many of our meetings have been a bit discreet.
Borgmann: In April 2019, we held a meeting in Beirut regarding Egypt, and we couldn’t publish or communicate anything regarding it, so as not to put our participants in danger.
Slim: If, at times, we have to keep a low profile and be discreet about work—I don’t like the word “secrecy,” because we are not hiding our views—we do it. But it doesn’t mean that we enjoy it.
Al-Jumhuriya: What do you think is the role of sectarianism in upholding Syria’s carceral state?
Slim: In the behavior of the jailers towards the prisoners, we see an allegiance to their Führer. It’s much more of an esprit de corps, an allegiance to the big boss, the great mafioso, than an ideology.
Borgmann: And we don’t see this in the film, but the ex-prisoners told us that if a soldier showed even a bit of pity towards his prisoners, he would share their fate. There was a whole machinery, which doesn’t excuse the guards, but explains that the system terrified them as well.
Slim: Dehumanization through and through. To become a guard in Palmyra, you had to have already left your humanity at the door. A guard couldn’t stay in the Palmyra prison and display any sort of mercy towards the prisoners.
Borgmann: To highlight what Lokman was saying, the guards in Palmyra were mostly Alawite, and for them the sect was a sort of a mafia clan. Alawites are certainly not more brutal than anyone else; it’s the system that forces them to obey their clan.
Slim: It seems that, especially in Palmyra, the guards were either Alawite or Shawi (literally “shepherd,” referring to the predominantly-Sunni tribes of eastern Syria). So in Palmyra you found either the guards [with an absolute allegiance to their clan] or marginalized people who were ready to do anything to gain the favor of the more powerful. This brings us again to the idea of a system, one that selected even its prison guards. Not just any conscript could serve in the Palmyra prison.
Al-Jumhuriya: Tadmor’s characters sometimes display relatively minor acts of resistance that mean the world to them. These are some of the film’s most powerful moments. Is it about illustrating the fact that one of the world’s worst prisons cannot break them?
Borgmann: Such resistance was also something that pushed us to work on this film. The more we got to know our group of protagonists—we met them in 2008—the more they told us; the more we questioned them about how they managed to survive. The film tries to elaborate on this question, too. We think that everyone had their own little secret that they kept private, which was crucial for us to show. That way, we can also see the film in a positive light, as somewhere they found the necessary force to survive.
Slim: What makes a human being faced with horror succeed at preserving their personal integrity? It’s not just about these prisoners anymore, but, as Monika said, a larger reflection on how everyone elaborates their own little techniques [of resistance], how they manage to recreate dignity.
Borgmann: One of the ex-prisoners was once denounced by a cellmate [for breaking a certain rule]. It shows something interesting; maybe that person thought that by denouncing someone else he would survive. There is an effort to survive individually, but, on a collective level, there also appears a general interest.
[Borgmann mentions a scene where, at night, three prisoners who are still physically strong perform a chore out of turn, so as to avoid collective punishment for a task done badly.]
There were situations where prisoners would save others’ lives and their own lives simultaneously.
Al-Jumhuriya: What did it mean for former prisoners to play prison guards? What effect did the film have on the Lebanese survivors of Palmyra prison?
Borgmann: Two of our main protagonists act as torturers. They were part of the same group of ex-prisoners, as this group would never accept anyone outside in this role, which consisted in beating them. Our camera director tried to recruit his activist friends for these roles, but our protagonists refused. They only accepted to play the role themselves.
Slim: We have to imagine it as a collective body. If one of its members plays the torturer, the body only inflicts pain onto itself. It’s a suffering within a closed loop, contrary to what happens in prison, where suffering ultimately comes from the outside.
Al-Jumhuriya: How did the filming of Tadmor affect the protagonists? Could you talk about their treatment in Lebanon after their release from Assad’s jail?
Borgmann: Most of the prisoners were liberated following an amnesty after Hafez al-Assad’s death [in 2000], and then they came back to Lebanon, which was still occupied by the Syrian army. They were publicly seen as traitors and received no medical or psychological support. But everyone manages their fear differently. Ali Abu Dehn started talking about his experience almost immediately. Others became vocal after the retreat of the Syrian army. More than anything, the ex-prisoners were busy rebuilding their lives. Some got back with their wives; others were divorced by theirs; others got married. Most had disappeared when they were about 18-20 years old, and all these years when you’d normally learn a job, they’d spent in prison. So when they got out, most of the group became cab drivers. Driving was a liberty, and it didn’t require particular skills, but it meant that today they struggle to send their children to a decent school. And they are still fighting to obtain reparations from the Lebanese state. A Lebanese who had been imprisoned in Israel receives compensation from the government...
Slim: …and those who were in Syrian prisons do not.
Borgmann: The film served as an exorcism for the protagonists’ trauma. I think that they became stronger. They were proud of having taken part in the project. Ali Abu Dehn has travelled with us; he’s been to various film festivals, and recognition helps greatly.
Al-Jumhuriya: Since the Lebanese civil war, all Syrian prisons have become equally, if not more terrible than Palmyra. What does it change about the film’s message? How do your protagonists feel about the fact that the atrocities they experienced continue to this day?
Slim: A lot of our Syrian friends who have been to prison there identify strongly with the film. The fact that most of Tadmor’s protagonists are Lebanese doesn’t prevent them from considering it a Syrian film. We are very happy with this appropriation, and I think we won our bet. Tadmor has become a film about Syrian prisons, as well as all other prisons similar to them, whether they be in Iraq, Egypt, Latin America, or Russia.
Borgmann: Our film’s protagonists feel like the spokespeople for those dead or still imprisoned. Especially since the geopolitics of the conflict have changed. At first, everyone thought Assad would go.
Al-Jumhuriya: And now?
Borgmann: Unfortunately not.
Slim: It’s even worse than that. Today it is no longer enough for Assad to leave. On the one hand, you have the system he built; and, on the other hand, you have the Russian-Iranian condominium, which has to be dismantled. And this is much harder to do.