Saturday, June 4, 2011

Alternative tourism video in the works, to counter Ministry of Tourism's videos

By Patrick Galey, The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Five o’clock starts are nothing new for Priya Subedi. As one of thousands of migrant workers living in Lebanon, she has spent the last four years getting used to waking with the call to prayer to prepare her daily chores. But last week saw Subedi take on an altogether different role. For one day, with a customarily early start, Subedi was an actress.

Subedi’s journey from floor sweeper to film star started in March, when the Tourism Ministry unveiled its latest promotional video, “Lebanon Nights.” The American version of the film, posted on YouTube, featured a tourist struggling to concentrate at work after returning from a trip to Lebanon, his head filled with images of scantily clad women gyrating under a strobe light.

It received criticism from gender equality groups, who condemned the video’s depiction of Lebanese women as sex objects eagerly awaiting the attention of lascivious tourists.

“Welcome to Lebanon” is a response project organized by a group of rights activists seeking to portray the sober realities of life for many of society’s marginalized. Few demographics correlate less with the Tourism Ministry’s image of liberated and sexualized females, so the group says, than migrant domestic workers.

Alex Shams, creator of the project, said the film was designed to promote a more realistic depiction of Lebanon – where women are more likely to be subordinate than seductive.

“As we all know Lebanon is a very touristic country, and likes to view itself like that. Playing off of that, we were interested in doing an ironic video looking at what Lebanon means for the foreigners who come here for work and what their experience has been. How do they perceive the attractions of Lebanon?” he said.

“We wanted to show the idea of Beirut as a center of international communication, of east and west coming together and the idea of all sorts of people being here. Everyone in the world is here, but if you’re not able to leave your house like 80 percent of [migrant workers] then your Lebanon is not the Lebanon the Tourism Ministry is trying to sell.”

Filming for the project began last Friday at the crack of dawn. Subedi, originally from Nepal, said the alternative video was a chance to show audiences the reality of life as a migrant worker.

“This is a very good opportunity to show how we feel. Every conference that we go to [for migrant workers] we share all our problems but this is different because people will actually see this. If they can see what our lives our like it is better,” she said.

The project, which will be segmented into four short online videos, scrutinizes the behavior that many migrant workers are subjected to on a daily basis, even as rich tourists ham it up with club girls and champagne. This is the side of Lebanon the Tourism Ministry doesn’t want outsiders to see: A worker being denied entry to a beach, or even being told to go back indoors, purely due to their social standing and skin tone.

Jowe Harfouche, the project’s director, said that the final product will be deliberately similar in form – if a little sardonic in tone – to the Tourism Ministry’s effort.

“So far it is going well. We are looking at the [footage] and it looks good. In tone and music, they will be similar to the Tourism Ministry videos and each will deal with a particular incident,” he said.

He admitted, however, that promoting the video will be difficult, faced with a media largely indifferent to the sexism and discrimination experienced by many women and the majority of domestic workers, as well as a Tourism Ministry target audience more interested in eroticism than equality.

“[The project] has a viral feel to it but I was hoping to get more media attention because this subject is not really dealt with. I am still hoping that when people see the video it will get more attention. Some people are promoting advocacy for these rights, otherwise why make [the film]?” Harfouche said.

“I see the layer of people who are exploiting this situation for their own good. They don’t see it as being harmful so they perpetuate it. It just stays that way. Unless it pokes you in the eye it stays that way.”

With a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack and dressed-down appearance, “Welcome to Lebanon,” (itself a sideways nod to the omnipresent greeting foreigners receive at every Beirut street corner) should provoke knowing smiles from those taking interest in the issue of female exploitation.

Shams said he wanted the project to be thought-provoking as well as funny.

“For us, it’s humorously in response to the Tourism Ministry, but it’s more about showing Lebanese people that the country that they take so much pride in is also extremely exploitative of people coming here to work and racism is being encountered by foreigners even coming for vacation,” he said.

Subedi said she hoped the project would make those who see migrants as inferior to Lebanese realize that they too are part of society.

“People look at us in a certain way if we want to go to the beach or to a nice restaurant,” she said. “I want them to know that we are people too and want to be treated the same.”

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