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French Version

Hard-put Lebanese filmmakers work against a small and hostile landscape

Never the best of environments, 2006 saw Lebanon become an even more challenging place for cinema

The 2006 Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF) is done and 2006 itself is wending to a close.

It's as good a time as any to glance back on the state of Lebanese cinema.

BIFF 2006 screened precisely one Lebanese film, Katia Jarjoura's documentary "Terminator." This dearth underlines a problem, though less with the festival than with Lebanese cinema generally.

BIFF director Collette Naufal's event followed hard on the heels of Beirut DC's Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya film festival. Explicitly dedicated to promoting Arabic-language cinema, Ayam Beirut is arguably as good a platform for Lebanese filmmakers to launch their work as BIFF - given that both festivals are comparable in size.

In fact, premieres of Lebanese feature films are exceedingly rare, a consequence of the emaciated state of film production here. The reasons for such poverty are no mystery. For every element in favor of Lebanese cinema, there is an element or two against it.

There's no shortage of local talent and advances in digital video technology have made it cheaper and easier for filmmakers to generate marketable images on DV. In practice, this has been more of a boon to documentary and short film, feature filmmakers still preferring to work in film when they can. Yet few filmmakers have an opportunity to practice their craft - which confounds their ability to make the mistakes needed to improve.

There is little in the way of industry infrastructure, furthermore, and rather less enthusiasm among Lebanese capitalists - notoriously skittish about investing in projects that don't guarantee a rapid, high-yield return. The most successful feature filmmakers thus fall back on partnerships with the European Union and France - which, if you glance at the fine print, amounts to a creative way of spending European money in Europe.

Such dependence is likely to continue. Just a couple of months ago, Lebanon underwent yet another ruthless war, complements of Israel, one that deliberately played upon the country's sectarian divisions.

Lebanese filmmakers face an engaging artistic challenge in their country's recent history of civil, social, sectarian and regional conflict and the existential extremes they've engendered. On the other hand, it's damnably difficult for creativity or industrial and financial infrastructure to thrive against such a landscape.

Nearly every Lebanese filmmaker who's completed a feature has remarked that, in the present state of affairs, it's miraculous that films get made in this country at all. It's worth asking what kind of film aesthetic this hostile environment has so far nurtured.

Much celebration invariably surrounds a Lebanese feature film premiere, and this is one reason Ayam Beirut Cinemaiyya was such a success. It hosted both the world premier of "Falafel," Michel Kammoun's first feature, and the regional premier of "Atlal" ("The Last Man"), the third feature by Ghassan Salhab.

"Falafel" leads the audience through one night in the life of a Lebanese university student named Toufic as he tries to get close to a girl he fancies. In the night he must also wrestle with his ambivalence toward a country where the magical - exemplified in the narratives Beirutis use to take possession of their lives - rubs routinely against the criminal - the gangsterism that characterizes a significant part of Lebanon's dominant class.

"I wanted ... my first feature to talk about Beirut," Kammoun says, "our society, this time we're living in. I wanted the film to be close to reality, everyday life and how the routine is utterly exceptional by other people's standards - the small details that we adapt to, incredible, unacceptable things, things that make life here completely schizophrenic."

Though set in and inspired by Beirut, Salhab's oeuvre is markedly different from that of most of his peers - whose work is, like "Falafel," more explicitly "about" Beirut or Lebanon. "The Last Man" - which might be described (a trifle reductively) as an "art house vampire film set in Beirut" - takes this tendency to new limits.

Though it speaks in Beiruti Arabic and its setting is recognizably Beirut - albeit in its seldom-captured wintertime hues - "The Last Man" addresses existential themes that are, like the Vampire myth itself and the metaphors it evokes, universal.

"This isn't necessarily 'my' city," Salhab says. "I don't want to show Beirut. Beirut is not a character. But Beirut is a mutant city, a city always changing. So it's a good place to make a film about a man transforming, mutating."

Both "Falafel" and "The Last Man" have earned a degree of international recognition. Salhab's film made its debut at the prestigious Locarno Film Fesival, while Kammoun's movie took the best film prize at the International Festival of Francophone Film in Namur, Belgium.

The decision process that sees Arabic films screened and awarded in international festivals can be an opaque one. More intriguing, and transparent, has been the local reception of these features.

An interesting subtext of the 2006 Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya was its providing a forum for the fault lines within Lebanon's artistic and critical communities to be expressed. One venue for this dialogue was a roundtable on the film and video made during the recent 34-day war. Aesthetic differences were also evident in the wake of the film premieres themselves.

Many Beirut filmmakers and critics audiences received "Falafel" warmly. The same is true of "The Last Man." Denizens of the city's artistic-filmmaking and critical art-making communities who are sympathetic with Salhab's aesthetic describe the film as "sublime" and "mature." Some regard it as a masterpiece.

With few exceptions, it seems that those who loved "Falafel" hated "The Last Man." Those who loved Salhab's film hated Kammoun's. What's more, the responses assumed a positively partisan intensity.

It would be folly to try summarizing the "intellectual position" of Beirut's small but varied artistic and filmmaking community, and misleading to stuff its members into one box or another.

Broadly speaking, though, there are some who are more inclined toward a populist (in some cases commercial) aesthetic and others (generally regarded as more "high-brow") who are more self-conscious about the location of their work - whether in terms of critical theory or cinematic tradition.

Themselves good friends, Kammoun and Salhab resist being placed in opposition. Asked separately about local artists' partisan responses to their films, they answer in complementary fashion.

"My cinema," Kammoun says after a moment, "starts from me, not a theory about my role as an artist in society. Every film can be different - in theme, narrative, etc. - and it always stems from my needs. It's a visceral process.

"When you make a film, you live it every day for a couple of years," he adds. "You live it through passion and joy. You can't theorize over such a thing for years at a time. It's a matter of will. You need to believe in it, that it has the right to exist. The theories, the cerebral treatment come later. This is my partisan position. If people want to theorize about my work, that's fine. The baby is out now. It doesn't belong to me anymore."

"It's difficult to make movies in a country with so few movies," muses Salhab. "The few that are made are always put into the same bag.

"But you can't really talk about 'Lebanese cinema,'" he argues. "Cinematically, we're simply not important. How can we put ourselves in the same class as the cinema of Iran or Japan?

"So whenever you make a film here you have influences from everywhere.

"They say you have to kill your father to become yourself. In Lebanon, you have no father to kill, so you kill your brothers and sisters instead."

The Last Man" is currently in general release at the Metropolis Arthouse Cinema in Hamra Street's Masrah al-Madina and Cinema Six Sofil in Achrafieh. The general release of "Falafel" is still pending.

Beirut 16-10-2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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