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French Version

Euro-fest rounds out Beirut's film season

Organizers try to focus attention on young directors

As Lebanon's film festival season - somewhat foreshortened by the July-August bombing campaign - draws to a close, Beirut's eyes are once again drawn hopefully toward Europe.

The Delegation of the European Commission in Lebanon is responding with its 13th European Film Festival (EFF), being staged November 30 through December 10.

As in years past, the EFF endeavors to be a festival for filmmakers as well as audiences. Its 29-film program (with "family movies" included among more middle-brow fare) is augmented by a competition for short films by Lebanese students and a pitch session for feature films - a sort of mini-cinemarket that is being held in cooperation with the Lebanese Cinema Foundation.

Scheduled for December 8-9, the pitch session consists of public briefings where European producers and broadcasters explain their funding policies, then meet Lebanese directors and producers for a series of intense but informal one-on-one talks. Successful preliminary discussions could lead to a more formalized process in which treatments will be submitted to selection committees.

The Lebanese participants have been culled from a shortlist compiled after the organizers issued a call for projects. The European participants include Vincenzo Bugno from Germany's World Cinema Fund, Samuel Chauvin of France's Promenade Films, ZDF/ARTE's Meinolf Zurhorst and George Sluizer from Holland's GMS Films.

The EFF's 2006 prize for best short film will be decided from a field of 18 Lebanese student submissions. First prize is 1,500 euros, a nice chunk of change for a starving artist. Runners-up receive a jury prize of 500 euros.

Organizers stress that the thrust of this year's EFF - the pitch session, competition and program - is young directors. The lineup doesn't necessarily feature the most recent European productions, then, but it does include the early works of some of the continent's more promising directors, some of which have won prizes at one international festival or another. These are leavened with work from a few veteran filmmakers.

Scripted by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and directed by Andreas Dresen, the opening film, "Summer in Berlin," (2005) falls into the latter category. A low-intensity tragicomedy set during a heat wave, the film follows the apparently disintegrating relationship of Nike, a divorced single mother who feels frustrated in both her life and career, and Katrin, who has a history of bad relationships and works a job she doesn't care about.

The EFF will close with "Azur and Asmar," by Michel Ocelot - well-known among animated-film buffs for his "Kirikou" series. The latest effort by the French writer-director-animator is a fairy tale for the post-9/11 era about two young men - one French, one Arab - who, separated in adolescence, launch on parallel quests to find the fairy queen their wet nurse always told them about as children.

As in previous years, the troubled relationship between Europe and the Middle East seeps into some of the films in the 2006 program, though - unlike in past years - none of these is set in the Middle East or North Africa.

"Brothers," by Denmark's Susanne Bier, is a Dogme-style drama about the relationship between two brothers - one a physically and psychologically wounded veteran of Denmark's UN mission to Afghanistan who's been given up for dead, the other a good-for-nothing criminal - and the veteran's wife (played by Connie Nielsen).

"Before the Storm," by Iranian-born Swedish director Reza Parsa, contemplates two themes that are timely if someone out of proportion with each other. Leo is a frustrated adolescent whose school life is so tortured that he contemplates armed retribution against his tormentor. Ali is a retired militant from a Muslim country whose former colleagues are trying to blackmail him into assassinating a countryman in his host country. Somehow the two stories - oddly reminiscent of Joseph Fares' "Zozo" (2005) - come together in one film.

The 2006 EFF also makes a modest departure from tradition by screening a documentary. Kim Longinotto's "Sisters in Law" is a verite work focusing on the work of Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba, a prosecutor and a judge in Cameroon. The camera lingers over three court cases - one involving spousal abuse, the other two child abuse, one of them rape. The subject matter may be tragic, but the personalities and great wit make for a funny and remarkably upbeat work.

There are several directors whose return to Beirut's screens will please local film-goers.

Gypsy aficionado Tony Gatlif ("Gadjo Dilo," 1997) returns to Romania with "Transylvania" (2006) and this time he does so with Asia Argento in tow. Zingarina (Argento) is a pregnant Italian who's in Transylvania trying to find the Romany lover who abandoned her. After a bit of musically inflected picaresque, Zingarina disguises herself as a gypsy and meets Tchangalo (Birol Unel). A bit more musically inflected picaresque follows.

On the to-do list for Beirut's anglophile audiences are a pair of UK films from Stephen Frears and Neil Jordan - cinematic heavy-hitters whose reputations sometimes overshadow the quality of their individual films.

With "Breakfast on Pluto" (2005), Jordan ("The Crying Game," 1992) returns to transvestite territory with this tale of Patrick Braden. Abandoned as a baby by his Irish mother, Braden grows up in the 1960s and 1970s to realize he's a woman trapped in the body of a man. He re-names himself Kitten and travels to London in search of his mother, finding love and adventure in the process.

Frears' "Mrs. Henderson Presents" (2005) is a "based on true events" comedy about how a bored, 1930s blue-blood named Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) and her odd-couple stage manager (played by Bob Hoskins) transformed London's Victorian-era Windmill Theater into a venue for feminine nudity to be publicly yet tastefully displayed. The principals deliver their usual strong performances.

Beirut audiences will also have a chance to watch Philippe Akiki's "Le Royaume des Pauvres" (1967), Garry Garabedian's "Abou Salim in Africa" (1965) and Mohammad Salman's "The Black Jaguar" (1965). These three feature-length Lebanese films are all newly restored by the Lebanese Cinema Foundation with financial help from the EU. Based on past years, the screenings of these modernist pearls should be among the highlights of the festival.

The European Film Festival opens November 30 with "Summer in Berlin" at Unesco Palace in Verdun, and continues with daily screenings at Cinema Six Sofil in Achrafieh through December
10. For information on extra screenings in Tripoli and Zahle and the full program of films, please see www.dellbn.ec.europa.eu

Beirut 04-12-2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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