|Beirut cinema acquires a French accent
|Festival du Cinema Francophone promises film curios from here and elsewhere
Lebanon is fond of celebrating its francophone tendencies. Presently, the country is in the grips of the Fete de la Francophonie, a florescence of cultural events being staged across the country through April 20.
Enclosed within the festivities is the second annual Festival du Cinema Francophone, hosted by the Metropolis Art Cinema in Hamra. The festival assembles 20 short films and features from numerous countries - some associated with the francophonie (the French Empire's answer to the British Commonwealth), others with regions of the world that French producers have patronized.
A variety of cinematographic voices are on offer, from as far afield as Canada, France, Switzerland, Egypt, Morocco, Chad, Bulgaria and Romania.
Naturally, the festival opens with a French film, Denis Dercourt's "La Tourneuse de Pages" ("The Page-Turner," 2006), which was selected for the Cannes film festival's "Un Certain Regard" section and has been nominated for three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars). The film monitors the relationship between two women, Melanie - who as a precocious 10-year-old applied to study at the Paris Conservatoire - and Anne - the head of the conservatory who refused Melanie admission.
The festival's other French film is Xavier Beauvois' "Le Petit Lieutenant" ("The Little Lieutenant," 2005), a cops-and-robbers melodrama about the relationship between a post-alcoholic veteran and a rookie.
The festival's accent changes with a pair of Swiss films.
Like so many train movies that have come before, Frederic Choffat's "La Vraie Vie Est Ailleurs" ("The True Life Is Elsewhere," 2006) takes up the disparate stories of several travelers. Three people en route to different destinations - Marseilles, Berlin and Naples - arrive in Geneva for a passage that will discretely alter their lives.
"Henry Dunant: Du Rouge sur la Croix" (2005), by Choffat's compatriot Dominique Othenin-Girard, is a made-for-television biopic about the man responsible for founding the Red Cross.
More eccentric for Beirut audiences, at least for those who have never lived in Montreal, is a pair of films by Quebecois (aka "French Canadian") director Charles Biname. "Maurice Richard" (2005) portrays the ice-hockey legend who struggled against physical fragility to become the embodiment of his team, the Montreal Canadiens.
With "Seraphin: Un Homme et Son Peche" ("Seraphin: A Man and His Sin," 2002), Biname casts his historical net back further. In the Quebec village of St. Adele, Donalda and Alexis declare their undying love for one another. Alexis leaves to work in the woods (yes, they have migrant labor in the first world, too), thinking he'll return in spring with a fresh suit of long johns and a fist full of dollars to marry Donalda. Things develop differently, though, and love triangles ensue.
The francophonie, and francophone money, extends far beyond Western Europe and Canada, of course, so an interesting range of voices from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East are included in this year's festival.
On March 22, the festival is screening a selection of Lebanese and Egyptian shorts. Sherif al-Bendari's "Sabah al-Ful" looks in on the frantic morning ritual of a young mother, and Rami Kodeih's "A Shaharazad Tale" is a story set in Beirut's southern suburb of Hay al-Silloum.
Rounding out this selection is Elie Khalife's comedy "Van Express," about a pair of Beiruti scoundrels desperate to make some money, and Hany Tamba's Cesar-winning "After Shave," about a man and his barber coming to terms with Beirut.
Following the shorts is the critically acclaimed comedy "Baheb al-Cinema" ("I Love Cinema," 2004) by Egypt's Ossama Fawzi. In 1960s Cairo, young Naeem loves going to the movies, which is one of innumerable fun things his religious father has banned. Egypt's Coptic Church tried to have the film itself banned, and this is a rare opportunity to find out why.
Another gem in the festival lineup is "L'Homme Voile" ("The Veiled Man," 1987) by the late Maroun Baghdadi. It tells the story of Pierre, a Leba-nese doctor who has returned to Beirut to meet his 16-year-old daughter Claire, and the mysterious contract that Pierre must fulfill while he's in Lebanon. Baghdadi was regarded as Lebanon's leading filmmaker when he died suddenly (and mysteriously) late in the Civil War. This is the first-ever public screening of "L'Homme Voile."
Another curio is "Mille Mois" ("A Thousand Months," 2002), a comedy by Moroccan writer and director Faouzi Bensaidi. It
follows the minimalist adventures of 7-year-old Medhi - the son of an imprisoned dissident whose mother tells him the old man is working in Paris - as he glances past the goings-on in his village during the month of Ramadan. "Mille Mois" is the first feature from Bensaidi, who caught good press late last year with his film "WWW: What a Wonderful World."
The festival is also screening a pair of films from Lebanon's Ghassan Salhab. The first vampire film from Lebanon, and perhaps the Arab world, "Le Dernier Homme" ("The Last Man," 2006) centers on Khalil, a Lebanese doctor who is monitoring a spate of deadly attacks and finds his own life, too, is threatened. "Homme" follows a projection of Salhab's "Breve Rencontre avec Jean-Luc Godard" (2005), in which France's icon of art-house cinema discusses his trade.
African film, unfiltered through Hollywood's lens, remains rare in Lebanon and local audiences have the chance to see two movies from the continent next week. "Abouna" ("Our Father" 2002), by Chad's Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, is a beautifully shot tale about the misadventures of two bothers whose father has abandoned them. Like Bensaidi, Haroun has been the subject of critical attention since his feature "Dry Season" took the jury prize at the Venice film festival last year.
Equally well-received, "L'Extraordinaire Destin de Madame Brouette" (2002), by Senegal's Moussa Sene Absa, is an orange-tinted murder caper, in which the eponymous lady tries to reassure Dakar's finest that she didn't murder her policeman boyfriend Naago.
Rarer still in Beirut cinemas are Eastern European films, and Metropolis is screening a pair of French co-productions. "Ryna" (2005), by Romanian director Ruxanda Zenide, tells the story of a teenage girl on the cusp of sexual awareness, trapped between her abusive father and a slew of other men - the mayor, the postman, a French anthropologist - who leer at her from the edge of her life.
From Bulgaria, Peter Popzlatev's "Meme Dieu Est Venu Nous Voir" ("Even God has Visited Us," 2003) works with similar elements. In Kesten, a derelict Bulgarian village on the Greek frontier, Vladimir works as mayor, runs the school and mans the post office. His relationship with his wife Maria varies according to what hat he's wearing: as mayor he's suspicious; as school director he's jealous and abusive; as post office head, he's a clumsy flirt.
There are many French-accented voices to be heard, then, both local and exotic.
The Festival du Cinema Francophone runs from March 21 through April 1 at the Metropolis Art Cinema in the Saroulla Building on Hamra Street. For more information, please call +961 3 760 906
The Daily Star