|Old stories maybe, but told with a fresh eye
|Ne a Beyrouth's Festival of Lebanese Film resurrects itself after a year's postponement
The delightful heat and humidity weighing upon coastal Lebanon these days make it feel far from autumnal.
Nevertheless, Beirut's fall film festival season is set to commence on Friday evening, with the opening of the sixth edition of Ne a Beyrouth's Festival of Lebanese Film. The sixth edition was meant to run in 2006 but, like so many of the country's cultural events, it became a casualty of last summer's 34-day Israeli assault on the country.
During its six-day program, the festival will screen 66 films that were made either by Lebanese filmmakers (expatriate or otherwise) or by foreigners about Lebanon, all in the period from September 2005 to July 2007.
The selection includes a range of short, medium- and feature-length films, a selection of animated shorts, a clutch of documentaries of various lengths and a 26-film bushel of experimental works.
Among the highlights will be the Lebanese premier of Danielle Arbid's "Un Homme Perdu" ("A Lost Man"). Just back from Cannes, Arbid's is the festival's sole new feature.
Always popular, too, are the festival's "home movies" section. Drawing on a stock of 8mm and super 8 films found around Lebanon, this year's home movies are comprised of three works edited by Akram Zaatari and Rachad al-Jisr, Joseph Ghosn and Ne a Beyrouth respectively. All are silent, so the screenings will be accompanied by performances by several musicians of the local progressive scene - Mazen Kerbaj, Charbel Habr, et al.
In addition to the "home movies," the festival will screen a pair of antique features "Le Petit Etranger" (1962) by Georges Nasser and Jean Becker's "Echappement Libre" (1963). It also features a pair of special screenings, featuring what may be the earliest extant films of Beirut, shot in 1897 by Alexandre Promio.
"This year," says Ne a Beyrouth's Nadim Tabet, "we wanted to mix the genres so that you don't have a program that's all documentaries or video art, etc." He says 12 of the 18 sessions have been curated, insofar as the work focuses on a common theme.
Tabet sees this festival as fulfilling a dual role. On one hand the selection committee was interested in promoting films in line with a certain vision - stories, he says, that may have been told before but are here being told in a new way.
"On the other," he continues, "we have to be transparent. We have an obligation to respect a minimum of representative-ity, by giving audiences a sense of what kind of work is being made in the country."
The committee made its selection from 190 submissions. He says perhaps 60 percent of the films reflect interesting story-telling, while the rest were chosen because they're representative of the scene.
"One of the problems you face with programming a festival of Lebanese film in Beirut," says Ne a Beyrouth's Pierre Sarraf, is the size of the place. "Everyone knows everyone else here. If you say there is no place for their work in the festival, filmmakers can take it very personally. You can risk losing friends this way."
"People are interested in what's happening in the careers of Lebanese filmmakers and artists," says Tabet. "Artists like Jalal Toufic and Akram Zaatari have done excellent work that's earned them a following. A new work may not be a masterpiece but people are interested in how their work is developing, so we screen it."
The film production house called Ne a Beyrouth is more than the festival the group founded in 2001. Indeed, Ne a Beyrouth and its festival are gradually becoming separate entities.
Sarraf says he'd like "to make it an institution for the production of films (documentaries, features and short films) and music videos. We've done some television ads but we're not really pursuing that any more. Sometimes production means executive production, sometimes on-the-ground production but we can't launch many productions because it's too expensive."
One project Ne a Beyrouth has been working on recently is a DVD compilation of work made by Lebanese filmmakers and video artists in response to last summer's 34 day War. Sarraf also wants to compile a database of Lebanese filmmakers and their work.
"We know that [the Beirut Development and Cinema film collective] is already working on such a project for Arab cinema," he says, "but it's equally important that we have such a resource for just Lebanese film.
"This year for the first time we will have a really sizeable catalogue in French and Arabic. We've been able to do this because we've had a substantial budget increase, so we can actually employ people to work on the festival.
"This is all thanks to our partnership with SGBL [Societe Generale de Banque au Liban]. It's important for the bank's owners to be seen to be interested in the cultural scene but at the same time they know where their role stops - in the selection process.
"SGBL was already well known for its interest in film, one that dates back to their sponsorship of [Colette Naufal's] Beirut International Film Festival," he says. "They're also interested in establishing a self-sustaining fund to award prizes to young Lebanese filmmakers."
After seven years, Ne a Beyrouth is in a particularly good position to ferret out recent trends in Lebanese film production. Sarraf admits that the production has been so erratic, he doesn't really have a clear sense of its shape. Certain trends can be prised out, though.
"Exilic films are always very prominent, of course," says Tabet. "We usually have a lot of films about the Palestinians in Lebanon but this year there will only be two or three of these."
"There's also an interest in identity. Directors turning the camera on themselves is a growing form in France these days but there is a strong continuity of this type of film in Lebanon," Tabet says.
"Another common theme involves stories of transmission - filmmakers taking up their cameras to film their grandfathers and fathers. It's a way of taking the audience back to another story, one that's not related to the civil war.
"It's very difficult to get comic films made in Lebanon, so we don't see very many of them," Tabet continues, "but I think gradually we're coming to see that there's a distinct brand of Lebanese comedy. We were disappointed that Elie Khalife's film couldn't be ready for the festival.
"There is an automatism among Lebanese filmmakers to pick up the camera whenever something happens, whether it be the Hariri assassination and the political rallies that followed, or last summer's war. There are, I think, very few films that capture a sense of Lebanon when there was no war or other catastrophe."
The Festival of Lebanese Film opens to the public on 24 August and runs through 29 August at Cinema Sofil, Achrafiyeh. For more information, see www.neabeyrouth.org/festival
The Daily Star