|Born in Beirut : a film festival innovates (Daily Star)
|Homemade films, live musical accompaniment distinguish Ne a Beyrouth's fourth annual event
The slogan for Ne a Beyrouth's fourth annual film festival, which runs from Friday through Monday at Beirut's Empire Sofil, is "cinema has a point." But judging from the lineup the young production company has assembled, cinema has many points. Or rather, Ne a Beyrouth has many points to make about the state of cinema in Lebanon now. And this festival is as suitable a forum as any to make those points known.
The three principle players behind Ne a Beyrouth are Wadih Safeiddine, 34, Nadim Tabet, 24, and Pierre Sarraf, 28. Together with Danielle Arbid - a young, Paris-based Lebanese filmmaker whose latest feature, "In the Battlefields," will premiere in Beirut next month - they started their company four years ago to tackle three tasks: establish an annual festival, produce full-length features and programs for television, and promote Lebanese cinema abroad.
For the first time, all three of those missions are converging, literally at once. On Friday, Safeiddine, Tabet, and Sarraf will begin their day shooting footage for their television series "Cinema Beyrouth," a nine-month program on the local film scene that airs every Friday night on NBN. Then they will open their festival in the evening. Once that's done, they will keep working late into the night, as they have just begun filming their first feature-length production. Michel Kammoun's "Falafel," a film encapsulating all the contradictions and eccentricities of living in post-war Beirut, is a nocturnal affair, presenting the story of one young man - told from dusk until dawn.
As the youngest of Beirut's strange glut of cinema series - and the first of at least five that will animate Beirut's cluster of celluloid junkies in the coming three months - Ne a Beyrouth has always had to define itself against the other local festivals, such as DocuDays and Beirut Ayam Cinema'iyya. The group has done so largely through clever timing (by staging their festival in late August, before the others that come around in September, October, and November) and sharp focus (by emphasizing Lebanese cinema in all forms, as opposed to other festivals that highlight the documentary genre or movies from the region at large). On paper, it works. In reality, things get more complicated, as boundaries blur when selections are made.
How successful Ne a Beyrouth has been in carving out its own identity may be a matter of opinion. But what one can glean from this year's film selection is that documentary and experimental films are strong in Lebanon (where features are weak), and that cinematic material should be considered the equivalent of cultural patrimony. It is deeply entrenched in the national psyche. As such, it is a mechanism for capturing and conveying memory, something that should therefore be collected, archived, and preserved.
The centerpiece of Ne a Beyrouth's schedule is a collection of movies made not by a Lebanese filmmaker but rather by a French documentarian, which is less of a stretch than you'd imagine, because the festival chose wisely.
Henri-Francois Imbert was born in 1967 in Narbonne. Since the age of 20, he has been making movies on Super-8. Ne a Beyrouth will screen three of his critically acclaimed documentaries: "Sur la plage de Belfast," in which Imbert finds some unexposed film in a camera and heads off for Ireland to return the film to its owner; "No pasaran, album souvenir," about Imbert's fascination with postcards from the Spanish Civil War and the 10 years he spends tracing their origins, uncovering a story about the flood of half a million refugees from Spain in 1939 in the process; and "Doulaye, une saison des pluies," following Imbert's journey to Africa, where he finds an old friend of his father's living in Bamako.
According to Ne a Beyrouth, the connection between Imbert and Lebanese moviemaking lies in similarities in approach - low aspirations toward fame, limited resources, and a commitment to the idea of cinema as memory.
"(Imbert) is not Luc Besson," jokes Tabet, "but he's known in documentary circles. 'No pasaran' screened at Cannes."
"He's completely self-financed," adds Safeiddine. "So he shows an alternative way of producing cinema."
"The interesting connection to Lebanon," says Sarraf, "is not the war but the issue of memory, and in Lebanon all the problems we have with memory."
Indeed, the idea of lost material and living other people's recollections through film links Imbert's work with "The Lost Film," by the Beirut-based team Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, part of Ne a Beyrouth's 2004 lineup. "The Lost Film," which screens on Friday, tracks Hadjithomas and Joreige's return to Yemen after a film of theirs mysteriously disappears while being shipped from one end of the country to the other on the 10-year anniversary of the reunification between north and south.
"And there's the Super-8 connection," adds Sarraf.
One of the most interesting elements of this edition of the festival is Ne a Beyrouth's inaugural program of home movies. For the past year, Safeiddine, Tabet, and Sarraf have been on a nationwide search for vintage, recreational Super-8 films.
"We just asked people over and over, 'Did your parents ever shoot home movies on Super-8 cameras?'" explains Sarraf. Eventually, they collected five such films, each 15 minutes long, which they will screen at the beginning of each night of the festival. Because the films are silent, Ne a Beyrouth enlisted a group of six local musicians - many of whom, such as Charbel Haber, Marc Codsi, and Sharif Sehnaoui, were involved in the Irtijal Festival of Free Improvised Music in Beirut last weekend - to provide live soundtracks for the screenings (something no other film festival in Lebanon has thought to offer).
Otherwise, the festival is padded with short and experimental films - including such festival mainstays as Lamia Joreige, Jayce Salloum, and Jalal Toufic, and auspicious debuts by Ziad Antar and Christophe Carabache - and a spotlight on Maroun Baghdadi, the late great Lebanese director who died tragically in 1993 after falling down the stairwell of the building in Beirut where he lived. Baghdadi's chronicle of the civil war, "Petites Guerres," will screen on Sunday.
"We're always working on the balance," says Safeiddine. "The main problem we face is the lack of feature productions in Lebanon. We didn't have much to choose from."
The dearth of material makes it more difficult for the many festivals to avoid overlap. As Safeiddine explains, Beirut DC's festival takes place every two years. The proximity hasn't been a problem in the past, but "Beirut DC is now 15 days after us. It's bad for timing," he says. Although Beirut DC takes an angle on Arab film, they have a Lebanese section, and the two festivals ended up competing over five or six short films by local directors.
But these growing pains aside, Sarraf says that overall, "The idea is to upgrade." To wit, Ne a Beyrouth's move from last year's venue - the technologically challenged French Cultural Center (CCF) - to Empire means "better projection, better sound," says Sarraf. The change in venue also allows them to shed just a little bit of their francophone image, something the boys behind Ne a Beyrouth have long been eager to leave behind.
Ne a Beyrouth's fourth annual film festival runs Aug. 27 through 30 at the Empire Sofil in Beirut. Films begin screening at 7pm each night. For a full schedule, check www.neabeyrouth.org/festival.
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star