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French Version

Né a Beyrouth packs the house with a mixed bag

Festival of Lebanese film pads a line-up of gems with heaps of trash

This summer at the 51st Venice Biennale, a 29-year-old artist named Tino Sehgal is representing Germany in the national pavilions, along with a 37-year-old painter and sculptor named Thomas Scheibitz. Sehgal has lately become a subject of critical debate.

His work is never photographed or documented, though it takes shapes in exhibitions, exists in private collections, and trades on the international art market. Sehgal's pieces, such as "This is so Contemporary" and "This is Exchange," consist of situations crafted in a specific space and time. Actors perform movements, speak, sing, and communicate with visitors, who in turn become part of the work. After that, the work disappears without a trace.

Whether or not this constitutes art proper is very much to the point and a deliberately open question. Many may see something by Sehgal, throw up their hands, and call him a charlatan. Without staking any steel claims to the contrary, three things make Sehgal an artist worth engaging. One, he knows his history and is aware of the work that artists have done before him. Two, he is serious in his execution and his work is both formally and conceptually coherent. Three, he gives respectful consideration to the presence of his viewers and recognizes the value of their time.

What do these three things bring to bear on the fifth edition of the Ne a Beyrouth Festival of Lebanese Film? Well, they make for a rough set of criteria by which to judge the 30-odd selections. At most, 10 of the films shown over the last five days would pass. The rest would not only fail but would do so with stunning efficiency.

Ne a Beyrouth sets itself a challenging task. To pull off a yearly festival showing exclusively Lebanese film is difficult. To keep it current by restricting the films to those produced within the last 12 months is more difficult still. One can take the Ne a Beyrouth "rendez-vous" as a kind of open annual review of cinematic production in Lebanon. Or one can suggest that in the future, sharper choices and more serious selecting may be desperately in order.

After a tribute to Samir Kassir, Ne a Beyrouth opened last Friday night with two premieres - Wissam Charaf's "Hizz ya Wizz" and Hany Tamba's "After Shave (Beyrouth, Aprs Rasage)." Both were blissfully competent, promising shorts of 26 and 27 minutes respectively. Charaf's spiky portrait of a listless, lovesick photographer's assistant had moments of genuine humor and a kind of surface tension that suggests good things to come. Tamba's film, beautifully shot, tells a slight story about a melancholic man who has been holed up in a gorgeous old Beiruti house since his wife's death during the Civil War. Toward the end, the barber who visits him regularly senses he's about to lose his best client. To keep him leaving the house and rejoining the world of the living, he sputters into a verbal eruption of postwar critique that is worth every second.

Equally compelling and more evocative was a 44-minute film by Jihane Chouhaib called "Sous Mon Lit (Under My Bed)," which screened on Monday night. Already a prize-winner in France, Chouhaib's film captures with absolute perfection that phase in a young woman's evolution when she is so awkward and terrified that to shield her vulnerability, she comes across as a complete wench. The main character Mira ditches a school trip and camps out at home alone. She's not nearly as tough as she thinks she is, though, and soon succumbs to paralyzing fear. Slowly, that fear compounded with restless energy crests in a sexual experience with her best and only friend Mathieu (who makes her a killer mix tape). Just to keep the scene from getting too cheesy or dreamy, they fall off of one another's bodies to expose the most absurd hickeys ever committed to film. These two make up for in suction what they lack in experience.

A particular bonus of Ne a Beyrouth's festival is that it celebrates film in all forms. It doesn't discriminate between features and shorts, documentaries and artful experiments. Each night boasted a mess of everything, and the line-up was pleasurably anarchic.

Clocking in at a scant few minutes, Dima al-Horr's "Nine Years Later," which screened on Saturday, is a straight shot of twisted beauty, like watching a Gerhard Richter painting move to a soundscape masterfully crafted and composed by Cynthia Zaven (who also did the soundtrack to Elie Khalife's "Van Express," another of the festival's strongest selections).

Also on Saturday, Akram Zaatari's formally tight "In This House" provided ample evidence as to why he is one of the most interesting artists working in Lebanon now. On Monday, Yasmine Massri's brief "Boum ... Tac" was uproarious and original. Antoine Waked's animation "The Big Fall" had enjoyable quirks. Fouad Mikati's "Zead" was dark and rhythmic, suggesting the skills of the next Darren Aronofsky. On Tuesday, Maher Abi Samra screened the solid documentary "Rond-Point Chatila" and Jalal Toufic offered the very clever "A Special Effect Termed 'Time,' or, Filming Death at Work," which aptly turned the tables on the audience. To watch a 32-minute visual essay consisting of three long tracking shots of Toufic's infant nephew, you realize psychoanalysts like Freud and Lacan weren't completely off their respective rockers. One part is subtitled "Still Life with 12 Minutes and Sound," a reference to a Gaspar Noe film for which the agitated crowd provided an ambient addition.

All that said, and really, all subjectivities aside, some of the selections in this year's festival were truly, stupifyingly terrible (and mind-numbingly derivative). Is it acceptable to produce a line of text by banging on a keyboard? kasdfkjfdsjkdasfjk;dfajk;dfa. Is that satisfying to read? No. Some of the films in this festival were the exact visual equivalent. Utter nonsense with no thought, no structure, no form, no content, no respect for the time anyone will waste watching them. Worse still is the thought that Ne a Beyrouth actually turned some 40 films down.

"There were a few films from abroad, from England and Canada, that we felt didn't really have a place," says Pierre Sarraf, one of the festival organizers. While he is kinder and more tolerant of what was shown, he admits: "With one or two films, I think we could have been more strict. Next year I think we will have to remove everything questionable."

Regarding a slew of films that attempted to take stock of recent events in Lebanon, from former Premier Rafik Hariri's murder on February 14 to the million-strong demonstration on March 14, probably the best that can be said is that it's too soon. Art and film, like literature and architecture, take time to reflect critically on political ruptures and cultural shifts. They also require some thinking, and demand some responsibility. Any clown with a camera cannot make a film, nor should he be congratulated for figuring out how to turn that camera on and off.

Unrelated to immediate political events but of special mention is Nesrine Khodr's "Enclosures," which, sorry to say, is an insult to anyone who works with words and in doing so considers what those words may mean and how they may be strung together to form further meaning. And that's just a response to Khodr's script. The visual component of the film isn't even worth comment.

In any festival, there will be the good with the bad. Maybe a line-up of 10 films as opposed to 30 would have spared audiences the tyrannical horrors. But what is probably most important here is the fact that for five hours a night, for five nights in a row, Ne a Beyrouth packed a 300-capacity theater to the gills. Throughout the festival, people were spilling out of the aisles and jumping up and down at the back like pogo sticks trying to catch a glimpse of the screen. This is noteworthy for funders, especially, and for naysayers who maintain to be culture irrelevant. It is not. The strength, energy, and enthusiasm of the crowd can't be denied. Now, maybe, there's room for some critical debate.

Beirut 29-08-2005
Kaelen Wilson Goodie
The Daily Star

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