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French Version

Beirutis looking for better play in Berlin

Lebanese film co-operative Beirut DC bringing a week of Arab-Iranian film to the German capital

It's hardly unusual for Lebanese to work overseas, even the ones who remain based in Lebanon.

So it is that from January 31 to February 5, in the week leading up to the Berlin International Film Festival (February 9 - 19), Berliners will be treated to "Well Played," a week of Arab-Iranian cinema, presented by Beirut Development and Cinema (Beirut DC).

The event will screen some 22 films and stage three debates - a roundtable and two public panel discussions - and bring 10 filmmakers from the region to represent their films.

The films range from feature films to shorts to documentaries, which number some of the more interesting work by young filmmakers in the last few years.

Among the features that have received some exposure in the Middle East, but little outside, is "In Casablanca the Angels don't Fly" (Morocco, 97 mins), Mohammad Asly's much-praised work about the travails of three Moroccan migrant laborers. The same can be said for "I Love Cinema" (Egypt, 150 mins), Oussama Fawzi's controversial comedy about growing up in the Coptic community during the Nasser era.

Some of the features are hot off the press. Ouday Rachid's "Underexposure" (Iraq, 75 mins), which has received few screenings even in this region, has the distinction of being the first Iraqi feature to be shot on location since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "Yek Shab" ("One Night," Iran, 90 mins) is written and directed by the well-known Iranian film actor Niki Karimi. Her first feature film, it was well received during its screening at Cannes' "Un Certain Regard" category in 2005.

The shorts being screened include "Like 20 Impossibles," (Palestine, 17 mins) Annemarie Jacir's allusive film, ostensibly about the challenges of making a film under Israeli occupation. Also in the selection is Marwan Hamed's "Lili" (Egypt, 40 mins), a glistening featurette about the temptations confronting an imam when he takes over a mosque in a raucous quarter of Cairo. Cynthia's Choucair's "La Chaise" ("The Chair," Lebanon, 21 mins) is a sweet-natured vignette about how common objects can be icons of loss or playthings, and the emotional bonds tying us to them.

Among the documentaries is Nizar Hassan's "Ijtiah" ("Invasion," Palestine, 60 mins), which documents the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp from the perspective of both camp residents and an Israeli bulldozer operator employed to knock down people's houses during the operation. Berliners will also have the opportunity to see Omar Amiralay's "Le deluge" ("A Flood in Baath Country," Syria, 60 mins), in which the director slyly combines fervent expressions of loyalty with tongue-in-cheek camerawork to forge a beautiful critique of Syria's Baath regime. A rather different order of documentary, Myrna Maakaron's award-winning "Berlin Beirut" (Lebanon, 15 mins) is one Lebanese emigre's gently amusing conflation of the disparate realities marking the two cities.

The first forum being mounted during "Well Played" will see nine Arab filmmakers join with 15 German industry counterparts to discuss the conditions under which films are being produced in the region. The panel promises to take up such issues as the limits to artistic freedom, and movement (physical and intellectual), what factors restrict them, and censorship.

The panel will also take up how filmmakers finance their work, and inquire into the characteristics of the regional film markets and the distinction between "underground" and mainstream films in the Arab world and Iran.

The first public panel discussion reframes some of the issues from the roundtable like the limits to artistic freedom and movement, and censorship and asks how to revise 21st-century Orientalist perceptions of the region - its lack of democracy, rights violations, political Islam, terrorist inclinations, and so forth.

The second panel discussion addresses the impact of globalization, and September 11, 2001 in particular, upon the region's cinematic landscape.

Beirut DC's funding partner in "Well Played" is the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the cultural foundation of the German Green Party.

The sponsorship influenced the programming. When selecting the films, Hania Mroue said she and her Beirut DC colleagues were asked to assemble a program based on certain themes - generational conflict, for instance, intercultural relations, identity, migration, religion, tradition and the like.

Boell wanted the film selection to reflect the perspectives of Arab and Iranian youth, the region's diversity and to show preference for the work of women filmmakers. These thematic demands means that some of the films are somewhat older than others.

"We don't usually program festivals this way," says Mroue. "Some would say it's reductive to classify films by topic."

She says Beirut DC had its own agenda in taking a week of Arab-Iranian cinema to Europe.

"People perceive Arab and Iranian filmmakers to be laboring under the same funding and censorship problems and that their films address the same socio-political problems. Yes, there are similarities but they are not really the same. It will be nice to point out that Iran isn't part of the Arab world.

"At first we thought that bringing cinema from the Middle East wasn't so important for a cosmopolitan city like Berlin. But filmmakers from this region probably need every opportunity they can get to tell Europeans about their work. This is especially important for the documentary films. So much reportage on this region is biased and ill-informed. The documentaries offer a sort of balance.

This isn't the first such event the film co-operative has organized. They screened their first week of Arab film in Zurich in 2003, which in 2005 traveled to Bern and Kassel as well.

Starting in 2006 Beirut DC, working with funding from the European Union's EuroMed program, will begin a three-year project that will see it organize a total of 12 "film weeks." In this case the work won't be Arab-Iranian film but film from the Mediterranean littoral - specifically Arab and Turkish cinema. The co-operative will also create a Web site of contemporary Arab cinema and provide funds for filmmakers wanting to bring their work to the markets provided by European festivals.

"We want to do more than screen Arab film in European cities," Mroue says. "We want to create an audience for the cinema, to convince distributors and big cinema managers to screen Arab films."

"Well Played," a week of Arab-Iranian cinema runs from January 31 to February 5. All screenings are being held at Berlin's Hackesche Hoefe Filmtheatre.

Beirut 01-02-2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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