BEIRUT: “It has nothing to do with the Arab Spring,” Zeina Sfeir laughs. The new artistic director of Ayam Beirut al-Cinema’iya (Beirut Cinema Days) is recounting how it came to be that the seventh edition of the festival migrated from October to March.
Ayam Beirut is Lebanon’s festival of independent Arab cinema. Over 10 days it will project more than 50 films – feature-length fictions, documentaries and shorts.
Supplementing the screenings are a series of panel discussions for cineastes and filmmakers and networking sessions and master classes for young and aspiring cinema professionals.
Audiences will have an opportunity to catch up with some of the more significant Arab features to be released in the last couple of years, many of which premiered at the major European festivals.
The event opens with “Wadjda,” the debut feature of writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour, who has attracted loads of media attention not only because she’s Saudi and a woman but has made a film good enough to premiere at Venice.
The seventh edition of Ayam Beirut is marked by departures and continuities.
Founded in 2001 by Beirut Development and Cinema, an association of then-young independent filmmakers and fellow travelers, Ayam Beirut has been something of a rarity insofar as it was designed as a noncompetitive event devoted to showcasing and building audiences for Arab cinema – something that the existing commercial film distribution system did not (and does not) do.
Ayam Beirut’s stature stems from its organizers’ determination to cultivate the other facets of a professional film festival – projecting work from the best-available media (from 35mm film to digital formats), ensuring that artists present their work and staging forums where filmmakers and those interested in the aesthetics and politics of filmmaking practice can mingle. In the interest of transparency, it might be noted that this writer is not a disinterested party, having helped program the event.
North African cinema will be strongly represented and the festival will project the latest works by two of Morocco’s best-known talents, Nabil Ayouch and Faouzi Bensaïdi.
Ayouch, whose oeuvre has swung wildly from gritty neorealism to glossy U.S.-inflected romantic comedy, returned to street level in 2012 with “God’s Horses.” The film is a coming-of-age story about two brothers who grow up rough in the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen and find themselves drawn toward radical political Islam.
The follow-up to Bensaïdi’s much-vaunted “WWW What a Wonderful World,” “Death for Sale” also takes up the story of a clutch of young men subsisting in Morocco’s demi-monde, where criminal violence can acquire a radical Islamic patina.
Leila Kilani’s “On the Edge” is also concerned with life on the social and economic margins. Refreshingly, though, the writer-director abjures the narrative tropes of political Islam to tell a genre-inflected tale of two young women, migrants trying to make a life for themselves in Morocco’s economic free zone.
The festival is also fielding several films from Algeria. Most distinguished of these is “The Repentant.” The latest film by Merzak Allouache also tells a tale of violence and political Islam. In this case it’s the story of a young man who accepts the state’s offer to return to “normal” civilian life in exchange for renouncing violence. Renunciation of violence, as Allouache notes, guarantees neither peace nor normalcy.
Since this region’s independent film production was a trifle thin in 2001, Ayam Beirut was staged every two years until 2010. By this point manifold changes were evident, both on the Arab world’s indie cinema landscape and within Beirut DC itself.
Most of Beirut DC’s original members – festival founder and artistic director Eliane Raheb, for instance – have become full-time filmmakers. Hania Mroué, Ayam Beirut’s original managing director, founded Metropolis, one of the region’s few successful independent art house cinemas.
Since 2001, Arab film’s financial center of gravity has shifted from North Africa – where festivals in Cairo, Carthage and Marrakash were long dominant – to the Gulf, specifically Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. Since 2007, the ambient noise accompanying these changes has been the fallout of the global financial crisis.
“This was the hardest year to get sponsors,” Sfeir says. “We persisted because, despite everything that’s happening in this region, we wanted to make this festival work. We don’t want to give up hope.”
Ayam Beirut will screen Ibrahim El Batout’s “Winter of Discontent.” Arguably the most important Egyptian film of this past year, it is in any case the most accomplished film narrative of Egypt’s revolution yet to emerge.
Some Egyptian indies turned their back on the Arab Spring altogether, among them Hala Lotfy’s “Coming Forth by Day.” Based on the conventions of Egypt’s commercial cinema, Lotfy’s tale of a mother and daughter and their relationship to the invalid of a man with whom they live is probably the least “Egyptian” film to emerge in many a year. Theo Angelopoulos aficionados should be pleased.
Though utterly unlike “Coming Forth by Day” in formal terms, Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You” is equally contrarian. Set among Palestinian refugees and militants in 1967, the film abjures the despair of both the catastrophic 1967 war and of the present Palestinian condition to tell a story of youthful and contagious hope.
Of the handful of Syrian features released this year, Ayam Beirut selected Meyar al-Roumi’s “Round Trip,” an unconventionally told tale of a young couple’s road trip to another country. The film co-stars Lebanon’s Alexandra Kahwaji, upon whom some audience members enjoyed gazing during her work in “A Perfect Day” and “Ya Noussak.”
Beirut DC put the festival in hiatus in 2012 and retooled it to accommodate internal and regional changes. Ayam Beirut is now a springtime event because the autumn is thick with muscular film festivals, all grappling with each other for rights to Arab feature film premieres. Raheb and Mroue have stepped aside in favor of Zeina Sfeir and Cynthia Choucair, respectively, both documentary filmmakers who’ve been with the festival in one capacity or another since 2001.
“I’m not the sort of person who can organize a demonstration,” Sfeir laughs. “Organizing this festival helps me express myself, to resist all that’s upsetting me.
“Most importantly, Beirut deserves a cultural cinema event. We believe in cultivating exchange with the rest of the Arab world, and in working on audiences to accept our own cinema. The audience deserves to have choice.”
The most noteworthy Lebanese feature to debut in the past year was Ziad Doueiri’s “The Attack,” which had its regional debut last December in Dubai. It will not screen at Ayam Beirut.
Lebanese cinema is at its most accomplished in its documentaries, and Ayam Beirut will project several prize-winning Lebanese docs.
Among the most impressive is Tamara Stepanyan’s “Embers.” It begins as the filmmaker’s very personal quest for her deceased Armenian grandmother but gradually transforms into a lyrical contemplation of mortality, memory and transience.
Perhaps the most successful Lebanese documentary to emerge in the last year, Eliane Raheb’s “Sleepless Nights” tells a story of Civil War-era loss and the possibility of redemption. Raheb is surprisingly successful in finding an original language to tell her tale, which is a painfully familiar trope for Lebanese audiences.
Ayam Beirut will also host the Lebanese premiere of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” which retails an entertaining and little-known story of pre-Civil War Lebanon’s aerospace research. The film will have its commercial release next month.
The festival will close with a screening of “A World Not Ours,” Mahdi Fleifel’s amusing, multiple award-winning autobiography of Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, a doc of hope, despair and World Cup football.
Ayam Beirut al-Cinema’iya runs from friday to next Sunday at Metropolis Empire Sofil. All films are subtitled in English. For more information please see http://www.beirutdc.org.