BEIRUT: The Beirut International Film Festival has faced a number of challenges since its inception in 1997, from sponsors dropping out to travel warnings, bombings and all-out war.
This year marks the 13th edition of the festival, after a number of cancellations in the early 2000s. In spite of Lebanon’s currently dicey security situation, responsible for the cancellation of dozens of performances and events this summer, festival director Colette Naufal is determined that the show must go on.
Last year’s edition of the festival was downsized in response to regional tensions, featuring 57 films, as opposed to 67 in 2011, and the feature film competition was dropped. This year the number of films has expanded considerably, to a total of 77, although the feature film competition – the focal point of most film festivals – has not been reinstated.
Last year’s travel warnings meant that the festival jury was entirely Lebanese. The same is true of this year’s edition, Naufal explained at a press conference Wednesday, the security situation having prevented a more international selection.
Cinema and television producer and director Nigol Bezjian, documentary producer and Web and social media editor at Future TV Diana Moukalled and founding partner and chief creative officer at Firehorse Production Mouna Mounayer will judge this year’s competitions for best Middle Eastern short film and Middle Eastern documentary.
2011’s pre-travel warning jury, by contrast, was decidedly multicultural, composed of Italian director Luca Guadagnino, “Manifestation” critic Cristina Piccino, French writer-director Karin Albou, Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi and Saudi writer Rajaa al-Sanea.
Naufal explained that the festival was able to go ahead this year thanks to recent digital technology, which has made accessing films easier and allowed organizers a degree of flexibility that was previously impossible. Digital Cinema Package – compressed, encoded and encrypted digital files – allow the BIFF team to access and download the films using a password, negating the need for hard copies weighing 20 or 30 kilos each to be shipped to Lebanon.
“DCP has been coming in over the last four or five years,” Naufal said, “but until last year we still had a large number of the movies on 35mm. This year it’s no longer the case. We have two 35mm because they’re slightly older movies and they’re very art house ... but everything else has come on digital, which means ... if today we have a bombing we [can] postpone and screen in two weeks time or in 10 days time.”
“It has facilitated life for festivals like us,” she added.
The festival will take place at Furn al-Shubbak’s Planete Abraj, one of few cinemas in Lebanon equipped with costly digital projectors in every screening room.
This year’s festival is set to open with Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” which opened the Venice Film Festival last month to rave reviews. Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, this thriller follows the hapless pair as an accident destroys their shuttle, leaving them adrift in space.
The closing number should also be a draw, in spite of its mixed reception. “The Immigrant,” by U.S. director James Grey, which premiered at Cannes in May, stars French actress Marion Cotillard alongside American actor Joaquin Phoenix. This period drama explores the hardships faced by two Polish women who arrive alone in New York in the 1920s.
The 77 films in this year’s program are divided into eight categories. “Panorama” – into which category the opening and closing numbers fall – includes 28 films, among them Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s “Pardé” (Closed Curtain), about two fugitives who end up hiding out in the same house, which was shot secretly in Iran and went on to win the Silver Bear award for best script at the Berlin Film Festival last February.
Competing in the documentary competition, in which awards will be issued for best movie and best director, along with the special jury award, are a total of seven regional offerings. Three of these are Lebanese, while the rest stem from Iraq, Egypt and the U.A.E.
The selection of 16 regional shorts scheduled to compete includes films from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and the U.A.E. In addition, the Lebanese Corner, introduced last year, features ten local shorts not taking part in the competition, many of them by recent graduates.
For the second year running five films will be screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Among them is the 2011 documentary “Five Broken Cameras,” a collaboration between Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and Israeli peace activist Guy Davidi. This Oscar-nominated film documents the protests in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank affected by the Israeli separation wall. Shot mostly by Burnat, the documentary provides a first-hand account of five years of struggle.
Another returning category is the culinary section, this year featuring three international films, German-Canadian director Alexa Karolinski’s “Oma and Bella,” “Last Call at the Oasis” by American director Jessica Yu and “Canned Dreams” by Finnish director Katja Gauriloff.
A retrospective of works by Russian director Alexander Sokurov will showcase four of his films, including “Faust,” which was awarded the coveted Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.
The popular kids’ corner has returned after a hiatus last year, featuring a choice of four family-friendly films from India, Germany and the Netherlands. All films will be accompanied by simultaneous translation into Arabic, for those too young to read subtitles.
The Beirut International Film Festival runs from Oct. 2-10 at Planete Abraj in Furn al-Shubbak. Tickets cost LL5,000 per screening and a festival pass providing access to all seven days costs $20. For more information please call 01-292-192 or visit www.beirutfilmfestival.org.