BEIRUT: Some immigrants to Lebanon – those with the spare cash, leisure time and inclination to absorb cultural production – sometimes note the eccentric centralization of the country’s cultural activities. Beirut and its environs host the vast majority of institutions devoted to staging concerts, plays, art exhibitions, and noncommercial cinema.
The main exceptions to this rule – summer music festivals targeting the holy grail of seasonal tourists as much as year-round residents – have tended to situate themselves in relatively out-of-the-way venues such as Baalbek, Beiteddine, Ehden and the like.
Some smaller coastal centers also host summertime festivals, the largest being the Byblos International Festival in Jbeil, accompanied by smaller events in Jounieh and Zouk Mosbeh.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s major urban centers outside Beirut – Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south – appear bereft of cultural institutions other than a few commercial cinemas and the offices of French and German cultural agencies.
There are mundane explanations for this, reflecting the kind of state Lebanon has become. One is centered on market factors – the size and perceived cultural curiosity of Tripoli’s and Sidon’s populations. The other, which shapes international perceptions as much as Lebanon’s declared affection for the free market, is security concerns. Even if there are solvent bums to fill the seats, they’re less likely to spend an evening in the cinema when automatic weapons fire echoes from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
So it was a pleasant surprise when word surfaced, rather belatedly, that last month a cluster of film lovers had decided to stage a film festival in Lebanon’s northern capital.
Heading the organizing committee of the Tripoli Film Festival is filmmaker Elias Khlat, best-known in film circles for his 23-minute “August 23. Tripoli,” a reportage-style documentary about the double mosque bombing that rocked the city in 2013.
Khlat’s principle partner in staging this event is Etienne Louys, director of Tripoli’s Institut Français. Louys headed TFF’s official selection committee, whose members – organizers assure us – are of diverse cultural backgrounds.
Over its six day run, TFF intends to project 59 movies from 19 countries. Most of the works on offer are short narrative and documentary films, though there are also a handful of television- and feature-length docs on offer and a lone animated film.
Given the partnering arrangements, it’s no surprise that the lion’s share of the films (19 of them) are French productions. As Ecrans du Réel – the yearly doc festival of Beirut’s French Institute – attests, such programming tends to have a worldly palate, and the works selected for TFF gaze far beyond the borders of continental France.
Four Lebanese films are on the program, seven if you count Lebanese content. Appropriately, some of the works – including Khlat’s doc – take up issues related to Tripoli. Bouchra Ezzahir Ayoub’s 23-minute doc “About their Nights” examines the curfew that Tripoli women impose on themselves, making sure that they’re back at home by nightfall.
TFF’s television- and feature-length films hail from around the globe. The highlight of this selection – especially for Tripoli residents, who may have missed the opportunity to watch it during its brief Beirut release last year – is Eliane Raheb’s critically acclaimed, award-winning work “Sleepless Nights.”
The film centers on the stories of two figures on opposite sides of Lebanon’s much publicized 1975-90 Civil War.
Formerly a high-ranking member of the intelligence apparatus of the Christian right-wing Kataeb Party, Asaad Shaftari made the news some years back by issuing a public apology for all the people he is officially responsible for having murdered – the only one of its kind on record in a country whose Civil War was ended with a legal amnesty for militia leaders. The second figure, Maryam Saiidi, is the mother of Maher Saiidi, an adolescent Community Party fighter who disappeared without a trace in 1982.
Raheb’s rarely accomplished feat in “Sleepless Nights” lies in taking two recognizable public figures from Lebanon’s post-Civil War discourse and crafting a film that breaks new ground, in both aesthetic and documentary terms.
TFF is not the first film festival initiative in Lebanon’s northern capital. Last November, filmmaker Jocelyne Saab collaborated with the city’s Cultural Resistance Association to spearhead the launch of the Tripoli International Film Festival. With screening venues in Tripoli and Beirut and a guest list of international and local filmmakers, TIFF has many of the public components of an international film festival.
An innocent bystander might confuse Tripoli’s two film events, not least since Khlat’s slogan for the first edition of his festival is “Cultural Resistance in Resisting Cultural Edifices” – which coincidentally echoes the name of TIFF’s organization, the Cultural Resistance Association.
Saab has told The Daily Star that the two events are completely unrelated to one another and that TIFF intends to stage its second edition this coming November.
For Tripoli residents, the more films, the merrier.
The Tripoli Film Festival will run through April 29 at the city’s Azm Cultural Center and Safadi Cultural Centre, with special open-air screenings scheduled for Bab al-Tabbaneh on April 25 and 27. For the official festival program website,
or call 71-40-0101.