BEIRUT: Lebanon’s residents are infatuated with image, and they often have good reason to need a bit of distraction. No surprise, then, that this broad land plays host to so many different film festivals.
The first major film platform of the 2014 season is Beirut Cinema Week. This three-headed hydra of an event is scheduled to get rolling this week with the opening of the 11th edition of the Lebanese Film Festival.
LFF is not to be confused with the Beirut International Film Festival. That yearly event is an autumnal affair (depending on security issues) whose programming tends to put the accent on the “International” rather than the “Beirut” side of the brand.
Over six days, LFF plans to project three discrete programs.
The centerpiece is LFF’s 34-film competition. The selection committee has chosen an eclectic range of works, including shorts of as little as three-minutes in length – fictions, docs and “experiments” (including some video art works) – as well as television-format documentaries (50-odd minutes), midlength fictions and several feature-length docs.
With the rise of so-called creative documentary, it’s not unusual to find feature-length docs and fiction films screening in the same competitions. This bewilderingly broad selection – representing most every type of moving-picture genre made in Lebanon – makes you wonder what the selection criteria could have been or whether a bit more discipline might have been brought to the proceedings.
These 34 film and video works will compete for four prizes – Best Fiction, Best Documentary, Best First Film and Best Experimental Film – each sponsored by a different company or institution.
Eccentric as it is, this program does include several works that have been tested on the regional and international film festival circuit but which, naturally, receive limited if any distribution within Lebanon.
Among the selection’s award winners is Tamara Stepanyan’s feature-length doc “Embers” (2012), which took the top prize after its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival. Another is Roy Dib’s short fiction “Mondiale 2010” (2014), deemed the best work at the Berliale’s shorts competition earlier this year.
Critically praised works include Cynthia Choucair’s “Powerless” (2012) and Corine Shawi’s “E-muet” (2013), both television-format documentaries, Ali Cherri’s 2012 video work “Pipe Dreams,” Omar Fakhoury and Roy Samaha’s video art piece “Incarnation of a Bird From an Oil Painting” and Sarah Francis’ lyrical feature-length doc “Birds of September.”
Running in parallel with LFF’s competition is a panorama program featuring works of various lengths and genres by eight filmmakers, Lebanese and otherwise.
LFF has decided to shine the spotlight on the works of Philippe Aractingi, screening his “Par le regard des mères” (1992), “Vol libre au Liban” and “Beyrouth de pierre et de mémoire” (1993).
LFF will also revive Akram Zaatari’s “Letter to a Refusing Pilot,” the video art work that was the centerpiece of his installation of the same name, Lebanon’s contribution to the last Venice Biennale.
Another highlight will be a rare screening of the short “The Sheikh Imam Project,” Gheith El Amine’s fanciful tribute to Egypt’s great singer-songwriter-revolutionary.
New for this edition of LFF is a third program “Films From Abroad,” set aside for a guest country. This year, Argentina is the lucky polity, and LFF will screen five feature-length films by four Argentine directors – Maria Florencia Alvarez, Leonardo Favio, Ulises Rosell and Hern?n Bel?n. Bel?n and film distributor Pablo Mazzola will lead a pair of master classes while they’re in town.
One question that invariably comes up when discussing the country’s summertime festivals is that of security. This is of concern for LFF, since the event’s 2013 edition was cancelled for that very reason.
Sabyl Ghoussoub, LFF director since 2012, says that the security situation is one of the principle reasons the event didn’t happen in 2013. He recalled that the producers and distributors who’d been invited to participate in the festival’s fledgling industry component refused to come to Lebanon in 2013.
Another issue that tends to surface during Lebanon’s film festivals is that of censorship. Other countries in this region who are sensitive to conservative mores distinguish between a film’s commercial release and one or two festival projections.
In Turkey, for instance, the state banned Lars Von Trier’s 2013 feature “Nymphomaniac,” Volumes I and II outright, but that didn’t prevent the Istanbul International Film Festival from screening both films several times.
Lebanon’s censorship bureau, presided over by General Security, doesn’t make such distinctions.
Ghoussoub says the festival has run into trouble with three titles, but prefers not to disclose any details about them since it’s hoped the censor will relent and grant screening permission.
The censor’s problem with these films in particular, as LFF organizers understand it, is that they depict nudity, specifically female Lebanese nudity. This raises questions about what the censor finds particularly troubling about naked Lebanese.
“No idea,” Ghoussoub shrugged after Tuesday morning’s Beirut Cinema Week news conference. “One of our films has nude American women, and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Actually, I spoke to someone at the bureau who said that in a year or so, nudity won’t be a problem in Lebanese cinemas.”
The canceled 2013 edition of BIFF was meant to mark its rebranding as one of three elements of a new platform called Beirut Cinema Week. One of these additions is the Beirut Cinema Project, which runs June 10-11.
An initiative of Fondation Liban Cinéma, the BCP looks very much like the market components of established international film festivals, and the initiatives of ambitious regional events such as the one held in Dubai.
It seeks to provide a forum for Lebanese filmmakers to meet overseas professionals in the fields of film production, finance and distribution and to discuss their projects with them – all with an eye to getting their projects through the process, from preproduction to postproduction. A slate of aspiring filmmakers have already been selected to participate in this edition of BCP.
An older event that’s been folded into Beirut Cinema Week is the FLC’s La Nuit des Mabrouk. This celebration of Lebanese cinema takes the form of an award ceremony for the year’s cinema production followed by a gala dinner.
This Hollywood-modeled gala event will be punctuated by tributes to the “big names” in Lebanon’s “film industry,” with due obeisance to the sponsors and celebrity-studded entertainments.
Four awards – for Best Narrative Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Actor and Best Actress – will be doled out to those Lebanese films released in 2013 in the country’s theaters and abroad.
Eligible films run a vast gamut of cinema output, from Elie Habib’s sentimental crowd-pleaser “Bébé” to the scalding lyricism of Eliane Raheb’s post-Civil War documentary “Sleepless Nights.”
It will be interesting indeed to see what sort of film is honored.
The Lebanese Film Festival will take place June 6-10 at Cinema Metropolis-Sofil. For more information, please see www.lebanesefilmfestival.org. La Nuit des Mabrouk will be held on 11 June at the Phoenicia Hotel.