BEIRUT: The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture is a Beirut-based, non-state body disbursing money to individuals and institutions devoted to, as its name suggests, Arab cultural production. By AFAC’s reckoning, it has supported over 150 films since it began awarding grants in 2007, and assists more than 25 film projects yearly.Over the past few years, regional and international film and fine art platforms have exhibited a range of AFAC-supported audio-visual works, from feature films and documentaries to short-form video art. To contribute to the diffusion of these works – and to help publicize its work – the fund has launched AFAC Film Week, an event to be staged yearly in a different Arab country.
The first edition opens this week in Beirut with an 11-work program of films, feature- and television-length docs and video art pieces from 2012-14, none of which has yet been projected in Beirut. Issuing from younger talents, these works are marked by innovative approaches.
Both features of the film week have arisen from independently minded young Egyptians.
“Rags and Tatters” (2013), the third feature of Ahmad Abdalla, tells the story of one of Mubarak’s prisoners – arbitrary detainees held outside Cairo – who made a break for freedom in the early days of the Tahrir Square demonstrations.
At the center of the story is an unnamed man (Asser Yassin) who carries with him a dying prisoner’s video testimony of his state’s criminality, which he’s been asked to bring to the man’s family.
The follow-up to “Microphone” (2010), Abdalla’s critically lauded musical paean to Alexandria, “Rags and Tatters” is an intriguing hybrid of fiction and documentary. The camera of Tarek Hefny follows Yassin’s character as he first tries to get back to the poor Cairo neighborhood where the dead man’s family lives, then through the chaos of disorder that characterized the margins of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
One of the more intriguing experiments to emerge from DIFF, where it premiered in 2012, “Chaos, Disorder” (Harag w’Marag), the feature film debut of director Nadine Khan, is social satire-cum-love story set in an unidentified, barely fictional Cairo neighborhood.
The three 20-somethings at the center of the story’s love triangle are neighborhood beauty Manal (Iyten Amer), daughter of the fellow who facilitates long-distance telephone calls; Zaki (Mohamed Farag), the neighborhood sports star; and Mounir (Ramzy Lehner), a rakish thug who spends his days lounging with his pals in the neighborhood’s central square.
The triangle eventually resolves into a football match between Zaki and Mounir’s teams, with the winner taking Manal as his bride.
Two of AFAC’s feature-length documentaries also hale from Egypt.
Fresh from its world premiere at the Berlinale, Viola Shafik’s “Scent of Revolution” examines Egypt’s revolutionary heritage through the experiences of four people who were activists in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution and the 21st century movement in Tahrir Square.
“Waves” (2013), Ahmed Nour’s documentary, deploys live-action and animation to tell a story of Egypt’s 2011 revolution from the perspective of the place where it started – not Midan al-Tahrir but the port city of Suez. Embraced by international critics, the Suez-born Nour’s melancholic portrait offers a poetic meditation of the place and its residents and a bittersweet reflection on the revolutionary dreams dashed by the vagaries of local and national politics.
Lebanese production is well represented by poetic works by Sara Francis and Ali Cherri.
Cherri’s 20-minute “The Disquiet” (2013) spins a visually powerful work of video art from Lebanon’s long, catastrophic relationship with the four geological fault lines upon which the country has been erected.
Conventionally, the artist’s voiceover muses, “catastrophe” is seen to be as unexpected as it is comprehensively destructive. Yet a catastrophe can be slowed down. When an event of this magnitude is sheathed in language, it can even acquire a seductive quality.
One of the notable discoveries of the last Dubai film festival, Francis’ “Birds of September” (2013) examines the streets of Beirut from the Plexiglas back of a wandering advertising truck.
At times, the slow-moving vehicle acts as a dolly, framing the passage of the shop fronts lining urban neighborhoods – or the razed landscapes abutting empty expressways. At others, the lens gazes upon the human figures made to sit within the glass box – posturing or performing, looking self-conscious or bored – seemingly suspended above the vista unfolding before the camera.
The Palestinian presence in the AFAC week is as strong, or stronger, than the Lebanese.
“My Love Awaits Me by the Sea,” the first feature-length documentary of Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Mais Darwazah, is a lyrical conflation of the work of Palestinian writer and illustrator Hasan Hourani (who died in 2003), specifically his book “Hasan is Everywhere,” with Darwazah’s own travelogue.
Her filmic journey of discovery through the land of Palestine is made more poignant by the fact that Darwazah had never seen her homeland before. The voyage takes her from Amman to Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp, to Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hebron and ultimately Jaffa, drawing upon the ruminations of the cluster of extremely well-spoken Palestinians the filmmaker encounters.
One of the highlights of the cycle will be the Beirut premiere of Larissa Sansour’s nine-minute video “Nation Estate” (2012). The artist has been celebrated for her ironic application of film genre to the Palestinian condition. In 2009 she incorporated science fiction into her oeuvre with “A Space Exodus,” which imagines Palestine’s first moon landing.
With “Nation Estate,” she erects an elaborate, absurdly amusing dystopia from the never-ending, ever-unsuccessful effort to negotiate a fair peace between Palestine and its occupier: an urban public housing-style skyscraper to house a Palestinian population utterly displaced.
AFAC Film Week is being staged at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil March 4-11. For more information, see www.metropoliscinema.net/2014/afac-film-week.