BEIRUT: Did you know that life on earth began in the ocean, between 3.1 and 3.4 billion years ago? Or that an estimated 50 to 80 percent of all life today is found under the ocean surface?
How about this fun fact: Fish are the number one source of protein for people around the world, but each year three times as much rubbish is dumped into the oceans as the weight of fish caught.
This month the Blue Bahr Film Festival aims to raise awareness of the crucial importance of the sea to our way of life with shorts and features focusing on the beauty of the world’s oceans. The first edition of what is hoped will be an annual festival is due to take place Aug. 26 and 27, when Cinemacity at the Beirut Souks. The diverse program was dreamed up by Lebanese-American festival organizer Justine Schmidt.
“I’ve had a passion for the environment, and for ocean issues specifically, for a long time,” Schmidt says. “I worked for the Discovery Channel. I’ve worked on shows for National Geographic. I’ve launched an ocean film festival in Washington, D.C., and I’ve got a lot of contacts in this world of underwater filmmaking, so I was thinking about doing one in the Middle East.
“I had set my eyes on the Gulf ... but my mum is Lebanese and I came here three and a half years ago and I realized that actually Lebanon is really the place that needed it more than anywhere I had visited.
“For two and a half years I’ve been working on creating a festival where we celebrate the sea, where we realize the strong bond we have with it as Lebanese since the time of the Phoenicians. Look what we’ve done to it now. We really need to start protecting it ... We don’t realize how much it gives us, not just food, but of course the Lebanese rely on it for commerce and the oceans give us 70 percent of the oxygen on the planet. It really is a life source and I think we’ve lost touch with that.”
Schmidt decided on a program featuring seven international films, including Louie Psihoyos’ “Chasing Ice,” which follows National Geographic photographer James Balog on a journey to the Arctic in search of the truth about climate change, and “Sharkwater,” Rob Stewart’s stunning underwater documentary debunking myths about creatures often wrongly labeled blood-thirsty, man-eating monsters.
One of the festival’s highlights is set to be a screening of “Planet Ocean,” produced and directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. This 90-minute feature aims to change the way people look at the ocean through beautifully shot footage from some of the least-explored regions of the planet.
Half a dozen local productions will be scattered between the main features, Schmidt says, among them a five-minute short called “Surfing Lebanon,” shot with a GoPro camera, and Lebanese diver and explorer Christian Francis’ 15-minute work “The HMS Victoria,” an exploration of the world’s only vertical shipwreck, a British warship from the 1890s located near the coast of Tripoli.
Although the program is predominantly international, Schmidt says she wants viewers to forge local connections.
“I selected films that are also relevant to Lebanon,” she says. “‘Sharkwater’ – you may not think so but at the end of the day we actually have sharks in Lebanon and they’re quite big ... So I did try to select films that were applicable and relevant.”
Future editions of the festival will aim to include local feature-length works in addition to international films, she says, but this year’s selection was constrained by a lack of local production.
“To be frank, films that are produced here in Lebanon about the ocean are few and far between,” Schmidt admits, “but with the advent of really accessible technology these days ... I’m finding a lot more material in terms of short videos showing off the fun that’s to be had in the water in Lebanon and what people are doing in the sea. We’ve got a few medium length productions, but they’re more often produced by outside production companies about Lebanon, not necessarily by Lebanese.
“Having said this, one of the goals of the film festival is to really nurture this type of industry and try to get people to start producing more local films about the environment and about our natural resources and our oceans and creating more awareness through that. We’d like to eventually set up some grants or finishing funds for films to be produced about or by Lebanese here, having to do with the sea.”
This is just one of the potential ways in which the festival is set to expand in future years, she says.
“Our intention is to take it on the road,” she explains, “and have the festival go to different cities and towns across Lebanon and perhaps the region as well ... Eventually I want to make this not just the Blue Bahr Film Festival but the Blue Bahr Festival, so the goal would be to integrate art to do with oceans – artists using recycled materials from the sea or plastic trash.”
Celebrities including Light FM’s Tanguy Faucon, Lebanese world champion free-diver Marcos Hado and underwater explorer Christian Francis are scheduled to attend the festival, and Schmidt says that she is in discussions with a Lebanese film star who has agreed to serve as the festival’s keynote speaker.
The primary aim of the festival, though, is to change attitudes to the ocean.
“I really believe that awareness starts at home,” Schmidt stresses. “It’s about learning about these issues. Oftentimes we just don’t know. We don’t know that eating “bizree” is detrimental – we’re eating young fish that then cannot reproduce ... We don’t realize that Lebanon produces so much trash and uses so many plastic bags that they can circle the earth 4.5 times a year ... I think these films can really shed light on some of these issues.
“It’s really by inspiring people – showing them the beauty of the sea and what we should protect – that we’ll hopefully inspire them to change their behavior a little bit. Maybe [people will] be a bit more aware about recycling, not throwing away plastic bottles or trash on the beach, picking up litter. [They might] pressure our government to create more national marine reserves or at least tackle the very basic issues like sewage treatment and cleaning up our waters.
“It will be a platform to inspire people and give them some tips for how they can mobilize to make a difference. The first step comes with awareness and education and knowing what the issues are.”
The Blue Bahr Film Festival takes place Aug. 26 and 27 at Cinemacity in the Beirut Souks. Tickets cost LL7,500 per screening or LL15,000 for a day pass. For more information please visit www.facebook.com/BlueBahr.