Culture

Sofil’s screens depict world of cinema ­ but tales mainly in French

On the surface, the seventh-annual Festival du Cinema Europeen looks like an opportunity. Now that the Beirut International Film Festival has retrenched itself into a twice-yearly event, it seems an opportunity all the more rare.

The festival gives the Lebanese ­ usually on an intravenous drip of insipid comic book adaptations, moronic science-fiction dramas, and jejune melodramas ­ a chance to watch something else.

“Else” means movies that do not necessarily have car-chase scenes and shootouts. And if a European film does have a car chase or shootout, well, it’s just more stylish, somehow more intellectually and spiritually satisfying than the American version. At least that’s the myth.

But more than that, the movies at this year’s European Film Festival represent the latest fusillade in an age-old conflict that has been fought on every continent in the world. It has known many confrontations, from Quebec to India, and now that conflict ­ between Anglophone and Francophone culture ­ is returning to the screens of Cinema Sofil.

And there is no question as to who is winning the battle. The vast majority of the movies at this festival, 20 of 31, are either in French or subtitled in French.

This probably will not matter to the Lebanese ­ whose magpie multi-lingualism drifts from Arabic to English to French and back again in a single cellphone conversation. But if you’re an Anglophone Lebanese ­ or even worse, a mono-glottal Anglophone ­ a quick glance at the festival program might put your shorts in a proverbial twist.

The festival’s isolation of Anglophones is even more apparent if you examine where the English-subtitled films come from. Except for Saint-Cyr, a French historical drama starring Isabelle Huppert, all the films friendly to English-speakers were shot in Germanic languages ­ Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, and Flemish, to be precise. All seem to be set in the north-eastern fringe of the continent as well.

Aside from the fact that there are simply more of them, the array of “Francophile” movies is also much more geographically varied. The 20 designated sous-titre en francais (with French subtitles) or, even worse, version originale en francais  (original French version) are far less likely to be tied to the ice-bound Atlantic.

In the Euro-Med age, it seems significant that every European movie from the Mediterranean region ­ three films set in Italy, one in Greece, and one in Portugal ­ has French subtitles.

French was also chosen as the linguistic lens through which we would understand the non-European films in this year’s festival. Such is the case with Luna Papa ­ originally in Tajik ­ the award-winning comic adventure which has been compared stylistically to the work of Emir Kusturica (of Underground fame).

All four Arabic-language films at this year’s festival ­ from Morocco, Tunis, Egypt and Lebanon ­ are subtitled in French. The resentful Anglophone might argue that this is simple bloody mindedness on the part of festival organizers, since surely most Lebanese would not need subtitles to understand North African Arabic.

One may only conclude from this that there is a conspiracy afoot to keep Beirut’s English-only speakers culturally confined to the mist and brine of the north Atlantic.

This conspiracy business becomes easier to understand when you look at the selected films’ production credits. Leaving aside the seven movies that were shot in French, 13 of the 20 Francophile films at this festival are co-produced with France.

The French were even involved in a pair of co-productions which were shot in English ­ Signs and Wonders, a family drama set in Greece (and a French-Greek co-production) and Varya, a film adaptation of Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard (a co-production of France, Greece and Cyprus).

Britain is represented by two movies this year ­ both eccentric comedies ­ Whatever Happened to Harold Smith? and Hotel Splendide. It has no

co-productions.

Of course you can always put aside the imperialism and just watch the movies. And there are some great movies being screened for the next week at Cinema Sofil ­ even for English-only speakers ­ and most of them are unlikely to receive general release in this country.

These include some very interesting, award-winning films ­ like Code Inconnu, starring the much-loved Juliette Binoche, and Dancer in the Dark, the latest experiment with the musical, featuring Bjork.

There is an added incentive to attend, perhaps with a French speaker. If these movies do see the light of day outside Sofil, they will have to go through our friends at the Surete Generale. So any scenes considered “dirty” or “disrespectful” by the uniforms ­ scenes crafted by the director and an organic part of the whole ­ will be excised.

 

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