How to dilute America’s domination of the region’s cinema?
This is the challenge facing the countries of the European Union, and many film directors working in Mediterranean countries including Lebanon.
“US films are all the same color,” says Ghassan Salhab, director of Beirut Phantom. “I want to be able to see films the color of Lebanon, or Morocco. France even.”
Negotiating a mechanism to carry out this task was the aim of the workshop What Future for Euro-Mediterranean Co-Productions, at the Theatre Monnot on Thursday and Friday. The workshop was a collaboration between the organizers of Beirut’s Festival du Cinema Europeen and EU film support agencies.
The workshop unveiled one such mechanism in MEDEA, an EU pre-production program for Euro-Med productions. The program will promote communication in the Euro-Med region and its cultural diversity through production cooperation.
Lebanon is one of 12 Mediterranean countries eligible to take advantage of MEDEA, which has a three-year duration and a budget of over $4 million.
At Friday’s panel, workshop organizers tried to inspire attending Lebanese film-makers with an example of innovation, in the person of Eddy Terstall the young Dutch director whose Bastards and Bridesmaids was shot over 12 days for $20,000.
Having shot a pair of “big-budget” films for $1 million, Terstall opted for independence and made a pair of successful cheap flicks. He pulled this off with friends: actors and the technical crews worked for free, so that the only thing he had to pay for was the studio mix.
Now he’s working on a bigger-budget independent film.
But, as Egypt-based producer Gabriel Khoury pointed out, the practicalities of following such examples of European innovation and implementing programs like MEDEA on the ground will be more difficult.
On the Mediterranean’s “southern shores,” most technicians and actors are without work, Khoury said. So they couldn’t afford to work for free even if they wanted to.
Also current European co-production arrangements insist upon using European production facilities and crew. And much as this improves the professionalism of production, they are very expensive, meaning any co-production is bound to cost more than $20,000.
Then there is the cultural component of partnership, which insists that there be a little of every participating country in each film. Khoury described how, while working on a Belgian co-production, he had to scour the telephone book for a group of black Belgian musicians who would fulfill the requirements of both director and producers.
There is an additional problem, be pointed out, with the opening of Eastern Europe, which has attracted the imaginations, and the pocket books, of European producers. North Africa is out of fashion.
French-based Lebanese producer Gabriel Bustani agreed with Khoury on the cumbersome nature of current co-production mechanisms.
EURIMAGES (The European Audio-Visual Co-production Support Program) requires a given film project include producers from two EU countries and a distributor from a third. The purpose is to secure as wide a market as possible.
Trying to impose such conditions on countries outside Europe will be very difficult, since many demand a local producer participate in any project. Dividing up the pie this way makes the product artificial.
Some Lebanese film-makers had some frustration with the forum, and with the European co-production framework.
“Well it’s always the same,” observed short film-maker Elie Khalife. “The same people come. You have coffee. But nothing ever seems to happen. Look around. I don’t see anyone from the Minister of Culture here. Do you?
“Right now I’m working on something called Oriental Fever. Totally underground comedy. But French producers are scared to death of comedy.
“Like my last project. A feature about a relationship between a girl from the south and an Irish UNIFIL soldier.
“In the treatment there was a scene where the Lebanese girls drive up to these Irish soldiers and talk to them. The French producer says ‘Come on! This wouldn’t happen in an Arab country!’ ‘Of course it would,’ I say, ‘This is Lebanon’.”
“He says, ‘No. Can’t you have the girls’ car break down, and the soldiers come along to help?’ It’s crap. They have this cliched idea of Lebanon, because it’s an Arab country.”
Ghassan Salhab agrees. “Whenever I talk to a European producer, they look at my film and they don’t see what’s Arab in it. They don’t see what they think is Arab.
“They watch Beirut Phantom and they say, ‘Can it be that these people are Arab?’ They have this orientalist cliche. Just because my characters are individuals, not at home with their families all the time, sucking on nargileh.”