In this cynical world, in which getting something done needs wasta, the idealism of SHAMS seems oddly alien.
From its base in the Masrah Beirut in Ain al-Mreisseh, SHAMS was founded as an independent arts organization seeking to bridge the gaps left by state indifference to cultural production, and the dearth of local art-production facilities and venues since the end of the war.
The brainchild of Roger Assaf, SHAMS (The Cultural Cooperative for Youth in Theater and Cinema) has devoted the last few years to organizing and producing dramatic and audio-visual art theater, dance, video, cinema, and multimedia. As its name suggests, it is particularly dedicated to young artists.
SHAMS’ latest endeavor is Beirut Cinema Days, a festival of regional independent film. Over 12 days Masrah Beirut will screen a variety of films shorts and features from Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon.
There will be a spotlight upon Egyptian director Yusri Nasrallah, another for Arab directors living abroad, and others for Lebanese and Egyptian student film. Special pride of place will be given to five films produced by SHAMS and Beirut Development and Cinema, the festival’s co-organizers.
“What we’re telling the audience,” says Eliane Raheb, a Lebanese film-maker and festival organizer, “is ‘Come see some interesting local productions. Come see them before the people who made them leave the country.”
Aside from public screenings, Cinema Days will hold round-table discussions and seminars for independent film-makers, focusing on strategies for production and regional co-production and distribution.
Cinema Days’ focus on alternative cinema marks it as more progressive than Beirut’s other two film showcases the Beirut International and European festivals.
Its progressive orientation is reflected in the organizers’ program choice. SHAMS and Beirut Development and Cinema judge quality as much by the thinking behind a piece as by its production values, and they are especially sympathetic to work focusing on society.
Such inverted priorities represent a remarkable departure from Beirut’s usual movie fare. Hollywood movies generally put more stock in the bells and whistles production values and special effects and view fine points like good writing and acting to be optional, or even irrelevant.
And of course the demands of the North American marketplace result in Hollywood representations of life in the Middle East being a tad skewed.
Funded differently than its American cousin, European film is less subject to market demands, which depending on your perspective tends to make it more interesting or more boring to watch.
The EU also seems more interested in including non-European voices in its movies. It has an active co-production system with its non-European neighbors an ever-expanding system as the tentacles of the Euro-Med agreement gradually insinuate themselves into countries from Morocco to Syria.
But the Euro-Med regime, though it has proven useful for more established Arab directors and producers, has been a source of frustration to the region’s indy film-makers.
Raheb is pessimistic about the possibility of working within the European co-production system.
She recalls that her first experience with the EU bureaucracy was one of late-arriving application forms and a despondent attitude on the part of the local representative.
“They didn’t want to fund individuals, so we approached them saying ‘Look, SHAMS has the right people to work within Euro-Med.’ They offered no encouragement. Every year the money goes to the same people.”
Raheb explains that this is why Cinema Days is featuring regional and Lebanese indies. Organizers want to create links among the region’s independent film-makers, an alternative network to the European co-production system.
“People in this country have no knowledge of Egypt’s independent film, and they’re just as ignorant of us. Audiences here just get to see Egypt’s commercial cinema state productions or from Yusif Shahine. The people we’re bringing in are independent of both.
“Film-makers have so much to learn from each other in this region. Egypt and Syria have old film industries, but the directors rarely actually make movies because they have no money.
“The Lebanese, and the Palestinians too, we have no film industry but energy and ideas and an ability to work with next to no money.
“The point we want to make is that you don’t have to wait around waiting for money that never comes.”
She smiles. “Godot money we call it here.”
Beirut Cinema Days runs Feb. 21-March 4 at Masrah Beirut. Programs available at the theater. Daily listings on page 11