DAMASCUS: Proudly thumbing through the weighty, nearly 300-page catalogue for the 12th Damascus Film Festival, Hassan Sami Youssef almost looks at it in disbelief. People used to the previous festivals, he said, were “astonished” by what was being offered.
Youssef was a member of the viewing committee that saw the 233 films being shown Nov. 3-10 in downtown Damascus theaters.
“We nearly went blind,” he said. “We saw the last film the night before the festival started.”
The festival is flooding the senses of movie-goers in the Syrian capital this week, the first step in an ambitious drive to make the festival an international event.
No festival is perfect, and Saturday’s opening night ceremony was marred by what organizers said was a technical glitch that prevented an Italian film, The Son’s Room, from being shown. The announcer at the Ebla Palace, where the ceremony was held, said that it would be shown the next morning, and guests were then ushered out of the facility.
Before their exit, however, they were treated to an opening ceremony that was more restrained than at previous festivals, and the welcoming speech by Minister of Culture Maha Qannout and other dignitaries was short and to the point.
Besides dance numbers by the renowned Syrian troupe Inana, the ceremony honored the late Egyptian actress Suad Hosni and American actor Anthony Quinn, and kept the number of other honorees Egyptian actress Samir Ahmad, Syrian actress Samar Sami, Syrian composer Suheil Arafa, Egyptian scriptwriter Abdel-Hayy Adib and Austrian director Peter Patzak mercifully small.
At the podium, Sami’s few sentences expressed the wishes of Syria’s movie-going public and members of the film industry: we want more.
“I really wish that I could have been in one of the films in the competition,” she told the several thousand people in attendance, some of whom were forced to stand.
“What Samar Sami said is an indicator of the great desire here,” said Ahmad Mualla, an acclaimed painter and member of the judges’ committee.
“People really want to get more involved in cinema. We want to believe that it’s not just a question of financial gain and loss, it’s about having a vision,” said Mualla, who also designed the poster for this year’s event.
Youssef, a novelist and screenwriter by trade, called the 12th edition of the festival an “unprecedented” achievement in terms of the films being offered.
“This year, the festival has opened up completely to the world,” he said.
“When you look at the competition, you find that films from Asia and the Arab world are not very strong,” Youssef explained, “but there are very, very good films from the US and a range of European countries.”
There are also panoramas on the sidelines of the festival, offering a dizzying array of Syrian, Moroccan, Egyptian and Japanese films as well as recent Hollywood offerings like Gladiator, American Beauty, Planet of the Apes and Moulin Rouge.
The only negative side of the plethora of films, Youssef said, was the woefully-inadequate eight-day run.
He added that an early promise by organizers was respected, regarding censorship.
Past festivals cut out scenes deemed too racy from films, disappointing movie-goers who were getting rare chances to see intriguing offerings from countries like Brazil and Cuba.
“But this year, either the films are being shown in their entirety or not being shown at all,” he affirmed.
At the opening ceremony, organizers said that The Son’s Room would be shown the next morning at 10.30am at the Cham Palace theater.
While the luminaries and others who attended the opening ceremony at the Ebla Palace did not appear to take up the offer, dozens of students did.
“Our dean told us this morning that The Son’s Room would be shown, so a lot of us came down to see it,” said Fadi Skeiker, 24, a theater criticism student in Damascus.
“Of course, as theater institute students, we can get in with our student IDs,” he said, grinning. “The festival this year has something new.”