The 12th Damascus Film Festival passed out a slew of prizes during its Saturday evening closing ceremony, and a surprise award appeared to go to the public: an extra week of films for long-starved movie-goers.
Organizers assembled nine screens in downtown Damascus to let the public see more than 230 films over seven days. As the festival picked up steam, however, packed houses became common at the Cham Cinema, where the films in competition were being shown, and droves of people were turned away.
Due to this huge response, festival organizers announced they would keep the Dunia theater going for another week, with six showings a day.
Moviegoers will get another chance to view a variety of films in competition and other special showings, such as Guiseppe Tornatore’s Malena, whose Cinema Paradiso earned him a following among Syrians.
At Friday’s ceremony, top prize went to the Norwegian film Aberdeen, a beautifully-shot story about repairing a father-daughter relationship. Second prize went to Syria’s Abdullatif Abdulhamid, one of the country’s best-known directors, for his Two Moons and An Olive.
Third prize was split between a Belgian entry, Everybody Famous, and the Italian Bread and Tulips, which is the story of a housewife who strikes out on her own after she is accidentally stranded during a bus tour in Italy.
The award for best Arab film went to Egypt’s The Magician, starring the ever-popular Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, who attended the showing in Damascus. A special judges’ prize went to France’s The Officers’ Room.
In the short films category, Brazil’s Red BMW took top honors, followed by Syrian director Walid Hreib’s Moment of Joy, and the French-Moroccan entry The Wall.
Abdulhamid said the festival deserved praise on several levels. It was the first time Damascus opted for an international competition, which can be made official in the future if an association of international producers gives its stamp of approval.
“This first international edition was very successful, whether in terms of the good films in the competition, or those shown in the retrospectives on the sidelines,” Abdulhamid told The Daily Star. “For the first time, people didn’t know what to see because there were so many films.”
Abdulhamid is one of the few Syrian directors to achieve both critical and commercial success, notably with two films about the area he grew up in, the Syrian coast.
Two Moons and an Olive picked up the theme, telling the story of schoolchildren who form a friendship as they deal with cynical schoolteachers and face difficult economic conditions.
The director said the new film and its positive showing represented a ray of hope for Syria, which has seen state-sponsored film production pick up only recently, after a five-year lag.
The movie, which was was co-produced by a local firm, Fursan, and the state-affiliated National Film Organization, is due to hit theaters after Ramadan. “I think the private sector can only be encouraged to put money in films, since they’ve seen the success of this one,” Abdulhamid said.
This year’s festival was called Cinema Reborn, and Thaer Musa, a cinema and television director, said it appeared to live up to that name.
“The festival shook up the Syrian public, not just intellectuals, students and those who follow cinema,” he said, referring to the constant stream of people descending on the festival sites near the Bawabet Salhieh roundabout in downtown.
“Lots of people were attending,” he continued. “In restaurants, supermarkets and taxis, people would ask: ‘were you at the festival?’”
Musa said the event needed a few more years to attract top-level films in competition, which this year amounted to about 25 of the 233 films shown. Nonetheless, he said the event was a step in the right direction.
“This shows that Syria really needs to go back to having cinema in its life, and cinema has been absent.”
He said that while some countries would not send their strongest films to a festival in Damascus, moviegoers were happy enough to get access to non-competition features such as Tornatore’s Malena, as well as Italy’s The Son’s Room, which took a prize at Cannes, France’s The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain, which is playing in Beirut, and Hollywood hits like American Beauty and The Green Mile.
Musa related seeing a middle-aged woman clutching her husband as they forced their way through a mass of people seeking entry to a film, and the woman telling her husband: “I haven’t been to the movies since I was very small.”