DAMASCUS: The 2001 Damascus Film Festival kicks off this weekend in what organizers hope is a departure from recent practice, under the telling title Cinema Reborn.
Perhaps the most indicative sign of change is that the earlier festival slogan of Cinema for Progress and Liberation has been dropped in favor of an open international competition, and quality Hollywood productions like Memento are in the running.
The 1999 edition of the festival, held every two years, was mired in complaints about the quality of films offered, organizational sluggishness, and the general decline in state-produced films in Syria, where the National Film Organization has been responsible for importing films, producing them, and organizing the festival.
But new NFO head Mohammed al-Ahmad is confident all three fronts will benefit from a much-needed rejuvenation.
Ahmad was appointed in September 2000 to take over the NFO from Marwan Haddad, who was criticized for overseeing a slowing-down of cinematic production and allowing the festival to decline.
Ahmad explained that over the last two decades, the NFO’s average annual cinematic production hovered around one film, and sometimes less. “In the last three years, there wasn’t a single Syrian film produced,” he told The Daily Star in an interview in his Damascus office.
When Ahmad took over, he ordered production to begin on two projects whose scripts were ready and awaiting approval to begin production. These films, by Abdullatif Abdulhamid and Ghassan Shmeit, will be the two Syrian entries in the 2001 feature film competition.
“There was also a script by Mohammed Malas, work on which was halted … (because) it was very ‘personal.’ I saw this as a positive point, since the great films by Kurosawa, Coppola, Woody Allen and Tarkovsky are all very personal.”
Also in the works are films by Waha Raheb, for her first feature work, while Syria’s perhaps most intriguing director, Osama Mohammed, spent the summer shooting his second film.
Mohammed’s 1989 debut, Nujum al-Nahar, was effectively banned from mass screenings in Syria, although it won prizes abroad and is sometimes shown on the sidelines of festivals.
His new film, Sanduq al-Dunia, is a joint production with France; and, for the first time, the NFO is working with the local private sector to co-produce Abdulhamid’s Two Moons and an Olive.
“If it weren’t for joint production, we would have produced two, and not four, films,” Ahmad said. “The other thing that I’ve been lucky in is the state’s support. When I took over, the state allocated 80 million Syrian lira ($1.6 million) to the NFO, while the minister of culture (Maha Qannout) encouraged me to go ahead with our production plan, which reassured us.”
Ahmad said he looked to Morocco’s and Tunisia’s strategy of resorting to joint production as a model for Syria to get the highest number of films produced under budgetary constraints.
“The only answer is joint production, which opens hundreds of doors worldwide,” he added, referring to increased marketing possibilities and festival appearances.
Besides the feature films, another 10 or so short films have received approval for filming or have been completed, a significant jump in NFO activity.
But the organization, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, will continue to produce the kind of “serious,” non-commercial films that it has long been famous for.
“There’s no Culture Ministry in the world that produces ‘fast-food’-type films,” as Ahmad put it, drawing on his experience as a film critic and former NFO director of studies and planning.
Since its 1979 debut, the festival has avoided big-name, Hollywood films in favor of production from Latin America, Asia and the Arab world, in line with the Third World Cinema for Progress and Liberation motif.
While Cinema Reborn appears to refer to several local developments a new government, a new NFO director-general and the first festival of the 21st century dropping the Progress and Liberation title is due to changing international conditions.
“Asian countries, like Iran and China, have ‘hidden’ their best films and prefer to send them to the bigger festivals … in the Arab world, production is low and there might only be one or two very good films a year.
“As for Latin America, financial difficulties have forced them to enter into joint production with countries like France, Italy and the US,” meaning the partners set tough conditions regarding participation in festivals.
“The only answer,” he continued, “is to become an international festival in this year’s competition, we have films participating in Berlin and Venice.”
To compensate for films like Memento and Italy’s The Son’s Room in the official competition, the new director has also taken a page from the Cairo Film Festival, adopting a special “Arab film” prize category.
“But I’ve retained the Asian identity, since we have a retrospective on Japanese film on the sidelines of the festival,” Ahmad said.
Also on the sidelines are more than half a dozen panoramas and retrospectives international festival winners, films by critics who have become directors, Italian, Egyptian and Syrian offerings, and films by Luis Bunuel and Austria’s Peter Patzak, who heads the competition jury.
And the panoramas will include big-name films that people have a hard time seeing on screens in Syria Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Chocolat; American Beauty; Gladiator; and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Thirty-three countries are slated to take part in the international competition, with a heavy dose of European films joining the traditional Arab, Asian and Latin American offerings.
Instead of four showings per day, the 2001 festival will offer five showings and a special midnight screening.
“A film lover, if he wants to, can see six films a day,” said Ahmad, grinning at the prospect of more than 200 works descending on downtown Damascus cinemas.
The Damascus Film Festival runs Nov. 3-10. For more information, call in Damascus, 333-4200/1