The Lebanese Film Festival's opening night overflows with humanity
By Jim Quilty
BEIRUT: Film, some say, must speak to its audience. A film festival, it follows, ought to foment excitement in its public. Based on this equation, the opening night of the Lebanese Film Festival (LFF) at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday night could be seen as unqualified success.
The promise of an air-conditioned four-film program lured so many sweaty short-film lovers to the theater that Né a Beyrouth organizers decided to commandeer the Metropolis’ second screen – happily disrupting the scheduled screening of Almodovar – to accommodate the overflow.
So impassioned was the spectators’ response to the movies, in fact, that the theater’s air-conditioning system struggled to keep the room temperatures down to bearable levels, leaving many of those present weeping from their pores.
As has become the custom for Beirut’s premier – that is to say, least-autumnal – film festival, the opening-night festivities featured a range of genres (all works released in 2010) to give the public an idea of what it can expect between now and August 23 when LFF closes.
The evening began with “Takhabot” (translated as “Heaving Unrest”), a six-minute animated music video by Beirut-based artist, and sometime-foody, Ghassan Halwani. Halwani’s drawings of an ill-defined encounter between two characters in Beirut’s seaside district of Ain al-Mreisseh accompany a tune written and performed by Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, one redolent with the smell of onion on a drunken day when the sun neither rose nor set.
Given the animation’s opening reference to Ain al-Mreisseh’s landmark ruin of the Holiday Inn, a relic of the 1975-90 Civil War, it wouldn’t be hard to read the tune as taking its inspiration from this city’s perpetually inconclusive state between peace and war. Anyway the tune is pleasant enough.
The seven-minute experimental film “Masmou7 lasek al e3lanat,” (“Putting up posters permitted”), by online media commentator and visual anthropologist Tarek Chemaly is an amusingly staccato rumination upon commercial representation. The visuals are comprised of a rapid-fire collage of antique ad footage – sometimes for commodities, other times shots that look like Lebanon tourism promotions – interspersed among the video document is a graffiti artist working on a wall mural, but run in reverse so that he appears to be denuding the wall of its message.
Run silently, the collage plays out to the accompaniment of a monologue by Deborah Fares, in which she reflects upon her relationship with various brands, punctuating her musings by singing the ad jingles.
By now, many among the overflow audience at Metropolis’ cinema 2 were so excited by what they’d seen that they’d become quite moist. Seemingly in anticipation of this development, Né a Beyrouth organizers had considerately designed the LFF catalogue so that it has just the right surface area to function as an improvised fan.
This is the ninth edition of the LFF – formerly called Ne a Beyrouth, after the filmmaking organization that runs the event. For the 2010 edition, the festival’s sponsors at Bank Audi are bankrolling the Bank Audi Best Film Awards. A first-prize award of $3,000 will go to the director of the best movie from all categories selected by the jury. The second prize will net $1,500 for the filmmaker, while a third-prize trophy will be awarded to the director of the Best Debut Film.
Among the highlights of this year’s program will be the screening of three feature films. Christian Ghazi’s 1972 docu-drama “Cent visages en un seul jour,” the only work of Ghazi to survive the destruction of his oeuvre during the Civil War, combines fiction and documentary images as a means of analyzing Lebanese society during the early 70s.
The festival has also collaborated with Human Rights Watch to project Bahman Ghobadi’s most-recent prize-winning feature “No One Knows about Persian Cats,” which screened at the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. The Beirut screening will be followed by a debate on the role of art in challenging state repression.
The closing film of the 2010 festival will be the Lebanese premiere of Patrick Chiha’s feature “Domaine,” the story of an ambiguous relationship between an adolescent and a fiery mathematician in her forties, featuring performances by Beatrice Dalle and Isae Sultan.
Two longer works rounded out the opening night screenings.
Hervé Jacubowicz’s 29-minute fiction “Le Temps de la Balle” (The time of the ball) is a foreign film, it speaks French mostly, that was filmed in Lebanon (and features some Lebanese talent) but is set in northern Iraq in 1991.
The story follows a pair of Frenchmen who have set themselves up with what appears to be an import-export business in Iraqi Kurdistan. When the son of one of the Arab woman living in their compound (Hiam Abbas) is wounded, the Frenchmen decide to deliver mother and son to an American military hospital, though to do so they have to go through an Iraqi Army checkpoint.
Attractively grungy and saturated with color – and more attached to its interior and exterior locations than the film requires – “Le Temps” has the shortcomings of a short film that really wants to be a feature-length film – crowded with brusquely developed characters. The film benefits from the energy and charisma of Hiam Abbas and a cameo appearance by LFF organizer Pierre Sarraf. It may not be his film acting debut, but it’s probably his first appearance as a sniper.
The stronger of the two short-film offerings is Vatche Boulghourjian’s half-hour-long “Hinkerort Zorasune” (Fifth column), enjoying its Beirut debut after its successful premier at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring.
Set in Bourj Hammoud (Beirut’s “Armenian Quarter”) sometime between today and the not-so-distant past, the film is an exercise in characterization, looking in on a day-long crisis in the life of a little boy named Hrag.
As the film opens, the camera finds Hrag packing items into his backpack, among them a handgun. He leaves home, apparently on this way to school. Then pop realizes his son has made off with his pistol and chases him out of the neighborhood.
The film doesn’t dwell on the nature of this conflict, preferring to follow Hrag’s wanderings through the quarter and his father’s efforts to find him. Details seep into the dialogue gradually – his father the cobbler’s sacking, his mother’s death, his conflict with a couple of classmates, his fondness for movies (the neighborhood cinema’s projectionist drives him out of the house regularly) and a conflict with his dad that springs from admiration.
A nicely paced, intimately shot and written little film, “Hinkerort Zorasune” bodes well for the future.
The ninth edition of the Lebanese Film Festival continues until August 23 at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more information ring + 961 1 203 485 or see: www.neabeyrouth.blogspot.com