Lebanon Pulse

Beirut's international film festival turns 20

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Article Summary
The celebrated Beirut International Film Festival provides a platform for filmmakers in the region to speak out on subjects that are taboo in their own countries.

For its 20th anniversary and 17th edition, the Beirut International Film Festival will screen movies, short films and documentaries about terrorism, religious extremism, refugees and marginalized groups’ rights — all the hot issues on the global agenda.

The major film festival, which runs from Oct. 4 to 12, offers to the Beirut audience local, regional and international independent movies that are unlikely to be seen on television or in local cinemas. A jury of four chooses the best ones in each category.

The festival includes on its program several award-winning films, some of which will be shown for the first time in Lebanon. It also provides vital exposure for Middle Eastern movies focusing on political and social issues in the region. It opened with a screening of “La Cordillera” by Argentine director Santiago Mitre, and will close with “Loving Vincent” by British director Hugh Welchman and Polish director Dorota Kobiela, about the last days of painter Vincent Van Gogh's life, prior to his suicide.

For founder Colette Naufal, the idea behind the festival was “to bring art house cinema to Beirut, as these movies are never released because they are not commercially viable, unlike blockbusters.”

Naufal told Al-Monitor, “With time, we developed another purpose, which is to give a platform for filmmakers in the region to express themselves and tackle subjects that are taboo in their countries. Given that Lebanon is the country with the least censorship in the region, we are able to offer this platform. We do not choose a certain type of film — we do not have this in our criteria — but as time goes on, you see what is happening to the world and the movies reflect just that. In the last two years, movies started talking more and more of the global problems: poverty, migration, ethnic cleansing, global warming, NGO corruption, corruption in the ruling class, sex slavery, human trafficking and on and on and on.”

Among the activist and progressive movies that will be screened during the festival, “120 Battements Par Minutes,” by French director Robin Campillo, depicts the struggle of activists who fought against the general indifference to the suffering of AIDS patients during the early 1990s. “I Am Not Your Negro” by Haitian director Raoul Peck is based on an unfinished manuscript by African-American author James Baldwin on the civil rights movement and racism in America from the 1960s on. “Yom Lel Settat” ("A Day for Women") by Egyptian director Kamla Abou portrays the social, psychological and emotional lives of women living in one of Egypt’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Five Lebanese directors will introduce short films, and two will present documentaries. Among the shorts, “Cargo” is the story of a young boy who tries to protect his sick grandfather on a journey from Syria to the Bekaa Valley, then begs in Beirut for money to buy his medicine after an accident. The film's 25-year-old Lebanese director, Karim Rahbani, won the Beirut International Film Festival's short films competition three years ago with “With Thy Spirit.” The movie is about sacrifices made in the name of family ties in times of war and migration, topics that are dear to Rahbani.

“Everyone talks about Syrian refugees,” he told Al-Monitor. “But I wanted to focus on the idea of lost childhood, of care and love.” The idea for "Cargo" came when Rahbani, casting for “With Thy Spirit,” encountered a Syrian child, Abed al-Hadi Assaf, begging in the streets. After contacting the child's family, he convinced Abed to perform a supporting role in his first film and then play the main character in “Cargo.”

“Now he wants to do like me when he grows up,” said Rahbani. “Destiny can change anyone’s life," even the life of a child living on the streets, he added. Abed will see it for the first time with the festival audience on Oct. 10 as he wasn't able to travel to attend international film competitions.

Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled will also present her documentary “The History of Lebanese Cinema,” prepared for Al Jazeera's documentary series and screened for the first time. “For me it is about an identity that is not found yet,” Moukalled told Al-Monitor. “I worked a lot on current affairs, women's issues, minorities rights, politics, etc., and with time I realized cinema is a real mirror of society. You can see it in Lebanese cinema. It has gone through several stages, all of them echoing the local and regional situation. For example, after independence, cinema was about migration. In the '50s and '60s the productions were a mix of Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian without any proper identity. In the late '60s cinema became more political, mostly about resisting Israel and Palestinian fighters. It is basically a film trip through time and history."

Found in: women in society, refugee issues, movies, lebanese art, films, film festival, beirut

Florence Massena is a journalist based in Beirut who writes about economic, cultural and social matters. She studied political science and journalism in Toulouse, southern France, and has traveled in the region since 2010. She mainly focuses on heritage and women's issues, as well as positive ideas for Lebanon.

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