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French Version

Beirut International Film Festival returns

After a history of one crisis after another, popular event makes comeback in aftermath of war

After a three-year hiatus due to political unrest and financial uncertainty - and after a war that nearly threw the whole thing off track all over again - the Beirut International Film Festival is back. The event opens on Wednesday, October 4, with Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's critically acclaimed "Volver" and closes on Wednesday, October 11, with Egyptian director Marwan Hamed's wildly popular (and wildly controversial) "The Yacoubian Building."

In between, the festival is offering up 18 other films, including Bader bin Hirsi's "A New Day in Old Sanaa," deemed the first proper feature filmed in Yemen; Jaafar Panahi's "Offside," about six young women who disguise themselves as six young men to watch a World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain at Tehran's Azadi Stadium; and Brian Cook's "Color Me Kubrick," starring John Malkovich as Alan Conway, a real-life conman who romped around London impersonating the reclusive, inveterate director Stanley Kubrick.

The Beirut International Film Festival was established in 1997. Although the field has grown more competitive since then - with Beirut DC's Ayam Beirut al-Cinemayiaa (which just finished a successful fourth edition over the weekend), Ne a Beyrouth's Festival of Lebanese Film (which was slated to open this summer on August 18 and was understandably cancelled), Docu Days, and more - it remains the most international festival in town while retaining a regional core.

This year's line-up of 20 films is smaller than that of past editions, but it feels tight, compact and well-selected. Besides having two heavily anticipated smash hits as bookends, there are gems nestled throughout the schedule.

Bent Hammer's "Factotum," starring Matt Dillon, Lily Taylor and Marisa Tomei, is based on the Charles Bukowski novel of the same name. Laila Marrakchi's "Marock," about an updated pair of star-crossed young lovers in Casablanca, is finally getting a Beirut screening after much buzz. Georgian director Gela Babluani's "13 Tzameti" is meant to be a hot ticket.

Katia Jarjoura is also presenting two films: "Terminator," which is set against the backdrop of the demonstrations on Martyrs' Square in Beirut on March 14, 2005, and "Beirut Never Dies," a seven-minute short that follows the hip-hop outfit Kita Beirut through the reduced-to-rubble landscape of the southern suburbs. If the Beirut International Film Festival needed timeliness, a somber tone and hipster credibility all at once, this is it.

That is not to say the festival's history hasn't been plagued with one massive crisis after another - and this year's edition is no different. But director Colette Naufal, a pint-sized dynamo with an angular Anna Wintour bob and a fashionably utilitarian khaki dress, has weathered the event's ups and downs well.

In its first two years, the festival ran over budget by $300,000 and $250,000 respectively. When organizers threatened to scrap a screenwriting prize at the last minute in 1998, several filmmakers - including local luminaries Elie Khalife, Ghassan Salhab, Mohamed Soueid and Akram Zaatari - withdrew their films in protest.

In 2000, the whole initiative was shelved for the year. Apparently, one of the main financial backers decided he wasn't interested anymore. In 2003, the event was re-minted the Mid East Film Festival, following the establishment of the Beirut Film Foundation.

But after what seemed like an auspicious restart in 2003, the festival was canned again in 2004, this time because it was scheduled to open three days after the United Nations planned a meeting on a certain Security Council Resolution named 1559 that festival organizers suspected might have dicey repercussions in Beirut. In 2005, there were enough political assassinations and random bombings to shake anyone's resolve.

So here we are in 2006. Nearly a decade after the festival was born it will be celebrating its seventh birthday. It has come together in the aftermath of a war that was brutal and by most accounts unexpected.

Last month, the Venice Film Festival gave Naufal's project a substantial boost by holding a press conference in its honor and out of solidarity. The director of the Venice festival, Marco Muller, was well positioned to make such a plug. Ten years ago, he helped create the Sarejevo Film Festival while the city was in state of siege. He was awarded the first ever "Heart of Sarajevo" award at Venice last year.

Also pitching in to make the Beirut International Film Festival happen are Alice Edde of Edde Sands and Iara Lee of the Gund & Lee Foundation, who are financing this year's edition. At the Venice press conference, Lee also launched the "Make Films Not War" campaign, an initiative which insists that there are no military solutions to political, economic and social problems, and argues that films are a part of a necessary cultural resistance against war.

At a press conference to announce the line-up of the Beirut International Film Festival on Tuesday, Alice Edde remarked that the current situation in Lebanon is "economically a disaster, so it's time to push culture, culture, culture."

Lee agreed: "Cultural resistance is as important as any resistance," she said. Of her foundation's support, she added: "We decided to come forward when we saw all these rich Lebanese supporting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art [in New York] and thought, why not the Beirut International Film Festival? Rather than point fingers we decided to help out." Maybe the gesture will be contagious. "It's not just about funding. Film can be a great catalyst."

The opening and closing festival screenings are taking place at the UNESCO Palace and are free and open to the public. All other screenings are taking place at Sofil and Concorde. For more information, please see www.beirutfilmfoundation.org

Beirut,10 01 2006
The Daily Star
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