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'Cinema days' festival celebrates Middle East filmmaking

Event provides overview of Arab film production in last 2 years

It is autumn. This is when cinephiles hereabouts - fatted on a summer of Hollywood blockbusters and wretched Egyptian comedies - ask themselves: "What is the state of Middle Eastern cinema?" And they receive a sort of answer in the panoply of film festivals that adorn Beirut at this time of year - August's Ne a Beirut, October's Middle East Film Festival and, wedged between the two, Ayam Beirut Cinemaiyya.

This is Beirut's third "Cinema Days," a bi-yearly event assembled by the squad of 20-somethings who are Beirut Development and Cinema (Beirut DC) - the five-year-old cultural co-operative whose politics tend to be as progressive and independent-minded as the films they promote.

The organizers conceive of Ayam Beirut Cinemaiyya as a noncompetitive festival whose mission is to provide an overview of the Arab film produced over the past two years and a meeting place for the region's filmmakers, local and expatriate. Over 10 days, the festival will screen over 100 films - 13 features, 40 documentaries, 45 shorts, and a smattering of experimental and student films.

The opening film will be "Bab al-Shams" (Door of the Sun), Egyptian director Yousri Nasrallah's much-anticipated adaptation of the novel of the same title. Written by Lebanon's Elias Khoury, the book is a poetic tour de force focusing upon the experiences of a circle of refugees fleeing from Palestine to Lebanon. The evening of the festival premier, a special open-air screening of "Bab al-Shams" is planned for Sabra-Shatilla.

"Bab al-Shams" comes to Beirut on the heels of its world premier at Cannes. Cannes was also host to "Our Music," by French auteur Jean-Luc Godard. Set in Sarajevo and addressing the Israeli-Palestine crisis, Godard's film represents a sort of return to the region after 30 years - when his "Here and Elsewhere" was first released.

As in years past, Palestine is a central leitmotif of this festival, with over 20 films on the subject, directed by Palestinian, Arab and foreign filmmakers. These include "Soraida - A Woman From Palestine," by Tahani Rashed; "Writers on the Borders" by Samir Abdullah; "Ijtiah" by Nizar Hassan; "Like Twenty Impossibilities" by Anne-Marie Jacir; "In the Ninth Month" by Ali Nassar and "Private Investigation" by Oula Tabari.

The 2004 edition of the Ayam Cinemaiyya also has a number of films that are neither new nor Arab. There is a special section of foreign films on the Arab World. In addition to the Godard piece, there is Frederic Laffont's "1001 Nights," a personal diary shot in Palestine, and "2000 Terrorists," a documentary about four of the plaintiffs in the Belgian court case against Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon, by Peter Speetjens and Hanro Smitsman. There are also a pair of "guest films" - "Abouna," by Chad's Mohammed Saleh Haroun, and "Vodka Lemon," a film set in Armenia by Iraqi Kurd Hinner Selim. The film selection is rounded out by a retrospective from Arab documentarians.

Beyond the films themselves, there will be a pair of roundtable discussions. One will be a debate about cinema representations of Palestine called "Palestine: Champ ou Contre-Champ?" featuring Samir Qassir, Elias Khoury, Omar Amiralay and a filmed contribution by Jean-Luc Godard himself. The second debate, on "identity" in the Arab cinema today, features the input of filmmakers from around the region.

The festival also will hold a workshop in animation, painting and drawing, conducted by award-winning Serbian animator Vuk Jevremovic, and a Beirut DC production called "5X5: Lebanese productions on 35mm." A video installation called "Body," by Catherine Cattaruzza and Vatche Boulghourjian, will be on display in the Cinema Estral in Hamra.

Beirut DC's Elaine Raheb says she and her colleagues viewed over 300 films before settling on the festival's 130 pieces: "We tried to select quality films that were representative of what's happening in the region's cinema."

Presumably this puts them in a unique position to assess "the present state of Arabic cinema."

"The documentary is the genre that's shaping the identity of the Arabic cinema right now," she says, "It's freer."

This is no surprise, really, given the fact that outside Egypt, there is no Arab film industry to speak of. Without the financial and technical infrastructure enjoyed by European and U.S. filmmakers, it is much more difficult for Arab directors to participate in the culture of high-quality independent feature film seen there.

"When we say films we've chosen are 'independent,'" says Beirut DC's Hania Mroue, "we mean films that have been made relatively free of the constraints of distributors and producers."

Some of these films were indeed produced largely or completely on the director's own steam, like "Klephty" by Egypt's Mohammad Khan and Mahmoud Hojeij's "The Silent Majority," a Lebanese experimental film about a fellow who wakes up one day to find he's turned into a dog. Elie Khalife's comic short feature "Van Express," follows a pair of young entrepreneurs who, frustrated that they are legally barred from flogging coffee on Beirut's Corniche, find more success when they use their van in a different trade.

"Some of our films were made under the influence of producers, of course," adds Raheb, pointing out several that were either European co-productions or else were commissioned by television networks in the region.

"But even in these cases, you feel that the directors are making a very personal statement with their work. They may address subjects like 'terrorism,' 'Islam' or 'the Palestine conflict' but they have a singular point of view that makes them different from most television documentaries."

Examples of such independently minded commissioned pieces include "Children of the Cedars" by Dimitri Khodr, (commissioned by New TV). Bassem Fayad's "Road Beyond Sunset" and Jad Abi Khalil's "His Majesty, Mr. President," both inspired by events in Iraq, were commissioned by the Al-Arabiyya network.

"These films all reflect a changed attitude among television programmers," says Raheb, "especially at Al-Arabiyya. We hope it continues."

Other festival films represent a compromise between the creative and commercial imperative. "Best Times," by the young Egyptian director Hala Khalil, is part of a new trend in Egyptian feature film - begun by Hani Khalifa's "Sahar al-Layali" - which has seen Egyptian producers turn to young filmmakers to produce something besides infantile comedies.

"Egyptian film producers realise now that there are younger filmmakers who have scripts that speak to the younger generation," says Raheb. "They approached Khalil to make a film and she already had her own script. She wanted to make a film from her own point of view and it has been a commercial success without being commercial."

Among the several European co-productions are a pair of uniquely intimate documentaries - Malek Bensmail's Franco-Algerian "Alienations" is about the patients in an Algerian mental hospital, while Mohammed Zran's Franco-Tunisian-Moroccan "The Song of the Millennium" is about people on the edge of Tunisian society when the world officially entered the 21st century.

Among these co-productions, too, are a number of films about women, "Women Beyond Borders," by Lebanese documentary veteran Jean Chamoun, "When Women Sing," by Mustafa Hasnaoui, and Hala Galal's "Women Chat."

"It's a film about two generations of women oppressing women," says Raheb. "Not the sort of thing you find on the market or on television."

These films may reflect the European producers' concerns with certain issues - namely Palestine, Iraq, women, and Islam - but Raheb is cautious about suggesting that Arab directors are simply playing to European tastes to get funding. "Filmmakers in this region are in a crisis now. They see the Western media representing the people of the Middle East as heroes, victims or terrorists and it is impossible to ignore. If they take up these topics themselves it's because they're trying to position themselves relative to these issues. They're in crisis, but trying to find a solution."

The Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya Arab film festival runs from Sept. 15-26 at Cinema Sofil, Achrafieh. For more information contact: +961 1 293212 or +961 3 192587 or email beirutdc@inco.com.lb

Beirut,09 21 2004
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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