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French Version

Producing award-winning Arab cinema

Frenchman Humbert Balsan gets Mid East films made where others won't

For many film producers in Hollywood and Europe today, the Middle East is a topic a little too hot to handle. But not for Humbert Balsan.

He has successfully created a niche for himself as the top European producer of Arab cinema. Working with everyone from Egyptian directors Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah to Palestinian emigre Elia Suleiman, the 59-year-old has established himself as the first port of call for aspiring and established filmmakers from across the Middle East, especially if they want to see their movies reach a global audience.

Balsan's films have featured subjects from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. He's won the Silver Lion at Venice for "Le Cerf-Volant" by Randa Chahal-Sabbag, and the Jury Prize at Cannes the year before for Suleiman's "Divine Intervention."

Balsan's most recent film, "Le Grand Voyage," won the Luigi De Laurentiis award for best first film at last year's Venice Film Festival. Directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, it's a sensitive road movie following an elderly father and his French-born son driving together across seven countries to visit Mecca for the pilgrimage. The film's gentle plea for tolerance mirrors the producer's own career.

Speaking to The Daily Star about how he has become the West's premier Arab producer, he laughs wryly over the phone from his Paris office. "It happened by accident but it's since become something of a ritual. I love helping directors from the region but it is not a political statement. I could easily produce an Israeli film tomorrow. Cinema crosses borders and in the Middle East these borders are very delicate," he says.

Born in 1954, Balsan started his career in film as an actor. His debut role was the 1973 performance of Sir Gawain in "Lancelot of the Lake" by Robert Bresson. He has also appeared in films by Jacques Rivette, Maurice Pialat, Jean-Paul Rappeneau and Nicole Garcia. After gaining experience as second unit director on Robert Bresson's film "The Devil Probably" (1977), he moved on to producing films, working with major names from around the world, including James Ivory, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Claire Denis, Lars von Trier as well as the Arab filmmakers with which he has now become synonymous. On why he swapped acting for producing, as if giving a Gallic shrug, he says: "Sometimes it is good to know where your real strengths lie."

His decision seems to have paid off. In 2004 alone, he was behind Chahine's "Alexandria-New York," Nasrallah's "Bab Al-Shams" as well as "Le Grand Voyage."

"Cinema is a tool to bring people together," Balsan says on the important role the art form can play in today's tempestuous climate. "It's vital to get people's points of view across, especially at the moment. We should be even more audacious and explore all the different avenues that cinema offers."

As if producing films wasn't enough, Balsan is also incumbent vice president of the French Cinemateque as well as president of the European Film Academy (EFA). One of the first initiatives he proposed as president of the EFA was to invite Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers to join the academy.

"There has been great enthusiasm in Israel. It's important that they, the Palestinians and other Mediterranean countries, feel part of our community," he says. "Film is not entirely about building bridges but it is a reflection of society. Filmmakers are not just representatives of a different reality. They're storytellers too and people will always need stories."

While recent years have seen a glut of documentaries tackling the Middle East, financing has been harder to come by for directors of feature films. Balsan has managed the rare trick of not only getting Arab directors' films made, but also getting their films seen, using his extensive networks in distribution to ensure the films get theatrical releases. He succeeded in getting "Bab al-Shams," despite its controversial subject matter and four-hour plus running time, distribution deals in France, Belgium, Denmark, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. He also managed to deflect some of the attacks that the film faced when it premiered at Cannes last summer.

"The response was very good. With the film being very long, it's not so easy to get an audience at Cannes but we managed a full house and retained 90 percent of the audience throughout the screening. It's an important film."

A heated discussion between the film's director Nasrallah and Lia Van Leer, the director of the Jerusalem Film Festival, who chided him for his portrayal of Israeli soldiers, enlivened the Cannes screening. Displaying his own skill at diplomacy, Balsan brushed aside the incident, as well as the ensuing claims made against it by certain sections of the press.

"I hope anybody who talks about the movie sees the whole movie. If moments in the first part are painful, then these are counterbalanced in the second half of the film. At the end of the day it is about what happened to the Palestinians. They weren't asked to leave nicely but the film is entirely against hate. Its very poetic, a wonderful film about the attachment to one's soil and country," says Balsan.

For the French producer, cinema is everything. Having worked for over 30 years either in front of or behind the camera, he has become an integral figure in the European film industry, and inadvertently or not, in Arab cinema. He can frequently be spotted at Arab film festivals around the world, where often he has a production up for an award. This passion ultimately comes from simply wishing to see his artists' visions make it to the big screen. That's why he underplays the significance of the likes of Michael Moore and other documentary makers, despite their current ubiquity.

"Even though his film (Moore) is very good, I think that fiction in cinema is vital at the moment. Fiction has the potential to let people dream. Fiction is the future," says Balsan.

With a full slate of films in various states of production, including the new film from Randa Chahal-Sabbag set to begin shooting late this year, Balsan is certain to keep audiences dreaming for many years to come.

Beirut,02 07 2005
Ali Jaafar
The Daily Star
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