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Reviving Lebanese cinema amidst a crisis

Lebanese Film Week displays Lebanese rich culture of cinema and filmmaking, and, along with other cultural events, brings a sense of normalcy and hope to the crisis-stricken country.

Film enthusiasts attend the first Tripoli Film Festival in-person since the start of the coronavirus pandemic on October 12, 2021. Photo: Nicholas Frakes, NOW

A crowd gathered at Vox Cinema, Beirut, as film enthusiasts eagerly awaited the start of the film “1982”. 18-year-old theater student Michelle Fegahli brought along her family and friends in a show of support for the event and its organizers. Having the chance to learn about Lebanese history and arts through film was an opportunity she was not going to miss.

“There is a part of the Lebanese civil war that is not discussed in our history books. I am eager to learn and be part of this unique experience that is encouraging Lebanon and its talents,” Feghali said.

The screening was part of “Lebanese Film Week,” a program that aims to showcase and promote Lebanese films produced in the last three years.

The film 1982 is a coming-of-age tale by Lebanese filmmaker Oualid Mouaness, starring famous Lebanese talents Nadine Labaki and Rodrigue Sleiman. The film tells the story of an 11-year-old boy’s attempt to confess his love to a girl in his class following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It won awards at Cannes Film Festival 2021, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), UNICEF prize 2021, and Murex D’Or prize 2021.

With the help of Vox Culture and other local initiatives, Lebanese Film Week is organized by MC distribution and Metropolis Cinema. Except for two screenings that are invitation-only, all screenings are free and open to the public.

Although for over two years, the Lebanese cultural scene has been hampered by the economic collapse, soaring inflation, and coronavirus pandemic, film enthusiasts and experts argue that such events are reviving the once renowned creative sector and proving that cinema can survive any hardship and document today’s struggles.

Back on track

According to their website, Metropolis Cinema Association is an organization “dedicated to promoting independent cinema in Lebanon and the MENA region through diverse programming, industry training, young audience outreach, and preservation of film heritage in order to allow for greater accessibility to alternative films locally and regionally.”

Over the past 13 years, this cultural landmark has exhibited unique foreign films and became a favorite among foreign film fans in Beirut. Since the August 4 explosion in Beirut’s port, the independent cinema’s original location in Sofil, Ashrafieh, has been shut down and they are still looking for a new space. However, the association itself continued to operate.

In times of crisis and political conflict it is crucial to be around a community that cares about Lebanon and wants to preserve its heritage and arts.

“There are always financial challenges and a constraint on liberty because we don’t have our own space, but we manage,” organizer at Metropolis, Elyssa Skaff told NOW.

In Skaff’s opinion, film events are not only about promoting local talent, but about providing a chance to escape from the daily grind and a place to enjoy cinema different from mainstream Hollywood productions.

“Film is a great medium for documenting real-life experiences. As Lebanese creatives, we have a lot to say and stories to tell,”Skaff pointed out.

“Cinema is where we dream and feel. It’s also where reality becomes a bit softer,” she continued.

An undying art form 

During the film week, Feghali and her friends gained insight into lesser-known aspects of Lebanese history. 

“It makes me feel proud to be Lebanese when I see something Lebanese being promoted. It bolsters my sense of patriotism,” she exclaimed.

“In times of crisis and political conflict,”  the student says, “it is crucial to be around a community that cares about Lebanon and wants to preserve its heritage and arts.” 

This is different from the media’s constant portrayal of Lebanon as a warzone and a restless place where people are constantly fighting, she added. 

“We have arts, we have peace, and we have people who want to see their country flourish.”

With Covid lockdown measures easing in 2021, film festivals returned to the physical world with diverse productions, topics, and locations.

In September, the Lebanese Independent Film Festival screened 100 short films directed by young creatives in Lebanon.  In partnership with Metropolis and the European Union Member States, the European Film Festival is returning to Lebanon for its 27th edition. The festival will take place from 4 to 16 November 2022. Details will be announced shortly.

There have also been specialized film festivals on the cultural scene in Lebanon, like the HBS Almost There Film Festival (ATFF) on Human Rights and Migration, and Cinema Al Fouad, Lebanon’s first Queer film festival. 

The importance of culture

Lebanon has been suffering from one of the worst economic and financial crises that the world has known since the 19th century. The local currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value against the US dollar and prices of goods have skyrocketed. 

The effects of these crises have affected the film industry and the people it employs. Everyday difficulties and economic and political instability have caused work conditions to deteriorate, and earning potential has become limited.

Cinema gives people a voice and it shifts perspectives. It shapes how we think and showcases details we don’t typically see on mainstream media.

Due to the collapse of private sponsorship, Lebanese films are largely funded by associations and NGOs supported by international donors.

Beirut was a fulcrum of Middle Eastern cinema until recently, mainly because of the Lebanese’s dedication to this medium of creative expression which dates back to the 1950s. A study published by the Basil Fuleihan Institute of Finance indicates that the film industry in the country employed over 1,000 people in 2015, with a turnover of 130 million USD. In the same year, 32 films were released, reaching an unprecedented peak in the pre-economic crisis days.

As part of their event schedules, film festivals include discussion panels and Q&As with directors and producers. A behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process is especially important for film students and young filmmakers, according to organizers. 

“The ability to respect each other and broaden our horizons comes through discussion and our ability to handle criticism,” Julie*, a film festival organizer told NOW.

“In general, cinema gives people the chance to discuss, analyze, and figure out a common interest together instead of watching Netflix alone at home,” she said.

Opportunities for all

Film festivals also serve as networking events, where producers and distributors seek out talent, according to independent producer Yasmine El Jurdi. 

They have also been expanding their sphere to encompass humanitarian issues and highlight local talent in areas outside the capital, Beirut.

Baalbeck’s International Film Festival (BIFF), which kicked off in 2018, and the Tripoli Film Festival, which has been running for almost a decade now, are primary examples.

“The festivals illuminate local talent, create jobs, and enhance and promote these cities’ cultural heritage, which has been neglected by politicians,” the producer explained.

Furthermore, El Jurdi pointed out, filmmaking enables people to tell their stories more effectively, in-depth, and with nuance, than mainstream media allows.

“Cinema gives people a voice and it shifts perspectives. It shapes how we think and showcases details we don’t typically see on mainstream media,” she said. 

The fact that film festivals and similar initiatives are still running, and are able to offer workshops, training, and screenings indicates that, in spite of crises, culture can still prevail, and there are people, groups, and organizations willing to help and embrace newcomers.

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. She is on Instagram @danahourany and Twitter @danahourany.