Lucy Knight

Talent on trial

The new filmmakers keep coming, but their paths don't always run smooth


There often seems to be a need to remind people that Lebanon has been producing movies since the 1920s. It’s perhaps not surprising, though, given that Lebanese cinema has often been eclipsed by its Egyptian counterpart, that war has on occasion got in the way, and that audiences have been known to prefer foreign films over homespun features. The last decade has brought with it an increase in international success for films from Lebanon, from the likes of Nadine Labaki and Ziad Doueiri. Hopefully there will be more achievements to come. This year’s Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF), which is running between October 2 and 10, is a good place to look for future talent.


Gaelle Sassine is one of a new crop of Lebanese filmmakers who is showing her first short film Memex at BIFF. Sassine hopes eventually to join the ranks of directors like Labaki and create her own identity as a screenwriter and director. Looking at how the Internet has changed our use of knowledge, Memex is an example of filmmaking coming from the country that is moving away from subjects of war and politics. 


“The subjects [of films] have become more daring and audacious,” says BIFF founder and organizer Colette Naufal. “It means we are becoming a more open society.” With many of the new generation being born at the end of the war, or in its direct wake, it’s hardly surprising that the themes are moving towards more intimate portrayals of daily life and its challenges. Sonia Habib’s Out of darkness tells the love story of a blind man and sighted woman, while Ali Shiran’s A little bit of tea tells the story of a garbage collector. 


It could be argued that Cyril Nehme, another of the filmmakers presenting work, has gone for a war related debut film, but he strongly attests that this is not the case. People disappear all the time is a 20-minute film set in an archive office that uses the ongoing issue of the nearly 2,000 who went missing during the war to explain how the young of the city can feel detached. “I had been working in the archives of one of the city’s oldest libraries… this was how I imagined the scenario of a young man feeling lost in his city, and discovering delusions through the archives of his country. I, myself, often feel detached here. I didn’t experience the war, so this isn’t about the war for me, it’s about a fragment of history, memory that is being changed.”


Each of the filmmakers has trodden a different path to get to where they are today, screening at the BIFF. For Zahi Farah, a filmmaker who went around the houses a little before realizing that directing was what he wanted to do, studying in the UK was something he felt necessary. “I was kind of kicked out (of university in Beirut),” he says, “but it’s better there [in the UK], the course was pretty much the same but the teachers have a whole different approach.” Farah came back to his home country in order to make a third short film, The Myth of Saleh Sharif. “Lebanon is an exotic platform,” he says, “as long as it doesn’t get any worse than it already is.” 


When it comes to location and history he’s not the only one to think so - amongst the new generation of writers, directors and producers, there are the non-Lebanese who are keen to have Lebanon as their filming ground. Clément Vieu is a French-Italian stage actor from Paris. It was while directing a play in Beirut that he found himself wanting to make a short film. The end product, Le Pantalon, tells the comedic story of a mother who finds an abandoned pair of trousers on her balcony. “For me, Lebanon is a most complex and rich country,” he says. “As a man of the Mediterranean myself I’m sensitive, like the Lebanese, to family and spirituality, so filming here was an obvious choice.”


Among the various hurdles that the new recruits say are hindering the industry, the lack of funding is the most talked about. “In Europe you have the chance to apply for funding and support,” says Myrna Maakaron, a Lebanese filmmaker now based in Berlin. “It makes things a lot easier.” A lot of filmmakers have to look abroad for the money, often to Europe and the UAE, helping to add weight to the constant cry that there is no real industry here. “With the support of my parents I gave up my second year at film school in the UK to fund my film,” says Farah. “You need to know people, and it is hard, but not as hard as coming up with quality content.” 


And here another issue is raised: talent. Sonia Habib and Marwan Kassis agree that the rarity of talent can mean that making films in the country is a challenge. “There are a lot of bad scripts going around,” says Habib. “Good screenwriters are few and far between.” For Kassis, it is not only the talent issue, but the compromises even talented people make: “many people forsake their true artistic desire for the money,” he is referring especially to television programmes in Lebanon. 


Audiences in Lebanon also have a role to play in creating a hurdle for young filmmakers. “People don’t have a passion for art house cinema,” says Shiran. “They just want the entertainment. We had this amazing filmmaker called Maroun Baghdadi. You can’t find his work in the shops – I ask why?”


However, all is not lost. Despite being beset by financial hardship, an apparent lack of talent, the need to panda to commercial interests, and limited audience demand for certain types of cinema, filmmakers are not giving up! “The exposure the young filmmakers have had over the last 20 years,” says BIFF founder Naufal, “means that they cannot but advance.”



To find out more about the Beirut International Film Festival, including the screening times of the films mentioned above, you can visit the website here.

A still from Sonia Habib’s 'Out of darkness' (image via Vimeo)

"We had this amazing filmmaker called Maroun Baghdadi. You can’t find his work in the shops – I ask why?”