Colette Naufal talks about building the Beirut International Film Festival.
Most film festivals are a combination of party and trade show, a mixture of glitzy premieres and behind-the-scenes hard work. The biggest in the world are impressive but also a little impersonal, catering to filmmakers, executives and journalists from all over the planet as they hustle from one screening to the next, the business of movies often more important than the art.
By comparison, the Beirut International Film Festival offers what’s best about a local film festival. Handmade, improvised and rolling with the punches, Beirut reflects the scrappy, unapologetic air of its director, who has been with the festival since its beginnings.
“In July 1997, I was approached by a friend of mine,” recalls Colette Naufal during breakfast at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city on a warm October Sunday. “He invited me to lunch and said, ‘I have an idea: I’d like to organize a film festival.’ I said, ‘Wonderful idea, go ahead and do it.’ He said, ‘No, I want you to do it.’ He wanted it in October, and so I had three-and-a-half months to organize a film festival. I had never done anything like that before. I knew a few people here and there around the world — that was it.”
Overwhelmed but determined, Naufal threw herself into that first festival. A self-described professional organizer, she’s typically blunt when assessing how the ’97 installment went off. “We put together a small festival, 17 movies,” she says. “We had a few guests. There were a lot of things we did wrong. I did everything, and it was not so well-organised. But we managed to put it together. I knew nothing, nothing, nothing … I knew I liked cinema.”
Now in its 14th edition, which ran from October 1-9, Beirut is up to about 75 features and shorts, including a retrospective this year of Roberto Rossellini’s work.
Naufal recognises that the festival itself isn’t really meant for those who frequent Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or Sundance. “The movies are for the people who live in Beirut,” she says. “Why would you come to Lebanon to see movies? You see them anywhere else. Sometimes, they’re a year old, two years old. You’re not coming for that. Maybe you’ve seen a few Kurdish movies and you find that interesting, a few Arab movies.”
Indeed, the Beirut Film Festival’s appeal to an outsider is its opportunity to immerse in Middle Eastern features, documentaries and shorts. The festival gives out prizes in each category, and this year’s jury was headed by actress and producer Julie Gayet, alongside (among others) actor Homayoun Ershadi and Protagonist Pictures CEO Mike Goodridge. Directors in attendance included Siddharth’s Richie Mehta and The Man Of The Crowd’s Marcelo Gomes and Cao Guimarães.
No matter their country of origin, the movies were linked by a common trait. “What’s the aim of our festival? It’s to bring movies to the Lebanese audiences that will [otherwise] never be screened here,” Naufal explains. “We take these movies because they’re wonderful and we’d like to have them.”
For an insight into why this festival is so valuable to Beirut, simply scan a list of the country’s highest-grossing films on an average weekend. You’ll notice that the top moneymaker plays in approximately 15 screens, while the No. 10 film might be on five. Not surprisingly, this means that big-budget Hollywood fare dominates local cinemas, supplemented by French films to accommodate those who speak the language, and the occasional homegrown hit. (Last year’s two biggest smashes were Lebanese: the comedy-drama Habbet Loulou and the romantic comedy Bebe.) In such an environment, smaller, artier offerings have little chance of making it to Beirut. This is a city that deserves a wider breadth of films than it currently enjoys.
Naufal’s festival isn’t immune to challenges created by Beirut’s political turbulence. Some guests have expressed worries about being so close to a region in which the US and its allies are targeting ISIS forces. (Indeed, in August the US State Department website noted that it “urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of ongoing safety and security concerns.”) Naufal is sympathetic but unconcerned. “It’s a very volatile region,” admits Naufal, who grew up in Lebanon. “Especially when you read about ISIS, ISIS, ISIS … [but] for us, ISIS is so far away. Some people are traumatized by it — I’m not at all. We’ve had worse than ISIS.”
Despite obstacles such as moving from an upscale cinema complex to a less charming multiplex, the festival is well-attended, mostly by younger people, whose passion for cinema Naufal is hoping to cultivate. Her assessment is correct that no outside journalist need come to Beirut to see the Western films on display, but it’s not a shock that they’re some of the most popular screenings during the festival. These films run the gamut, stretching from Mathieu Amalric’s romantic thriller The Blue Room to Errol Morris’s Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known to Kelly Reichardt’s tense character thriller Night Moves. But Naufal also programs with an eye toward stirring a little conversation, a move reflected in her choice of bringing two Sundance notables: the doubting-priest drama Calvary and the gay-themed romance Love Is Strange.
“For me, it’s not hard,” she says of the decision to program LGBT films as part of the annual Beirut slate. “I figure if there’s nothing obnoxious — so daring — to see, [the censors] will let them pass. We once screened [the 2011 Markus Schleinzer drama] Michael, about pedophilia, and there’s a very strong scene in it, and they let that pass.”
Naufal insists that she has a good relationship with the censors who must sign off on her festival’s films. According to her, after she makes her selections, she’ll show them to the censors, who will let her know if any movies raise red flags. Those are then given a question mark, meaning that further deliberations will need to be made, but Naufal says that this year’s slate caused no problems. “They have become very lenient with us,” she says. “Usually when a film is blocked, it’s not their decision — there’s political interference [from] outside.”
Still, she knows she must be sensible in terms of how she positions the more potentially incendiary films. “They did have a few words to say about [the gay-themed films],” she admits. “They said, ‘Don’t publicize them too much. If you publicize them too much, it draws attention. Keep them under the radar and you won’t have any problems.’” As a result, the festival’s program guide tends to shy away from provocative narrative tidbits in plot descriptions. For instance, two very different films about young gay men visiting their dead lover’s family — Hong Khaou’s sensitive drama Lilting and Xavier Dolan’s cheeky psychological thriller Tom At The Farm — received almost poetically opaque write-ups in the Beirut program. Lilting was tastefully described as a story of a mother whose “world is suddenly disrupted by the presence of a stranger.”
As for Calvary, she faced a different hurdle. “Censors don’t decide when it has to do with religion,” she says. “There’s this religious council: It has the Catholics and the Orthodox and the Sunnite and the Shiite. This is an archaic system.”
For the most part, the festival ignores the country’s religious fractiousness, Naufal hoping that the wide variety of films — both from within the Middle East and from without — will spark empathy and understanding. “The more [viewers] learn of the cultures of the region, the more they’re tolerant,” she says. “Just like the international section: The more they see, the more they’re open-minded.”
Still, politics pop up during the festival. Addressing the audience during the opening-night festivities, Gayet decried the “barbarism” happening elsewhere in the Middle East and extols film’s power to transcend such conflict. “Cinema is freedom,” she declared. Zuheir Kreidieh, the Lebanese filmmaker of the documentary short Will You Marry Me?, about a gay man with HIV, offered an impassioned speech in Arabic before his screening, telling the supportive, clapping crowd of the challenges homosexuals face in being treated like second-class citizens. And when Clouds Of Sils Maria star Juliette Binoche was asked at a masterclass by an audience member what Lebanon represents to her, she politely, wisely demured to answer, saying that an outsider couldn’t begin to respond to such a complicated question.
The Beirut Film Festival’s programming is very much a product of Naufal’s individual taste. She travels to festivals such as Cannes looking for worthwhile films, and she’s brought on people like Alesia Weston, former Sundance Institute executive, to serve as a programming advisor. But getting her picks to Beirut can be tricky because of competing film entities, including the festivals in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
But Naufal is insistent that competition for Middle Eastern premieres matters little to her. “We don’t care,” she says. “All we care about is to bring movies to our audience. We can’t get them this year, we’ll bring them the next year. A good movie, I keep after for two, three years.”
Attending Beirut can offer a handy survey of modern Middle Eastern cinema that hasn’t necessarily made much of an international impact. Those films can sometimes be a mixed bag, but even the weaker selections benefit from their timeliness and urgency, telling deeply felt stories with clear purpose.
When Monaliza Smiled, writer-director Fadi Haddad’s love story between a Jordanian woman (an insanely charming Tahani Salim) and an Egyptian man (Shady Khalaf), ticks off every romantic-comedy cliché, in part to offer a familiar, friendly package in which to discuss issues of cultural identity. (In this way, it’s an appropriate entry alongside May In The Summer, which uses the conventions of the heading-to-the-altar comedy for an exploration of religious and societal divides.) Predictability may also hamstring Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, about a brutal dictator (Misha Gomiashvili) who goes on a journey of self-discovery once a coup sends him on the run. But the film’s didactic, emotionally manipulative approach is mitigated by Makhmalbaf’s clear rage at abuses of power — as well as his ambivalence toward those who seek vengeance on corrupt individuals while permitting the structures that incubate them to flourish. (And the message certainly struck a chord: The President won the festival’s audience award for features.)
Some of the festival’s strongest Middle Eastern films were modest revelations that addressed regional issues with delicacy, verve and skill. The short Transit Game, written and directed by Iranian-Canadian-American filmmaker Anna Fahr, studied the intersection of two groups of exiles living in Lebanon, a Syrian man who’s run out of gas and two Palestinian children who befriend him on the road. Iranian filmmaker Salem Salavati’s The Last Winter, which was the jury’s pick for Best Feature Film, emphasizes atmosphere and tone, telling the story of an elderly couple who are the last residents of an abandoned village threatened by a blizzard. In the short Living With Leviathan, Turkish documentarian Sirin Bahar Demirel compiles footage from the Occupy Gezi movement, and the result is a middle finger to an oppressive regime. Politics of another kind formed the backbone of Daddy’s School, Hassan Solhjou’s lovely documentary portrait of Makhmalbaf and his family, who formed a private film school, in the process creating a few generations of cultural protest to Iranian authorities.
But the Beirut Film Festival’s two most striking offerings threw elbows, mixing humor and outrage to get their points across. The unruly, undisciplined documentary Syria Inside boasts not one but two aggravating framing devices: an alien hovering above Earth observing humans’ strange behavior; and two comedic hosts (Mohammad and Ahmed Malas) introducing tongue-in-cheek skits about how to be an effective dictator. And yet, Syria Inside is an often stunning found-footage chronicle of that country’s plummet into chaos. Starting with President Bashar al-Assad’s unlikely rise to power — when all he wanted was to be a dentist — and building up to shocking scenes of tank warfare and sniper attacks, Syria Inside was the brainchild of filmmaker Tamer Alawam, who was killed in 2012 while filming in war zones in his homeland. Syria Inside may be merely combustible content in search of a better framework, but it scarcely matters: Anyone who wants a rough-housing encapsulation of Syria’s descent into civil war would do well to seek this film out.
And then there’s the exquisite Challat Of Tunis, which premiered at Cannes. Packaged as a documentary and based on an actual event, this sharp satire from Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania follows the filmmaker on a fact-finding mission. Ten years ago, a man known as The Challat Of Tunis rode around the city on a motorbike slashing women’s buttocks with a switchblade before finally being arrested. Ben Hania wants to find the man behind these crimes now that he’s out of prison, soon coming into contact with the piggish psychopath (Jallel Dridi). But what starts as a seeming investigative inquiry soon turns into a rich commentary on outdated, disgusting patriarchal societies that insist on putting restrictions on women. Funny and filled with twists, Challat Of Tunis hit deeper than any other Beirut offering while also being more entertaining. (The festival jury smartly selected this faux-nonfiction wonder as their Best Documentary.)
Naufal is already looking ahead to next October. She wants to programme fewer films in 2015 and reduce the number of screens from four to three. She wants to keep the quality high and boost crowd-size per screening. “No need to bring so many [films],” she announces. “Let people see everything. Bring a movie a year later, who cares? The important thing is to bring the movies in.”