It may be at the whim of political and economic upheavals, and have a population of only 3.9 million, but Lebanon's film-makers are punching above their weight. Antonia Carver reports.

It used to be possible to count on one hand the Lebanese films that had broken out internationally. But despite the territory's difficulties, Lebanese directors are becoming a fixture on the festival circuit, with a new generation of film-makers exploring fresh themes.

Nadine Labaki's debut Caramel (pictured above) was one of the hits of Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year, selling to more than 30 territories, while Philippe Aractingi's Under The Bomb is screening at Venice.

'More and more films are selected by festivals, and there's increasing interest from the press,' says Thierry Lenouvel of France's Cine-Sud, which co-produced Michel Kammoun's festival hit Falafel. Cine-Sud is now developing up-and-coming director Dima El Horr's Every Day Is A Holiday, supported by France's CNC, Lebanon's Taxi Film and Germany's Niko Film.

'Lebanese directors are hungry to tell original stories,' says Francois Yon of Films Distribution, which has just taken on world sales for Hany Tamba's Melodrama Habibi. 'The level of the scripts we receive is high.'

It helps that Lebanon is a regional talent hotspot with an entrenched film culture. It dominates the regional advertising and Arabic music video industries, while Beirut has five film schools - as many as the rest of the region put together.

Artists' association Ashkal Alwan and film-makers' co-operative Beirut DC are helping to nurture a vibrant shorts and video scene. And the capital hosts six annual festivals including the Beirut international film festival (October 3-10).

Roots of renaissance
The revival was kick-started in the 1990s as directors who had moved abroad during the long-running civil war began to return to Lebanon. These include Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut, Lila Says) who is developing the drama The Attack, an adaptation of Yasmina Khadra's novel, with Focus Features; Ghassan Salhab, who had festival success with art horror film The Last Man; Danielle Arbid, whose MK2-produced erotic road movie A Lost Man screened in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year; and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who are editing I Want To See, starring Catherine Deneuve, and are presenting the script for I Can't Go Home in the Open Doors programme at the Locarno international film festival (August 1-11).

The Lebanese film industry's international outlook is in part a necessity, such is the financial vacuum at home. The state-funded Fondation Liban Cinema actively promotes directors, but has no production budget. Nevertheless, enterprising producers are beginning to delve into pockets of regional finance.

'There are very few producers. Every time (we make a film) we start from scratch,' says producer Dima Al Joundi, whose Crystal Films has just wrapped Borhane Alaouie's drama Khalas, financed by French and Belgian government, lottery and private funds, plus Mohammad Yassine's Beirut company Sunnyland.

Producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint raised half the $1.5m budget for Caramel locally, via distributor Sabbah's minimum guarantee and TV rights. While director Philippe Aractingi raised the $1m budget for 2005's Bosta by issuing $10,000 shares to Lebanese businessmen.

He is aiming for Venice with new feature Under The Bombs, co-produced by the UK's Starfield Productions and France's Maybe Movies, shot during last summer's war.

Lebanese directors are also looking to Gulf financiers, and Cairo-based Misr International is co-producing a raft of features including Halal by Assad Fouladkar and Eye Of The Phoenix, the first feature from documentary director Mai Masri.

German producer-distributor Irit Neidhardt, who is co-producing Simon El Habre's documentary The One-Man Village with Beirut DC, warns that many European distributors attempt to match audiences' preconceptions rather than embrace diversity: 'The cultural reduction of the region to the subjects of women, religion and violence is a big hurdle.'

Lebanon's history provides stories, but political crises knock the local scene. Indie cinema Metropolis is desperately cash-strapped. 'Our challenge is to be creative and keep going no matter what, to always have a plan B,' says founder Hania Mroue. And Caramel's Beirut release hangs in the air, as distributors confront political uncertainty.