There are numerous potential pitfalls when organising a film festival. What if the stars don’t turn up? What if the films are in the wrong format and won’t play? What if the red carpet ran a bit in the wash and has turned pink?
Well, imagine organising a film festival in a country currently experiencing a sizeable degree of instability and uncertainty, both at home and from a neighbouring country in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Introducing the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF), the 13th edition of which started today. Opening with Gravity, the George Clooney-starring 3-D space romp that wowed critics in Venice last month, the week-long event also features a retrospective of the acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov – none of his films have been released in Lebanon before – and a “festival within a festival”, the five-film Human Rights Watch section, which includes the Oscar-nominated Palestinian documentary 5 Broken Cameras.
Unfortunately, despite such an impressive selection of films, this year’s festivities have been hampered by events in the news.
“Because of the situation, we have no international guests,” says the festival’s director Colette Naufal. “Two months ago, people didn’t want to come here and you have to book them ahead of time. But that’s not a problem for us. The important thing is that we bring wonderful movies to the Lebanese people.”
Coping with current affairs is nothing new for the festival. This is the 13th BIFF, but it actually started in 1997, having missed a few years because of the ever- unpredictable situation in Lebanon.
And aside from sectarian tensions and troubles from Syria, there are also a few vital technical issues the festival organisers have been dealing with.
“In Beirut, everything has become difficult. Nothing works as it should,” says Naufal. “We have days without internet. We went out and bought dongles, but these don’t always work. All the festivals screen their movies over the internet and you have no idea how difficult it was for us to watch them.”
Such has been the struggle, Naufal says, that much of her energy is actually spent on matters such as internet outage. “And not on the actual programming and the nice parts of the festival.”
That said, Naufal and her team should be congratulated for pulling together an enviable line-up of titles, with 77 films, including 43 features, in the programme, up from just 15 when the festival first began. Alongside Clooney’s space adventure, the Panorama section includes The Immigrant starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Valley of Tears by the Lebanese-Canadian director Maryanne Zéhil, and Es Ist Wie Es Ist (That’s The Way It Is) by Myrna Maakaron, who also serves as the children’s programmer for both BIFF and the Dubai International Film Festival.
On the documentary side of things, there’s Feeding 500 by the Emirati director Rafid Alharthi, which recently received a Special Mention at the Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival in the UK. Aside from a dedicated Lebanese Corner for young local directors, there are four Lebanese shorts in the Middle Eastern Short Films Competition.
“Of course, every year we get wonderful movies, but this year I’ve noticed there are a lot looking at activism,” says Naufal, pointing to Revolution, the documentary by the Canadian filmmaker Rob Thomas that examines what people are doing to help avert environmental collapse. “It’s a wonderful film.” Also concerning ecological issues comes the documentary Trashed, which screened in the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year and looks at the effects of global waste. Among the locations visited is the landfill beside Lebanon’s own Sidon.
The international guests might not be coming, but BIFF seems to have done a good job at helping create some of its own in the past.
“One of our first students was Nadine Labaki,” says Naufal of the celebrated Caramel and Where Do We Go Now? “She won her first prize with us, it was a short movie that she did as part of a graduation project.”
• The Beirut International Film Festival runs until October 10. For details, visit www.beirutfilmfestival.org