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A still from a Lebanese documentary by Zeina Sfeir.
A still from a Lebanese documentary by Zeina Sfeir.

Tales from Beirut

Lebanese movies are slowly starting to draw international attention, but the country's independent filmmakers continue to face unique challenges.

On a pleasant October afternoon in Beirut, Zeina Sfeir is on her way to meet a potential corporate sponsor for the next phase of Two Sides of a Coin, a documentary filmmaking workshop that she organises through Beirut DC, a cinema cooperative with which she is a full-time volunteer. The 35-year-old independent filmmaker doubles as Beirut DC's project manager, publicist and manager of marketing and sponsorship. The prospective sponsor, whom she prefers not to name, had expressed doubt over the necessity of such a workshop in economically challenging times. Sfeir, however, persisted and was granted a meeting to pitch for an Arab producers' coaching programme.

"We need such workshops," she says. "Arabs think producing is only financing or related to a production company. Producers also need an artistic vision, financial management and planning skills." Besides, financial hurdles are an all-too-familiar issue. This time around, however, Sfeir says the concern was "really only about money", not other political factors. In addition to the regular battle between commercial forces and the independent camp, Sfeir and other Lebanese filmmakers have often fought for sponsorship while coming to terms with an adversary that is neither predictable nor controllable: war.

Battling Beirut's afternoon traffic in her Subaru, Sfeir keeps one hand on her mobile phone, fielding calls from friends and industry colleagues. "It's not easy to drive in this country - or to be a filmmaker," she laughs. "My generation has grown up with the civil war, attacks by the Israelis, internal tensions and external threats. We're not afraid. In fact, we've adapted to surprises." After her meeting, which she calls positive, Sfeir returns to her office at Beirut DC, which organises Ayam Beirut Al Cinema'iya (Cinema Days of Beirut), a biennial Arab film festival, in addition to Arab film-related workshops and initiatives.

Located on the ground floor of an old four-storey house, Beirut DC's office is nestled in the Furn el Chebbak neighbourhood. Hania Mroue, one of the organisation's founders, is finalising screenings for the Metropolis, Lebanon's first art-house cinema, which she founded and opened one day before the Israel-Hizbollah war started in 2006. The cinema is dedicated to screening non-commercial releases.

"Beirut DC was born out of necessity," Mroue says. "For my generation of post-civil war filmmakers, there were no prototypes to follow, no financiers and an absence of a cinema culture." A lack of support did not deter her, and she secured a $100,000 (Dh367,000) Ford Foundation grant, about half of which had to be invested in technical equipment and digital resources essential to filmmaking. The initial grant was intended to last through 2001, but the foundation has continued to provide assistance, in much smaller amounts, every two years.

Since its establishment, Beirut DC has emerged as an active centre with comprehensive resources and tools, including access to a large network of filmmaking professionals from Lebanon and the Arab world. It is not a film fund, however, because its grants just cover operating costs. "It's a reliable and friendly one-stop shop for Arab filmmakers wanting advice, contacts and connections," says Simon el Habre, whose film The One Man Village received $12,000 from Beirut DC as well as free use of its editing suite.

"I think I was lucky, as the year I was in production was the year Beirut DC had some extra funds available," says el Habre. Although box office success eludes The One Man Village, a documentary about a man's fight to hold on to his home, the film has been much-feted in festivals around the world, picking up awards such as Best International Feature Documentary at Canada's Hot Docs and a Muhr at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival. It has also been released in theatres in Germany, Mexico and Lebanon.

In the absence of a mature film fund or producers willing to invest in diverse cinema genres, most intrepid Lebanese filmmakers work in areas outside of directing and producing, often self-financing their films or seeking loans from personal contacts. Sfeir, for example, works as a press and publicity manager during the Dubai International Film Festival, and, earlier this year, worked on the reality show Stars of Science in Qatar. It is, however, her role as publicist for Nadine Labaki's 2007 feature Caramel that she cherishes the most.

"Caramel showed the potential of our cinema to the world," she says of the Pedro Almodóvar-style tales of five Lebanese women. A number of auditions for the film were held in Beirut DC's space. "For the first time, we had characters that were real and spoke dialogues that were not melodramatic. It was also one of the first instances of an Arab company (Sunnyland Art) investing about half of the $1 million budget," she says.

In recent years, the international appreciation for films such as Caramel and Philippe Aractingi's feature Bosta has grown. So has recognition of the successes of Lebanese talent such as the filmmaker Sabine el Chamaa, who reached the final round of the 2008 Berlinale Talent Campus, and the selection of Lebanese-led projects in markets such as Dubai Film Connection. Although the history of Lebanese cinema dates back to the 1940s, the industry has largely relied on co-productions and western funding. The real production breakthrough came with Bosta in 2005. It is believed to be the first Lebanese film to be entirely funded by private Lebanese investors.

Such milestones have proved encouraging for the youth of Lebanon who aspire to be filmmakers. In Beirut, the craft has gained enormous popularity as a study course and career choice. When Sfeir, Mroue and Eliane Raheb, the artistic director of Beirut DC's film festival, were students in the early 1990s, filmmaking wasn't viewed as an acceptable or viable profession. They were pioneers, of sorts. "It was strange to say you were a student of film," Raheb says. "What was the future in it? But now everyone has access to basic digital equipment and filmmaking is a trend, especially directing music videos." Sfeir, Mroue and Raheb estimate that at least 12 institutions offer specialised audiovisual study programmes now - a stark contrast to the two options they had to select from.

One only has to pass by the main road in Beirut's Hamra district, where cafe customers spill out onto the pavements and the streets bustle with cars and pedestrians, to see students and TV staff preparing to film. The thriving TV industry, led by the LBC network, has opened up jobs for technicians. The glamour of appearing on screen has driven young, trilingual Lebanese towards broadcasting jobs with television and satellite companies all over the Middle East.

"Frankly, TV is a bigger threat to independent cinema than war," says Mroue. Although emerging talent have many interesting ideas and are eager to delve into socio-political issues, she says, they have not reached the level of maturity required to develop features. "We have lots of stories to tell, having endured so many types of conflict. So we tend to opt for documentaries and shorts that focus on real issues and real people. But the cinema-going audiences want stories," she says.

Box office data from previous years reveals that viewers prefer Hollywood action, animation and Egyptian films. Lebanese productions - mainly of escapist stories dealing with family sagas, human relationships and love - are occasionally successful, but these themes are already common on cable network TV shows. TV dramas are so popular, in fact, that television content has occasionally infiltrated cinema houses. Long-running soap operas have found it lucrative to make the show's finale episode a feature-length movie and release it in the cinemas. The trend is worrying to outfits such as Beirut DC.

"Ghanoujet Baya (Blue-Eyed Daughter) was the last episode of a show and apparently played to an audience of 200,000 in the cinemas," Sfeir says. "There was another similar experience with a film called Madame Bambino, which is the Lebanese Mrs Doubtfire. People like these comedies, but their box office success is nothing like Bosta or Caramel, which have become important points of reference for our cinema."

The dominance of commercial and popular cinema makes it critical for Lebanon's independent film movement to sustain a culture of film festivals. "The many festivals and associations are all working towards the same goal of developing cinema," Sfeir says. "Some are richer than others or better connected, but we're all intrinsically linked." Her documentary workshop's first phase was supported by Midan, the organisers of the Cinemaiyat film festival. Midan hosted the eight participants, a tutor and organisers in a village in the mountains. "We have to help each other out," she says.

"Festivals are the only way to create an understanding of intelligent cinema," says Raheb, who also teaches documentary filmmaking. "It's not to say one form is superior to the other. We understand the appeal of escapist material, but it can be presented intelligently, like in Caramel." War has chipped away at Beirut's reputation as an intellectual centre and cultural capital of the Middle East. However, a new breed of Lebanese talent is eager to establish the cinema industry as well as catch the eye of Gulf states with newly created film funds.

"There are certain limitations that come with external funding," Raheb says. "In Europe, there is an overall sense of freedom in terms of socio-political issues, but sometimes it has to be in the language of the country that is a production partner. I don't know if the Gulf countries are interested in funding Lebanese films and whether restrictions would follow." Raheb's concerns extend beyond finance and censorship, as she faces increasing difficulty in attracting filmmakers and their films to Ayam Beirut Al Cinema'iya. Festivals in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha have high-profile rosters of sponsors, extensive government support, hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, higher glamour quotients and better international networking opportunities.

So far, support from the likes of the French Cultural Mission, Goethe Institute, Euromed and well-known cinema figures has stood Ayam in good stead. In 2008, the French icon Catherine Deneuve, who starred in I Want to See, was guest of honour at the film's world premiere at Ayam. "She did not charge her fee for the film and she visited Lebanon without insurance as the company wouldn't cover her, given the security concerns," Sfeir says.

The Ayam team is clear about the fact that it does not compete with other Gulf festivals, but hopes to work with them. The co-operation may have already begun: the Dubai International Film Festival and the European broadcaster Arte, as well as other Beirut-based cultural institutions, supported the scripting phase of the 2009 documentary workshop Sfeir managed. The efforts of not-for-profit organisations such as Beirut DC are further complicated by the uncertain political stability of the region. Planning can go awry because of circumstances beyond their control, as they did for Beirut DC in 2006 when Israel attacked Lebanon two months before the film festival.

"It was totally unexpected and lasted 33 days," says Mroue, who is the festival's managing director. "When the war ended exactly one month before the festival, I asked Eliane if she could be ready with a programme. She was. 2006 was difficult. But we could not cancel. It was our way of telling the world that Lebanon is not finished. It was us as filmmakers and creative professionals screaming to our colleagues in other countries that we're still alive and inspired."

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