Feature The Ayam Beirut film festival eschews star-studded world premieres in favour of an intimate focus on the cinema of the region.
The offices of the film collective Beirut DC spill through the labyrinthine rooms of an old, red-shuttered house in the densely congested commercial district of Furn al Shubbak. "It's the only building on the block with a garden," Hania Mroue says proudly. She is one of the founders of Beirut DC, which was created in 1999 to support and promote independent Arab filmmakers, and the director of its bi-annual film festival.
Ayam Beirut al Cinema'iya (Beirut Cinema Days) has just reached the end of its 10-night run. In this, its fifth edition, more than 60 films from Morocco to Iraq were shown. Unlike other film festivals in the region - such as those held in Marrakech, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Dubai - Ayam Beirut has little international reach, serving instead a fiercely local audience of cinephiles and cineastes. There is little emphasis on the glitz or glamour of red carpet world premieres (there is, after all, no red carpet to speak of at Cinema Sofil, where the festival is held in two theatres, with just 280 seats apiece).
"We are definitely not doing this festival for glamour, definitely not," says Mroue. No hordes of international critics are flown in for the event, no marketplace events are held to buy and sell distribution rights and no serious hype is generated by the screening sessions. Rather than a media juggernaut, Ayam Beirut is an intimate platform for people who love and make cinema. It is late in the afternoon and Beirut DC's workspace is whirring. Staffers bustle quietly though the high-ceilinged, tile-floored rooms, each labelled with utilitarian wall placards: video library, screening room, editing suite, sound studio. One of the group's 14 members, Jad Abi Khalil, is splayed out on a low-slung couch, sleeping.
Mroue is proud not only of the garden beyond the office but also of Beirut DC's contribution to it. A few years ago, some of the organisation's members took a break from work one day and retreated to the back terrace to feast on ashta, a kind of fruit that looks like a relic from the dinosaur age. It has tough green skin, but the flesh has the taste and texture of clotted cream (for which it is named) and an abundance of black pips. They threw the seeds into the garden. Now, of course, an ashta tree grows there, and this year it bore fruit. It is an apt, possibly oversweet metaphor for Beirut DC's home-grown efforts in the field of cinema.
"In a region where individuality is generally restricted, Beirut DC encourages its partners and collaborators to produce films that are relevant to their society, that seek to question pre-established forms and beliefs and aim to induce change and new, personal approaches." This is the succinct description of the organisation's mission on its website, and it also provides a clue to Beirut DC's left-leaning political position.
Collectively, the group supports issue-driven documentaries and features, either by producing them directly or by matching young filmmakers with potential sources of funding (subjects have included the Palestinian resistance movement, the plight of children in harsh urban environments, Iraq, the Kurds and young people in Lebanon enduring dire economic circumstances). Beirut DC also authored its own, scathingly critical response to the 2006 war in Lebanon with a polemical short film titled From Beirut to ? Those Who Love Us. Individually, its members have railed against censorship and urged Lebanon's Ministry of Culture to take a more active role in the arts. According to the film theorist Laura U Marks, a specialist on Arab visual culture: "[Beirut DC's] mission is to decolonise the screen, represent marginalised people, and recognise media makers' creativity and humanity as an undervalued resource."
In addition to the festival, the group holds regular workshops with film students and professionals; it is in the process of creating a detailed online directory of Arab films; and it is building a publicly accessible physical archive of Arab cinema (there are currently more that 100,000 works in Beirut DC's library). But these activities occur behind the scenes. Ayam Beirut is the organisation's public face, and while it does not endeavour to separate art from politics, it does not play out like a meeting of insufferable activists either.
"For the city and for the Arab world, I think, the festival is really taking its place," says Ghassan Salhab, a Lebanese filmmaker who screened two of his features for the first time in Lebanon and in the Arab world during previous editions of Ayam Beirut (Terra Incognito in 2002 and The Last Man in 2006. This year, Beirut DC launched a DVD of Salhab's collected works). "It has the size of what cinema is in the Arab world," Salhab says. "It is not like these festivals that are big, too big for Arab cinema. Ayam Beirut is not that. The festival tries to show what is not mainstream. More simply, it gives us the chance to see movies that are being made in this region. It's not a competition. I find these competitions infantile, like school. Ayam Beirut is a simple way to go and see movies."
"This is something we all agree on," says Mroue. "We don't want our festival to have a competition. We don't want some people to go away with prizes and others not. We are not here to judge the films, nor to say this is good or this is bad." Ayam Beirut began in 2001. It has followed a biannual schedule since 2002. This allows Beirut DC to collect the best from two years' worth of films, rather than one. The group puts out a call for submissions nine months in advance. The selection committee consists of five or six members, whose identities are not disclosed. This year the committee reviewed 360 submissions before reducing the line-up to just over 60.
The biannual format also gives Beirut DC some breathing space. "We have time to think about why we are doing this festival, what we really want out of it, what the relationship is between this festival and others and what should be highlighted in the coming edition," says Mroue. "Something that has remained our objective, every time, is that we always want to support cinema d'auteur and creative documentaries. We are never interested in commercial reportage."
Among the highlights of Ayam Beirut 2008 were the first-time director Simon el Habre's documentary One Man Village, the story of a peasant who returns to live in a mountain hamlet that was abandoned during Lebanon's civil war; A Boy, a Wall and a Donkey by the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad (of Paradise Now fame); Annemarie Jacir's Salt of This Sea, a film about a refugee returning to her parents' home in Palestine to solve a financial dispute, which premiered in Cannes in May; a retrospective of the work of the Tunisian-born auteur Abdellatif Kechiche; and a tribute to the groundbreaking Lebanese director Randa Chahal, who passed away in August at the age of 54 after a long battle with cancer.
Cinephiles could also view documentaries, features and shorts by celebrated directors - such as Yousry Nasrallah, from Egypt, and Abderrahmane Sissako, a director with a strong cult following in Lebanon, who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali - alongside works by relatively unknown figures, such as Ibrahim el Batout (Eye of the Sun). For the first time, Beirut DC also screened a handful of historic films in homage to the late Youssef Chahine. According to Mroue, this is crucial for some of the filmmakers and film lovers in Beirut, who may know the obscure niches of European film history inside and out but who have had no exposure to the classics of Arab cinema.
Beyond the films, Beirut DC has also bolstered the parallel programming that is held during Ayam Beirut. The series included tightly focused workshops on high-definition technology, a pitching workshop, a conference on copyright and media law and a forum on the future of independent Arab cinema. "We don't want this festival to be only a vitrine where we show films," says Mroue. "It's very important but it's not enough. We want our festival to be a meeting grounds, a time for the filmmakers to meet, a place for the filmmakers to meet not only the audience but each other, and a way for them to think together about the realities of Arab cinema - its problems but also its future."