Sometimes the news is not enough. Using art, specifically cinema, can be an effective medium to get a point across, reach audiences and highlight important world issues. For this reason, the Beirut International Film Festival committee has selected films that look at some of the world and region’s most pertinent issues for this year’s Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF). Unfortunately, for the very same reason, cinema, like other forms of expression, often comes under censorship and this year’s BIFF is overshadowed by the censorship of three films.
Held at both VOX Cinemas at City Centre Beirut and Grand Cinemas ABC Ashrafieh, the 16th edition of the festival runs from October 5 – 13. The full schedule is available here. Originally set to show a total of 76 entries, of which 31 are shorts, the festival includes award-winning movies and documentaries by acclaimed international directors and promising debut filmmakers, as well as competitions for short films and documentaries, bringing Lebanon’s public a rich selection of works they may not have access to in a commercial theatre.
That selection on offer could have been richer had it not been for the frustrating censorship of three thought-provoking films from the region, issued only hours before the opening ceremony by Lebanon’s General Security and sparking a lot of backlash on social media in Lebanon. What’s worse is that such censorship isn’t uncommon, and happens almost every year according to the festival’s organizers, though it’s not always for political reasons as is the case this year. In reaction to the censorship, BIFF released a statement lamenting the decisions, saying that regardless of the reasons behind them, it regrets that political considerations interfere with cultural activities, adding, “The BIFF has sought to be a podium of liberty and freedom of expression, not to mention an open space for discussing social, economic, environmental and political issues at the universal level. Banning these movies would only harm Lebanon’s image as an axis of free expression in the region.” Head of audiovisual and broadcasting at General Security Major Tarek Halabi said to the AFP that the movies were not in fact “banned” but rather have not yet received screening permits, pending the decision of a designated committee. He said the decision would be issued on Monday or Wednesday. The Festival ends the following day, Thursday.
One of the banned films at BIFF is The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood, originally released in Iran in 1990. The film caused such a stir that it was first cut from 100 to 63 minutes, and later filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was arrested and the movie banned altogether and confiscated. Makhmalbaf managed to retrieve the work from Iran’s censorship archives 26 years later. The film, which tells the story of an anthropologist and his daughter, who works with suicidal patients, opened the Venice Classics section at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The reason given for the ban is political, namely the negative portrayal of a country which Lebanon is on friendly terms with, Iran. Makhmalbaf’s website claims the Iranian embassy pressured authorities to enforce the ban.
Another film banned this year is debut feature Personal Affairs by Palestinian filmmaker Maha Haj, which was apparently produced by an Israeli company, interfering with the Lebanese Ministry of Economy’s boycott of any Israeli company or product, artistic or otherwise. The dramedy looks at the everyday problems of a family under Israeli occupation. One character is accidentally cast in an American film and has mixed feelings about the script, while a couple get into a lovers’ quarrel at an Israeli army checkpoint, getting them arrested. The film participated in the “Un Certain Regard” section of Cannes Film Festival.
The Syrian film World Cup was not banned but authorities asked BIFF organizers to cut specific scenes which allegedly insulted Lebanese personalities and parties as a condition to granting a screening permit, something BIFF refused to do. Some speculators claim another reason is the directors’ anti-Assad regime views. The film, by Malas brothers Mohammad and Ahmad, centers around a Syrian man trying to form a football team for his country for the 2018 World Cup, in spite of the horrors of the country’s years-long civil war.
In spite of the censorship news, the BIFF’s selection of permitted films is full of powerful films with important themes relevant to the region and beyond. The theme of migration runs across two movies, one of which is Fuocoammare, also known by its English title Fire at Sea. The documentary, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and was selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards in 2017, is about the Italian island Lampedusa, a first port of entry into Europe for hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants making a dangerous Mediterranean crossing, juxtaposed against the ordinary life of the islanders. The second is by director Adil Azzab, whose autobiographical debut My Name is Adil tells of his journey from a small village in rural Morocco to Italy, where he studied, worked as an electrician and later discovered his passion for cinema.
Documentary Letters from Baghdad looks at the life of Gertrude Bell. A well-known spy, explorer and political powerhouse, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and establish the Iraq Museum, helping shape the modern Middle East. The story, voiced by Tilda Swinton, is told entirely in the words of Bell and her contemporaries, siting letters, diaries and official documents. Another documentary, Post Beiroet (Mission in Beirut), looks at the challenges of the Dutch embassy in Lebanon in trying to encourage stability in a country with no president, a war raging next door and a huge refugee presence. Meanwhile, comedy D’Une Pierre Deux Coups (Our Mother) follows the interwoven stories of an Algerian family in France after their traditional, illiterate mother leaves her neighborhood for the first time at the age of 75, in pursuit of a mysterious box.
Many other highlights were featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including French filmmaker Stéphanie Di Giusto’s La Danseuse (The Dancer) about legendary American dancer Loïe Fuller; Russian director Kirill Serebrenniko’s The Student, a look at a problem teenager’s religious awakening, which won the Francois Chalais prize, as well as psychological thriller Elle by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, which was in competition for the Palme d’Or and was also selected as the French entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards in 2017. Love & Friendship, based on the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan starring Kate Beckinsale, New Zealand adventure comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople, award-winning director Ira Sachs’ story about the effects of adult problems on childhood friendships, Little Men, and Lo and Behold, a documentary by influential filmmaker Werner Herzog about the existential impact of the technology, all debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
The BIFF’s premier film was The Girl on the Train, a thriller starring Emily Blunt, and it closes with documentary The First Monday in May, centered around The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibition about China last year.
In addition to the short film competition entries that have their own showings, four short films are also shown alongside the features, including one from Lebanon, two from Iran and Pakistan’s touching The Learning Alliance, about three brothers selling garbage to pay for their school fees. Also showing with some of the features are six restored short films about Lebanon, shot before the 1975, courtesy of Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism.