Animation occupies a peculiar niche on the pop culture landscape. Most mainstream image consumers prefer the term “cartoon” to “animated film” (fewer syllables, you see). The former suggests a genetic link to “comic books” – as opposed to the more pretentious-sounding (and multisyllabic) “graphic novel.”
The vast majority of feature-length animated films distributed in this region are fashioned for youngsters because commercial production houses like Disney-Pixar  reckon that’s the best market for the form. More intelligent filmmakers cast the commercial net more widely by slipping in adults-only jokes, a welcome diversion for iPhone-bereft parents, and inaudible to kids.
Like cinema generally, international animation production is diverse enough that interesting work emerges on the distant edges of the mainstream. Much as it absorbs local talent and draws it toward the center, commercial production tends to exclude “auteur” animators, whose voices are, arguably, all the more unique because animation can be so much more labor-intensive than actor-driven film.
That, in a nutshell, is the compulsion driving Beirut Animated. Now in its third edition, the city’s home-grown animation film festival is a biyearly, noncompetitive event that seeks to promote interesting animation in Lebanon.
Beirut Animated showcases international, regional and Lebanese animated shorts and feature-length films. This year’s selection will also have legs, touring Tunis, Tangier, Cairo and Dubai after Beirut.
Augmenting the exhibition side of the event, the festival stages panel discussions to provide a platform where professionals can meet, exchange ideas and discuss matters of production and development. In this regard, animateurs Lina Younes and Saud Boksmati will host a Saturday afternoon panel on independent animation in Lebanon.
The 2013 program looks back into the history of cinematic animation, while showcasing recent works – some extraordinary, at least one of them subordinate.
The festival will close on a formal and popular high note with Katsuhiro Otomo’s postapocalyptic cult classic “Akira.” First released in 1988, and later redubbed and remastered a couple of times to speak to an international audience, Otomo’s feature represents a confluence of several different print and cinema genres.
Claimed by cyberpunk aficionados, the film adaptation of Otomo’s 2000-page manga comic series of the same name (itself a breakthrough work) remains the most influential anime (aka “Japanimation”) work of the 20th century.
Given anime’s place in the consciousness of Beirutis growing up during the civil war, the screening ought to be well attended.
There will be a bushel of animated film to enjoy before the festival closes.
Often neglected by casual filmgoers, short film can provide a better barometer for formal experimentation and interesting contemporary practices generally.
Over several days, Beirut Animated will screen programs drawing on shorts from Lebanon and the region as well as the international circuit.
“Burj El Murr,” the latest work by local hero Lina Ghaibeh will enjoy its world premiere this weekend. Other local talent whose works will be on show include Gheith Al Amine, Joan Baz and David Habchy and Bassel Fatayeri, whose shorts will be complemented by pieces from Syria, Tunis, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE.
The international shorts programs  feature a couple of dozen works by artists from Europe and the U.S. Accompanying these are a couple of thematic programs – one devoted to “Zeinawa Nahhoul,” “Al Amira Yaqout” and “Lady Oscar” (anime television series from the ’70s and ’80s dubbed into Arabic). A carte blanche selection programmed by U.S. historian, journalist and music producer Nancy Denney-Phelps is devoted to musical shorts.
Beirut Animated’s other thematic program is its tribute to Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), whose pioneering work with stop-motion Dynamation effects defined the look of an entire generation of B-movies in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Richard Schickel’s feature-length documentary “The Harryhausen Chronicles” will be followed by a rare projection of Nathan Juran’s feature “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) which, in addition to featuring Harryhausen’s animation, is based on one of his original stories.
Most audiences will be interested in the program of new-ish features, and Beirut Animated’s programmers have selected films that run the gamut from auteur jewels (adults only), to sweet-natured (and old-fashioned) adaptations of children’s literature, to a cartoonish plea for tolerance that is as oddly misplaced as it is timely.
Parents will want to take their kids along to “Ernest and Celestine” (2012), by Stéphane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar. Critically well received and animated to emulate the old-fashioned watercolor-style work of the mid-20th-century, the film tells the tale of the relationship between a pair of artists, a bear (Lambert Wilson) and a wee mouse (Pauline Brunner).
A must-see for adult film-lovers are a pair of works by two American auteurs, both of which demonstrate the capacity of animation to represent the world from the perspective of damaged characters.
Don Hertzfeldt’s low-fi classic “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2011) centers on Bill, who is rendered as a stick figure (a round head, oval body, two dots for eyes and a hat), refracted through a blurred self-perception that reflects his progressive mental deterioration.
Deploying multiple forms of low-tech animation, Chris Sullivan’s “Consuming Spirits” (2012) chronicles the lives of three residents of a rundown Appalachian town, gnomes of a newspaper called The Daily Suggester. As the film unfolds, it’s evident the three hacks share a long, diabolical history.
The most problematic of the festival features is Beirut Animated’s opening night film, “The Rabbi’s Cat” (2011), by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux. An adaptation of Sfar’s comic book series, the film is set in French-occupied Algiers in the 1920s and follows the adventures of the titular (talking) cat (François Morel), his owner, the titular Algerian rabbi (Maurice Bénichou), his daughter Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi), and a host of others, best seen to be belived. Or not.
Beirut Animated will be staged from June 14 to 18 at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more information see