The Beirut International Film Festival  is the country’s oldest and, more than the younger events of this kind, its fortunes have waxed and waned with those of the city.
BIFF will open to the public Thursday, and it will be diminished – with 10 films less than 2011 and significant screening programs jettisoned.
“This year’s edition will be a smaller and more intimate one, due to the latest events in the region and the destabilized situation in Lebanon, which pushed some countries to impose a travel ban to Lebanon,” declared BIFF president Colette Naufal at the news conference announcing the event’s program. “As such, it was not possible to pledge enough guarantees to our foreign VIP guests or to deliver the films in due time.
“Nonetheless, we were committed to organizing a smaller edition of the festival,” she continued, “We are keen on preserving Lebanon’s cultural activities regardless of the reigning situation ... Fewer films will not mean fewer thrills or lesser pleasures. Nor is it all going to be about cutting down.”
The centerpiece of any international film festival is its feature film competition. BIFF has used its flagship competition as a platform for Middle Eastern features. These have rarely been world premieres, since ambitious filmmakers prefer to have their work debut at high-profile events in Europe and North America, or else the lucrative festivals in the Gulf .
There will be no feature film competition this year. Contests for documentary and short films from the Middle East  will go ahead. The jury at this year’s festival includes Lebanese film critic and educator Emile Chahine, and film producer Rita Dagher. In what appears a novel twist, the festival press suggests that a Special Jury Award will not be chosen by the jury at all, but selected on the basis of audience polls.
The Middle Eastern Documentary Film competition is comprised of six films with a geographical breadth extending from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf and Iran, all of them competing for three prizes – BIFF’s Aleph award for Best Middle Eastern Feature-length doc, Best Director and the Jury award.
As the political changes wrought by Egypt’s 2011 revolution continue to be felt, there will be a pair of docs focusing on Egyptian stories.
“Eyes on Freedom ... Street of Death,” by Egyptian directors Ahmed Salah Sony and Ramadan Salah examines the events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street on Nov. 18, 2011. The television doc “Goodbye Moubarak,” by Lebanon’s Katia Jarjoura, focuses on the country’s November 2011 parliamentary elections as a touchstone for later demonstrations.
Another competition highlight may be “The Gardner,” by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. An iconic figure in Iranian cinema history, Makhmalbaf was best known as writer-director of feature films, before his prodigious filmmaking daughters came into the limelight.
“The Gardner” is a poetic documentary investigation of the Bahai faith, which was born in Iran in the 19th century. The filmmaker and his son accompany a gardener from Papua, New Guinea, on a pilgrimage to the faith’s spiritual center.
Ramin Francis Assadi’s “The Orange House” tells the story of Mona Khalil who, after 20 years abroad, returned to her south Lebanon beach house to discover that, despite 30 years of conflict near Lebanon’s southern border, endangered sea turtles still return to lay their eggs in the sandy beach near her house.
BIFF’s doc competition also promises some film festival veterans.
For those who missed the opportunity to watch French director Marie Seurat’s “Damas, au péril du souvenir” when it screened (out of competition) at the Lebanese Film Festival a couple of months back, BIFF will offer you another chance. Seurat is the wife of the French researcher Michel Seurat (1947-85), who was kidnapped in Lebanon in the ’80s and died in captivity. Her 2012 film promises to examine the situation of the Christian community in contemporary Syria.
“Amal” by Emirati director Nujoom al-Ghanem, won the top prize at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival’s Muhr Emirati Competition.
The Middle Eastern Short Film competition will project 11 works, including six by Lebanese directors and two from Bahrain as well as films by Egyptian, Iraqi and Jordanian filmmakers. The films will be competing for first and second runner-up and Best Film award as well as the Jury award.
Also absent from BIFF 2012 will be the panorama of recent children’s film, introduced in 2011, which proved highly popular among families.
Unlike the 2011 edition of the festival, which opened with Terrence Malick’s Palme D’Or-winning “The Tree of Life,” this year BIFF will open with the world premiere of “Blind Intersections,” the debut film of Lebanon’s Lara Saba.
The festival will close with Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” the Bruce Willis vehicle that sent a small ripple through history when it premiered a couple of weeks back at TIFF, being the first science fiction movie to ever open the Toronto festival. “Looper” will swing directly into theatrical release after closing BIFF.
Between the opening and closing films, the competitions will be supplemented by five non-competitive programs including an International Panorama, the Lebanese Corner (a selection of 10 recent shorts that’s new this year) and a self-explanatory Human Rights Watch sidebar of four features. Film buffs may be excited to look in on BIFF’s two retrospectives: a five-film package devoted to Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki, including his latest work 2011’s “Le Havre,” and six films by the late-U.S. auteur Stanley Kubrick – films that have had a long DVD career but which are seldom projected hereabouts.
The features and feature-length documentaries in the International Panorama include a smattering of works that have either taken prizes at recent film festivals or have at least premiered there.
“Dup? dealuri” (Beyond the Hills) by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu debuted at Cannes earlier this year, winning Mungiu the prizes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress, the latter shared by Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.
The Norwegian drama “Oslo, August 31st,” by director Joachim Trier, premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, devoted to cutting edge film practice.
Other BIFF films that will appeal to those bored with Beirut’s blockbuster-dominated multiplex programming include Jagten (The Hunt) by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and South Korean director Hur Jin-ho’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ multiply-filmed 18th-century novel “Dangerous Liaisons.”
The MENA region’s presence in BIFF’s International Panorama includes three features – “Sea Shadow,” the second feature of Emirati writer-director Nawaf al-Janahi, and a pair of non-Egyptian fictions about Egypt’s Jan. 25 Revolution: “Uprising,” by U.S. director Fredrik Stanton, and “I Resilienti” (The Resilient Ones) by Italian director Francesco Casolo.
If BIFF 2012 has an ad hoc, somewhat patchwork quality that seems to contrast with the sophistication of the city’s cultural production, and the tastes of its public, this does no doubt reflect something of the political turbulence following the Arab Spring and its impact on this country, at least as much as it does the financial and organizational constraints of a middle-ranking international film festival.
“The movie screen has always been a place of discovery and of refuge,” Naufal remarked. “I do hope you find both on our screens during the festival. I think you will.”
The Beirut International Film Festival runs from Oct. 3-11 at Planete Abraj. Tickets go for LL5,000 apiece. For information ring 01-292-192 or see www.beirutfilmfoundation.org .