“I’m astonished,” says Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab. “Tripoli [had] 20 cinemas before the [Civil] War ... Now there is only one [a multiplex with five screens], so people go less. Yet when I called the [theater manager,] he said, ‘I have 700 or 800 people coming per day.’
“We said to ourselves, ‘Why shouldn’t Tripoli radiate her lights over the whole country?”
There is no shortage of film festivals in Lebanon. Between the Cabriolet, Outbox and European Film Festivals, Docudays, the Lebanese Film Festival, Ayam Beirut Cinemaiyya, and the quixotic Beirut International Film Festival , residents in the capital are spoilt for choice.
The city’s film lovers are about to become more spoiled still, thanks to Tripoli – the seat of Lebanon’s newest international film festival.
The Tripoli International Film Festival has its hard opening Thursday evening at three separate venues – the Safadi Cultural Center and City Complex multiplex in Tripoli, and Metropolis Cinema-Sofil in Beirut. The official opening-night film is the award-winning 2012 feature “The Patience Stone,” by Afghani novelist-cum-filmmaker Atiq Rahimi.
Rahimi is among the handful of international filmmakers who will be on hand for his Beirut projection. Turkish writer-director Emin Alper is also scheduled to attend with his award-winning debut feature “Beyond the Hill,” as is Clarisse Hahn, director of the 2010 documentary “Kurdish Lover.”
The festival’s artistic director, Saab says she was approached to assume this role about nine months ago but that the Cultural Resistance Association – the festival’s six person-strong institutional base – is older.
“Since two years we were thinking of making the Cultural Resistance Association ... poets, writers, filmmakers, choreographers,” she says.
“I contacted them and said, ‘OK, shall our first action be the festival?’ We said, ‘Walla, it’s a necessity.’
We wanted things ... to awaken the spirit of something cultural, to get out of this war-time thinking, where you don’t know how to talk to each other at all levels. Suddenly we had to do everything: to find finance, to convince people, to be credible.”
It was partly for financial reasons that the CRA approached Beirut Arab University, USEK, the Lebanese University, Notre Dame University and Universite St. Joseph about providing screening venues and about 10 percent of the festival budget.
Saab says local patrons and supporters secured her the rest.
“We did this for [Tripoli],” she continues, “but we were afraid that the city would have problems and they couldn’t do it, so we said let’s [have projections] in Beirut at the same time.’”
There were pre-Civil War efforts to represent Tripoli as the northern capital of Lebanon – with a distinct cultural identity symbolized, albeit tentatively, in Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist architectural design for the Tripoli International Fairground.
More recently the city has come to be seen as impoverished and violent, deeply divided along class, religious and sectarian lines. So there appears to be something political in the decision to create this festival.
“I think that culturally Tripoli is much more authentic than Beirut,” Saab says. “It doesn’t need to prove to people [that] it has a history. Now it is going to pieces. That’s what convinced us to do [the festival], because for me Lebanon is one piece.
“I have a national and regional, even continental view of the city. Through Tripoli, I decided to put Lebanon [within] Asia. We are an Asian and Mediterranean country.”
This desire to locate Tripoli and Lebanon a little differently helps to explain the festival program’s eclectic film selection.
It includes many critically lauded and award-winning films – from Tawfiq Saleh’s “The Dupes” (1973) to Rania Atieh and Daniel Garcia’s “Tayyib Khalas Yalla,” (2010). There are also surprises, like “Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre resolution,” Philippe Grandrieux’s 2011 documentary homage to Japanese political and cinematic radical Masao Adachi.
Equally unexpected are several award-winning documentary and feature films from South and Southeast Asia – a region toward which Lebanese audiences are believed to be utterly indifferent.
“We brought films from Asia and we are in Asia,” Saab says.
“We’re looking to the Other, just to think about ourselves. They’re like mirrors to us. This is how I chose the films,” she continues. “I didn’t want to make [just] one more festival. I wanted this festival to have meaning. It’s a very difficult city: I didn’t choose the easiest.
“Tripoli is suffering and it symbolizes what’s going on in the region. It’s related to Lebanon and it’s related to the region. In the past we used to say Tripoli [was part of] Bilad al-Sham. It was only the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1920 [that defined it as part of Lebanon] and now what’s happening? It’s a new drawing of frontiers, so this city says a lot.
“The city also has a lot of problems with rich and poor and I think the elite is very much responsible for the poverty. So all this made me accept to make this festival and to stay true to myself and to my way of thinking,” she says.
“There was once a time called the Nahda, [the so-called Arab Renaissance]. I think we desperately need another one.
“The youth need it ... It’s time to get back to the power of the youth.”
Another facet of the activist agenda embedded in this Tripoli film festival is its focus on women. Among the films by Arab filmmakers, Susan Youssef’s “Habibi Rassak Kharban” and Layla al-Bayaty’s “Berlin Telegram” will have their Beirut premieres, while docs like Carol Mansour’s “Not Who We Are” and Parine Jaddo’s “Broken Record” will be revived.
“Do you think that women have their rights in this country?” Saab says. “It’s an appearance. It’s even more dangerous than the countries where they’re covered from head to toe.
“Here we have appearance. They can go in bikinis to the beach, but there are lots of rights that are not respected that are very important ... I am a woman who doesn’t have all her rights in her own country, but I don’t want to talk about myself, so I work for the others and for all of us.
“Focusing on women was a way to give them their place.”
The Tripoli International Film Festival opens Thursday evening with projections at Tripoli’s Safadi Cultural Center and City Complex multiplex, and at Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, where filmmaker Atiq Rahimi will be on hand for the screening of his 2012 feature “The Patience Stone.”