Politics played into Beirut’s bummer summer, shows slowed down

Published September 1st, 2013 - 07:34 GMT
Baalbeck Festival took the worst hit of all summer festivals in Beirut
Baalbeck Festival took the worst hit of all summer festivals in Beirut

Cancellations and postponements have been a somber motif of Lebanon’s 2013 summer season. The tertiary sector regularly programs high-profile summer festivities at various locations around the country, in anticipation of holiday tourism. The festival season occasionally collides with security concerns – Israel’s July 2006 war for instance.

The country’s music festivals, largely fueled by international talent, are always most at risk from foreign invasion, terror attacks and civil unrest. In this regard, the fallout from the ongoing political ferment in the region has been somewhat more forgiving than the events of 2006. Many entertainments went ahead on schedule, with some organizers reporting resilient box office receipts.

Hardest hit has been the Baalbeck International Festival. With the event’s Heliopolis venue in such proximity to the Syrian border and a fratricidal civil conflict in which many Lebanese feel they have a stake, Baalbeck was evacuated this year to the Sadd al-Boushrieh area in Jdeideh.

With the venerable event’s final act – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Puz/zle,” a contemporary dance piece that employs the vocals of Fadia Tomb el Hage, Kazunari Abe and A Filetta – confirmed to go ahead Friday evening, Baalbeck’s original program was eroded to a meager three shows.

Now, with well-armed international actors publically debating whether to devote matériel to the Syria crisis – and with Lebanon’s collective imaginations turning to the prospects of yet another war – more festive casualties have been announced.

Solidere, the real estate company-cum-events organizer, announced Friday morning that one of its impending music events, Beirut Jazz 2013, has been postponed.

Its two days of concerts were meant to commence on Sept. 5 with a concert by Tanya Saleh at the Beirut Souks. Solidere didn’t say when the event would go ahead, but a new date will be declared at a later time.

Nonperformance cultural events are subject to security vagaries as well of course. One of the scheduled events that did not take place this August was the Lebanese Film Festival.

Launched in 2001 by Lebanese film production company Né a Beyrouth (under the name “Né a Beyrouth”), the festival devoted itself, in practice, to short works, most of them by aspiring young Lebanese artists. It ran for nine seasons, during which time it rebranded as LFF.

In 2011 organizers stepped back to rethink the concept. The event was then relaunched in 2012 as a successful four-day event run collaboratively by Né a Beyrouth and Bande à Part. This week Né a Beyrouth issued a press release confirming the obvious – that LFF had not happened this August – and announcing plans to reschedule the event for January 2014.

The announcement casts the postponement as a creation of a new event, tagged Beirut Cinema. It will combine three previously distinct events – the 11th edition of LFF, the third edition of something called Nuit des Mabrouk (a Lebanese Cinema Foundation event that pays tribute to Lebanese filmmakers) and the first Beirut Cinema Project.

The latter is a new initiative, a “platform for networking that will allow Lebanese directors to meet and defend their projects” before international sales agents, distributors and producers.

“The idea is to bring things together,” says Né a Beyrouth co-founder Pierre Sarraf. “As we’re working together with the foundation, we said, okay let’s combine these events. At the same time, let’s launch a Lebanese-scale networking project, the Beirut Cinema Project.

“On top of this, it’s very good for us to move to January from August because now we will follow [the international film festivals in] Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which became annoying for us because we lost many films there. Also for the first time [Né a Beyrouth] will have a summer.

“It’s not a total merger,” Sarraf continues. “Things are moving on their own but under one umbrella to allow us to coordinate ... which at the end will create a real cinema week in January – much more than any of these events alone.”

Sarraf says Né a Beyrouth is still looking for institutional support for Beirut Cinema Project, but that so far the French Embassy in Beirut and EuroMed have thrown their shoulders behind it.

“We’re going to differentiate this from the Dubai Film Connection [the networking wing of Dubai Film Market]. It will look much the same but it should focus more on consultations than on matchmaking. The consultations will be with producers and directors about the projects’ financial feasibility, marketing and distribution strategy, rather than bringing in a producer to pick up a project ... mainly marketing and distribution, rather than production.”

Né a Beyrouth subsidizes its film production (and exhibition) work with short-term commercial productions – mostly television ads and institutional documentaries. Sarraf says that the commercial side of the enterprise has suffered a lot over the past year, dropping by some 35 percent from last year.

“What saves us is that we’re diversified,” he says. “The people who are most nervous are the advertisers, because it’s very short-term work. Films are long-term projects and these have been relatively unaffected by the events. Now we’re thinking about how to attack 2014 if this situation continues.

“A couple of days ago we just finished a doc on [Lebanese businessman and philanthropist] Emile Bustani. We made [it] for the Emile Bustani Symposium Day [scheduled for Sept. 7].

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