Damascus Fest Reflects New Era for Syria's Cinema Industry

Published November 13th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

The 2001 Damascus Film Festival was held last week under the banner Cinema Reborn,with the aim of reviving the country's film arts.  

The organizers aimed to make the event a departure from recent festivals in particular and the Syrian cinema in general.  

Perhaps the most indicative sign of change is that the earlier festival slogan of Cinema for Progress and Liberation was dropped in favor of an open international competition, and quality Hollywood productions like Memento are in the running.  

The 1999 edition of the festival, held every two years, was, according to the Daily Star, mired in complaints about the quality of films offered, organizational sluggishness, and the general decline in state-produced films in Syria. 

In Syria, the National Film Organization has been responsible for importing films, producing them, and organizing the festival. But new NFO head Mohammed Al Ahmed is confident all three areas will benefit from a much-needed rejuvenation.  

Ahmed was appointed in September 2000 to take over the NFO from Marwan Haddad, who was criticized for overseeing a slowdown of cinematic production and allowing the festival to decline. 

Ahmed told the daily that over the last two decades, the NFO's average annual cinematic production hovered around one film, and sometimes less. "In the last three years, there wasn't a single Syrian film produced," he said.  

When Ahmed took over, he ordered production to begin on two projects whose scripts were ready and awaiting approval to begin production. These films, by Abdel Latif Abdel Hamid and Ghassan Shmeit, were the two Syrian entries in the 2001 feature film competition in which Abdel Hamid's won the Silver Award. 

"There was also a script by Mohammed Malas, work on which was halted پE(because) it was very personal. I saw this as a positive point, since the great films by Kurosawa, Coppola, Woody Allen and Tarkovsky are all very personal," Ahmed added. 

Also in the works are films by Waha Raheb, for her first feature work, while Syria's perhaps most intriguing director, Osama Mohammed, spent the summer shooting his second film.  

Mohammed's 1989 debut, Nujoum Al Nahar, was effectively banned from mass screenings in Syria, although it won prizes abroad and is sometimes shown on the sidelines of festivals.  

His new film, Sandouq Al Dunia, is the first joint production with France, and is being produced by the Damascus-based General Cinema Corp. and the French Abib firm, the daily Al Bayan said.  

Moreover, the NFO is working, for the first time, with the local private sector to co-produce Abdel Hamid's Two Moons and an Olive which is produced by Al Fursan Co. and the Public Institution for Cinema.  

If it weren't for joint production, we would have produced two, and not four, films," Ahmed told the Daily Star. "The other thing that I'e been lucky in is the state support. When I took over, the state allocated 80 million Syrian lira ($1.6 million) to the NFO, while the minister of culture, Maha Qannout, encouraged me to go ahead with our production plan, which reassured us." 

Ahmed said he looked to Morocco and Tunisia's strategy of resorting to joint production as a model for Syria to get the highest number of films produced under budgetary constraints.  

"The only answer is joint production, which opens hundreds of doors worldwide," he added, referring to increased marketing possibilities and festival appearances.  

Besides the feature films, another 10 or so short films have received approval for filming or have been completed, a significant jump in NFO activity.  

But the organization, affiliated with the ministry of culture, will continue to produce the kind of "serious," non-commercial films that it has long been famous for.  

"There's no culture ministry in the world that produces 'fast-food' type films," as Ahmed put it, drawing on his experience as a film critic and former NFO director of studies and planning.  

Since its 1979 debut, the festival has avoided big-name, Hollywood films in favor of productions from Latin America, Asia and the Arab World, in line with the Third World Cinema for Progress and Liberation motif.  

While Cinema Reborn appeared to refer to several local developments ­ a new government, a new NFO director general and the first festival of the 21st century, and the dropping of the Progress and Liberation title is due to changing international conditions. The results were reflected on the participation of the Syrian public in the screenings, which, according to the AFP, exceeded all expectations.  

"Asian countries, like Iran and China, have 'hidden' their best films and prefer to send them to the bigger festivals - in the Arab World, production is low and there might only be one or two very good films a year," he said.  

"As for Latin America, financial difficulties have forced them to enter into joint production with countries like France, Italy and the US," meaning the partners set tough conditions regarding participation in festivals.  

"The only answer." he continued, "is to become an international festival" - Albawaba.com 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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