A slice of Lebanese cinema for film-lovers

Published August 27th, 2012 - 12:43 GMT
Abou Jamra sieves partisan sentiment though the camera's renderings of the south Lebanon landscape.
Abou Jamra sieves partisan sentiment though the camera's renderings of the south Lebanon landscape.

Short film festivals have certain advantages for audiences. Short programs guarantee that you’ll enjoy far more variety over 90 minutes than you would during a feature film screening – unless you’re watching Davide Manuli’s Herzog tribute “The Legend of Kaspar Hauser,” say. That’s the optimistic view.

If, on the other hand, the program starts and you find yourself hating what you’re watching, you can rest assured that – after a spell of suffering guaranteed to last less than 90 minutes – the misery will end and something else will start. That’s the pessimist’s take.

The Lebanese Film Festival is only a short film festival by default, but the same advantages apply. Audiences will have an opportunity to plumb the depths of their optimism (or pessimism) Thursday evening, when LFF is reanimated after a year’s hiatus.

The festival’s first evening is nothing if not varied.

The opening night program will begin with a cine-concert, a form that’s been embraced by local events organizers for its potential to lure seemingly mutually exclusive audiences – cineastes and new music devotees.

This show will feature an unlikely combination of horn and Dada. The centerpiece is “Ghosts Before Breakfast” (aka Vormittagsspuk), the 1928 short by German artist Hans Richter.

Between the jigs and the reels – the flocks of flying bowler hats (and the hapless fellow trying to retrieve one of them), the self-rotating, turn of the (20th-) century collars, the multiply voiced clock and the comic squads of men climbing stairs in unison at various angles or else striding purposefully toward a street corner that appears to devoir them – you’ll be forgiven if you assume that Richter’s nine-minute work is surreal. It’s actually Dadaist, which any pedant will tell you was the madcap artistic movement that gave birth to Surrealism.

It seems Nazi censors didn’t approve of Richter’s original soundtrack, composed by his countryman Paul Hindemith, and destroyed it. One audience’s loss has been an ever-mutable gain for various composers and musicians, who since then have sought to fill Hindemith’s vacuum.

Thursday evening it will be the turn of 30-something Paris-based Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, whose genre-straddling virtuosity has earned him rapturous acclaim among segments of the Lebanese cognoscenti.

Once the trumpet fanfares are out of the way, the program promises three works, which, while quite distinct from one another, are all burnished with certain “Made in Lebanon” patina.

“Khalfi Shajar al-Zaytoun” (Olive Trees Behind me) is a 20-minute fiction that appears to have been the graduation project of Pascale Abou Jamra, who wrote and directed the film.

Set in a south Lebanon village near the border, in the period after the Israeli army fled its decades-long occupation of the region, the film looks in on a pivotal moment in the life of Mariam Mansour (Abou Jamra herself), a young woman who lives a modest life with her aged gran and little brother Georges.

As a gunman in the South Lebanon Army, Mariam’s father Adib collaborated with the Israeli occupation. And like many members of the SLA, particularly its officer corps, the elder Mansour thought it wise to leave Lebanon with the Israeli army, crossing into Israel.

Mariam’s voiceover describes how after their mother died, she and Georges returned to the family village to live as virtual orphans, facing subtle (sometimes less-than-subtle) discrimination because their father has been branded a traitor.

The still-raw recent history underlying Abou Jamra’s fiction is inherently political, and nuanced in a way unique to small-town identity politics in a sectarian state.

That said, the dual narrative of “Khalfi” – recollecting the family’s flight in 2000 within the discrimination experienced by Mariam and Georges since their return – relates a personal story of alienation, loneliness and yearning.

The film attempts to sieve partisan sentiment though the camera’s at times lovely renderings of the South Lebanon landscape and Abou Jamra’s luminescent features – variously credited to cinematographers Elias Daaboul and Jad Beyrouthy. For those who can see past the narrative’s necessarily parochial dialect, “Khalfi” will resonate with future promise.

Wafa’a Celine Halawi’s two-minute “We Might As Well” is a non-narrative experimental piece that reflects her recent work’s interest in applying visual effects to dance-like choreographed movement.

Set in the empty treble-arched salon of a Mandate-era (Lebanese) house, the work employs stop-motion animation and upbeat electronic music (courtesy of Munma and Deep Down – Unholy Republic) to depict a tableau of stationary dance. A woman (choreographer and principal dancer Anne Gough) appears, back to the camera, her stroboscopic movement playing out in time to the soundtrack.

Various articles of feminine clothing laid out in the adjoining room are animated and additional female forms appear to inhabit them.

They face the camera, are positioned and repositioned, augmented by other figures, appear and disappear, in time to the music.

The final work of LFF’s Thursday program speaks most explicitly to a Lebanese audience. Philippe Aractingi’s 2012 “Une Terre pour un home” is an intimate profile-cum-homage to the late Ghassan Tueni, who died earlier this year.

For many years the veteran journalist headed Lebanon’s Al-Nahar newspaper and also enjoyed a lively career as a politician and diplomat.

Tueni was also marked by the tragedy of losing many siblings at a young age, as well as his first wife, poet Nadia Tueni.

Co-written by Aractingi and Rindala al-Khoury, the 40-minute doc follows the elderly Tueni on a guided tour of his life and world view. The film is subdivided into chapters, geocentric circles around Tueni’s political philosophy – starting with “The Trees” on his property, the house, the objects within the house, the memories (featuring his long-term servant), Nadia Tueni, followed by his other immediate family members and spaces, concluding with “The Country.”

As the film gradually works its way inward, Aractingi chats with Tueni in French about his feelings toward, and memories of, these spaces and objects and those family members with whom he’s shared them.

With the filmmaker clutching Tueni by the hand as they stroll the grounds, the film conveys a sense of great wealth and privilege of the man, as well as the human fragility enclosing him.

The Lebanese Film Festival continues until Aug. 26 with an awards ceremony at 7:30 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For scheduling information see www.lff2012.org.

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