World Cinema section turns eye to Lebanon

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For some, the main link between Cannes and the Lebanon is the excellent Al Charq restaurant and takeaway round the back of the Martinez. But all that could be about to change, with the festival dedicating the whole of today to Lebanese cinema as part of the World Cinema lineup.

Lebanon's film industry has not had it easy in recent decades, with the eastern Mediterranean country in the grip of 25 years of civil war until 1990 followed by a long period of reconstruction. Then much of the rebuilding was undone by last summer's bombardments by Israeli forces, in a failed bid to wipe out the militant Islamic organization Hizbollah.

"You can't dissociate cinematic production from the country where it is produced. The last two years have been very difficult, but we have maintained a certain level of output," said Aimee Boulos, president of the Lebanon Cinema Foundation, a non-profit organization set up in 2003 to stimulate development of the local industry and promote it abroad.

Lebanon produces an average of around five films a year, so its industry is currently on something of a roll, with seven projects in development, all of which are seeking partners on the Croisette to move into production.

The country is also enjoying high exposure elsewhere in the Cannes selections, with two movies in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, Nadine Labaki's "Caramel" and Danielle Arbid's "A Lost Man."

"You can see there's definitely something going on in Lebanese cinema," said Serge Sobczynski, head of the World Cinema section. Sobczynski said the inclusion of Lebanon was not an act of solidarity inspired by the devastation the country suffered last summer. "We were in touch (about a Cannes showcase) before the events of summer 2006," he said. "There are some very strong films. To some extent they are political films, but ones that deal with people and their situations rather than being overtly political," he added.

Lebanon has a stand here in Cannes market for the third year running. "Our primary objective is to show that Lebanese cinema exists. From there, we aim to open up markets, especially in the Arab world and then into Europe," said Boulos.

Four feature-length Lebanese films will be presented as part of the World Cinema line-up, "underscoring the new sociological, existential, political and identity challenges resulting from the enduring climate of war," according to the official catalogue. These include "The Last Man" directed by Ghassan Salhab, which uses vampire symbolism to weave a story about Lebanon's self-destruction, and which previously screened at the Locarno Film Festival. Another Locarno title is "A Perfect Day," a film evoking those who disappeared in the war, directed by the visual artist and filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The pair's next project, "I Can't Go Home," is part of the Cannes Atelier film funding workshop.

Also on show in Cannes is the 2001 motherhood drama "When Maryam Spoke Out" directed by Assad Fouladkar, who is seeking funding on the Croisette for his next project, the potentially controversial "Halal Sex." The line-up is completed by "Falafel," the story of a young man's efforts to lead a normal life in Beirut despite the inescapable legacy of the civil war, directed by Michel Kammoun.

The day's events also include a program of Lebanese short films, and a round table discussion involving Lebanese filmmakers about the current state of the industry in their homeland.

The day dedicated to the land of the cedar tree will culminate with a Lebanese soiree at the Plage des Palmes. "It will be an evening of Lebanese hospitality, which is generous and gay. But it will be unpretentious -- we have very limited means," said Boulos.

With a population of nearly four million, Boulos says Lebanon has adequate exhibition infrastructure with some well-equipped theaters. U.S. films dominate screens, with a smattering of French and Egyptian titles finding their way in. "There is a strong appetite for cinema, especially among the youth. There are several active cinema clubs and lots of festivals, which allow audiences to see European films."

The projects in development seeking finance in Cannes reflect the current diversity of Lebanese output. "Brahim... Tell Me Your Story," written and directed by Chadi Zeneddine, is about a young boy who discovers the mythical Arabian characters from his grandfather's storytelling living in contemporary Lebanon. Franco-German coproduction "Every Day is a Holiday," directed by Dima El-Horr, follows three women each on their way to a Lebanese prison for different reasons, and the eventful journey that brings them together. "The Remains," written and directed by Lara Saba, is a social drama about two women's quest to probe the realities of contemporary Lebanon, encompassing kidnapping, corruption and murder told from the director's own experiences growing up against the backdrop of war.

"Oum," written and directed by Olga Nakkash, is the story of a mixed Christian/Muslim couple and their efforts to adopt a child. "And the Rain Comes" directed by Bahij Hojeij is a family drama with its roots in the war, while "The Habitat," written and directed by Hagop Der-Ghougassian, is again told against the backdrop of the civil war, based around a strange building and its occupants.

"The time when Lebanese films talked directly about the war has moved on," says Boulos. "The contemporary films evoke the war, but you don't see any battles like in the films of the 1990s. The subjects are more about the problems of a society that has been at war," she says.
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