Lebanon battles to raise film profile


CANNES -- For some, the main link between Cannes and Lebanon is the excellent Al Charq restaurant and takeout place 'round the back of the Martinez. But all that could be about to change, with the festival dedicating Monday 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 and then 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 Hezbollah.

"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," says Aimee Boulos, president of the Lebanon Cinema Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up in 2003 to stimulate development of the local industry and promote it abroad.

With a population of nearly 4 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.

Lebanon produces about five films a year, so its industry is 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 Cannes, 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," says 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 says. "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 at the 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," Boulos says.

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 catalog. These include Ghassan Salhab-directed "The Last Man," which uses vampire symbolism to weave a story about Lebanon's self-destruction and which 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 artists 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 lineup 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. It's 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 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," Boulos says.