Starting today, film industry elite from all over the world will gather in the south of France for the Cannes film festival. Among the crowds will be a delegation from Lebanon including representatives from Fondation Liban Cinema and the Lebanese Tourism Office in Paris, a small team out to educate festival goers on the history of Lebanese cinema and promote contemporary Lebanese films.
Zeina Toutounji, a publicist and translator who’s been representing Lebanon at Cannes since the ‘Lebanese Pavilion’ first opened nine years ago, says when it comes to Lebanese cinema, most people at the festival have a base of knowledge. “If you talk to people who only go to see blockbusters, of course they may know very little about Lebanese cinema,” she says, “but for people who love cinema, they know there is cinema in Lebanon.”
This awareness is thanks in part to the strong history of Lebanese film at the festival. The first film from Lebanon screened at Cannes was Georges Nasser’s “Where To?” in 1957. The film, made before the 1975–1990 civil war that now dominates most Lebanese cinema, tells the story of emigration and sacrifice in the name of family.
Later, Maroun Baghdadi, considered a pioneer of new Lebanese cinema, screened “Little Wars” at Cannes in 1982 and in 1991 his film “Out of Life” won the Jury Prize.
More recently, Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now” premiered at Cannes in 2007 and 2011, respectively.
But despite these critical achievements, Lebanese film as an industry lacked an official presence at the festival until recently. That’s what Serge Akl, the head of the Lebanese Tourism Office in Paris, hoped to change with the Lebanese Pavilion. He wanted to create a space for filmmakers to talk about the business of making movies in Lebanon, as well as the artistic process.
“What we lack are big production facilities [in Lebanon],” says Akl. He says Lebanese businessmen don’t think of movies as a business, so young directors lack an infrastructure to help them through the movie making process. Most Lebanese directors write their own screenplays and Lebanese producers are often left to search abroad for backing to get movies made and distributed.
While there are no Lebanese films in the official competition at Cannes this year, the Lebanese Pavilion is organizing two screenings. “Stable Unstable,” the feature film debut from Lebanese writer-director Mahmoud Hojeij, will be showing. The film, set in a Beirut psychiatrist’s office on New Year’s Eve, is a collection of vignettes from an ensemble cast. While the country’s civil war is never expressly mentioned in the film, the characters’ struggles address the war’s lingering effects on Lebanon. Each patient, trying to make sense of the past year, is searching for stability in unstable surroundings: battered social fabric, shaky politics and economic uncertainty.
“Birds of September”, a documentary from director, screenwriter and producer Sarah Francis is also showing. The movie, filmed from a glass van roaming the streets of Beirut, is a collection of confessions and snippets of daily life in the Lebanese capital. The film depicts the city’s visible scars: long slow shots of street corners that show signs of rebuilding and neglect, buildings still riddled with old bullet holes. These images serve as backdrops for Beirutis from all different walks of life to tell tales of economic hardship, love and loss, as well as share idle chit chat, making passing references to the war.
Toutounji, the publicist at Cannes, says that for her, Lebanese Cinema is unique because of its voice. “All movies are telling stories; for us it’s the war,” she says. “In Lebanon, cinema is doing what the government hasn’t … it’s addressing issues of our collective memory.”