BEIRUT: COVID-19 variants being what they are, event organizers have relearned an important lesson. ‘You snooze, you lose.’
So the Metropolis Association’s wasted no time getting its second post-lockdown film cycle off the ground. Opening a week or so after “To Palestine With Love” was projected in three venues in Sidon and Beirut, Metropolis’ documentary festival Ecrans du Reel promises a slate of local, regional and international films, to be exhibited at six venues in Sidon and Beirut, as well as Maaser al-Chouf, the Bekaa Valley and Hammana.
Projected through the end of July, the 21-film program includes delayed local debuts of award-winning international and local features, along with titles that emerged during lockdown and a few brand-new local shorts.
Anyone who reserved a space at Institut Français’ Cinéma Montaigne for June 22 enjoyed the second projection of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s feted 2019 feature “Talking About Trees.” It follows Ibrahim, Soliman, Manar, and Altayeb, a cadre of Sudanese cinema veterans struggling to get permission to stage a public film screening in one of Omdurman’s abandoned open-air cinemas.
In addition to introducing audiences to the relentless and amusing figures who pioneered Sudanese cinema, and the seldom discussed cultural history they made, “Talking About Trees” offers an object lesson in obstacles to cultural expression that far surpass those in this country.
Audiences hoping to be transported out of contemporary Lebanon will find several films of a different space time to the present one.
Marianne Khoury’s “Let’s Talk,” 2019, offers up an intimate family history framed within a series of conversations with her daughter. Best known as a producer of Egyptian auteur Yusuf Chahine, Khoury’s family originally hales from this part of the region.
In “Their Algeria,” 2020, Lina Soualem relates her own family history. The daughter of prominent French actors (one the son of Algerian migrants, the other the daughter of Palestinian immigrants) Soualem has devoted film projects to documenting her forebears’ relationship to place. Here she focuses on her father’s parents and their evolving attitude to Algeria, France, and one another.
Sebastien Lifshitz’s prize-winning “Adolescentes,” 2020, tells a story of contemporary France, set within the disparate experiences of two young women over five years as they literally come of age, 13-year-olds growing into 18-year-olds.
One of the things for which the Philippines is known is its export of its young women, who enter into the globalized trade in domestic labor. Sung-A Yoon’s 2019 film “Overseas” looks in on a group of young Filipino women as they prepare to face the uncertainties of the international job market.
One of the more intriguing nonfiction films to emerge during the pandemic is Kamal Aljafari’s 2020 release “An Unusual Summer,” the second in the series of features the Palestinian filmmaker has made using found footage. It mines an informal archive shot in Ramla in the summer of 2006, while Israel was bombing Lebanon, but the film has nothing to do with that conflict.
The footage was shot by a security camera the filmmaker’s father had installed above the door to the family house in Ramla, overlooking the parking lot where the elder Jafari’s car had suffered repeated acts of vandalism. Throughout that summer the camera captured any number of figures as they passed by – family members, neighbors, even a vandal or two – on VCR tape. In Aljafari’s hands, these impassive highly pixilated images become an homage to a past, one whose low-definition documentation underlines how irrecoverable the past is.
Ecrans du Reel will also show a package of five short films by local artists. Arguably, any work that’s completed in Lebanon these days threatens to be interesting. Among them is Mohamed Berro’s “What Side on Earth do I Work For,” 2021, his follow up to “To live and let live,” a solo exhibition of photos and videos referencing neoliberal culture in two locations, which debuted at Beirut Art Center in 2020. Another work that may be worth noting is Panos Aprahamian’s “This Haunting Memory (That Is Not My Own).”
Among the Lebanese features finally coming home for Ecrans is Elie Kamal’s “Beirut Terminus,” 2019, a thoughtful and engaging road trip to the remnants of Lebanon’s railroad infrastructure that mingles the documentary stories lingering there with the filmmaker’s own musings on identity and belonging.
Mira Adoumier’s mid-length work “Errans,” 2020, is also a quest-driven essay film. Here the filmmaker arrives in Lebanon in search of a man she’d met some years before, and along the way encounters a sense of alienation and exile that’s all too familiar to her. Another exploration of place in Lebanon, specifically the locality of Bzebdine, is Jad Andari’s mid-length 2019 film “Stove.”
In “We Are From There,” 2020, Wissam Tanios composes a rather different sort of road picture – following his 20-something cousins, Milad and Jamil, over five years after they leave Syria for different cities, in hope of finding better lives.
With Sarah Francis’ 2020 feature “As Above, So Below,” Ecrans du Reel veers to a more stylized representation of Lebanese landscape – not only the film’s Bekaa Valley location but the emotional landscape of those chewing over where they are in life and how they fit.
Its concerns are not unlike those of several other films in this program, but the action is abstracted, poetic. A handful of individuals occupy a wide field – standing apart from one another, wandering about as if in search of something or queuing politely to spend some time on a child’s swing set. As they perform their on-site choreography, a moon-like sphere lingers on the horizon above, and the film’s voiceover becomes preoccupied by the moon and its place in our cultural memories.
Akram Zaatari’s 2019 feature “The Landing” is also a study of landscape and performance. In this case the performance is carried out by a trio of Lebanese experimental musicians (Sharif Sehnaoui, Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissy) as they explore the acoustic possibilities of Shaabiyyat Al Ghurayfah, a public housing project built for descendants of Sharjah’s Al Kutby tribe. Erected in the early 1980s and abandoned by the mid-’90s, the settlement’s structures now protrude from the sand like a much older ruin.
Finally, the longest of the features in the festival is Mohamed Soueid’s “The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer,” 2020, which documents an 18-year-long project during which the insomniac filmmaker invited his friends to tell him stories that might allow him to get some sleep. Naturally Soueid’s Beirut is very much at the center of this narrative cycle.
Metropolis Cinema’s Ecrans du réel will be projects by Beirut’s Institut Français, Sidon’s Ishbilia Theater and Art-Hub, Beirut Art Center, Action4Hope, Al Fundok and Hammana Artist House. Tickets go for LL10,000. For more detailed projection schedule, see: https://metropoliscinema.net/eventProgram/66/16e%20Ecrans%20du%20r%C3%A9el