Film, environment mingle in Akkar

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s autumn film festival calendar commences in Akkar this year with the first edition of REEF - Environment and Cinema Days, launching in Qobeiyat on Sept. 6.

The event had a soft launch in 2018, when its edition zero played out with an evening of shorts and a day enjoying the location’s still-unspoiled environment.

REEF’s hard launch echoes the soft but with more ambition. It mingles an afternoon and evening program of pertinent shorts and feature-length works with mornings dedicated to hikes around the region’s natural and cultural sites.

REEF’s first edition is a collaboration of several bodies - the town’s council of environment, The Cultural Salon and Beirut DC film association, in cooperation with the Tripoli Film Festival - as funded by U.N., Norwegian, Swiss, U.K. and Lebanese donors.

The festival’s artistic director, filmmaker Eliane Raheb, told The Daily Star that REEF’s screening program reflected local environmental concerns. “It comes from there,” Raheb said, “the stories and concerns of people locally and internationally.”

The event’s opening night is devoted to Lebanese shorts. A program of seven films shot in Beirut will follow “Local Stories,” a selection of shorts made after a 12-day workshop.

Workshop leader Sabine Choucair, known locally for her work with Clown Me In, told the paper how nine short films issued from an open call to local storytellers.

Choucair started the workshop with three days devoted to storytelling. “Some of these people had only watched musalsalat,” she recalled, “so I focused on how to tell their stories, finding characters or families that have something special to say about the north.

“Then [cinematographer] Joelle Abou Chabke joined us and they researched which characters to film. Roles were assigned - who’d work the sound, the camera, etc. Maybe four of the participants came either from audiovisual studies or had done wedding photography. They shot their movies over several days and Ali Dalloul joined us for editing.”

Not all the workshop participants ended up making films, Choucair noted, and the movies that were made were of different types.

“Most of them were documentaries,” she said. “A painter wrote about how oppressive Akkar can be to creative people and told the story using paintings. There were some comedies - a young woman made a three-minute short called ‘I don’t want anyone to come to Akkar’ - and another made a beautiful observational film about a fisherman.

“It was interesting because it wasn’t outsiders coming to make movies about the environment, but locals. It’s a great way to encounter Akkar, whose treasures are either unknown or badly scarred by human contact.”

Many Beirut-based filmmakers exhibiting at REEF will attend the projection, and it’s hoped the occasion will provide an opportunity for exchange between emerging talents in Beirut and Qobeiyat.

The film professionals in attendance are also expected to contribute to the conversation.

The “Local Stories” jury is comprised of “actor Julia Kassar, director-editor Simon El Habre and producer-director Cynthia Choucair,” Raheb said. “We hope the local filmmakers will come out of it with a heightened sense of cinema.

“The festival’s only prize is for ‘Local Stories.’ We asked [the filmmakers] what kind of prize they wanted. Some of them have their own cameras but they’ve discovered sound, so as a collective prize we’re awarding them professional sound equipment. UNDP supported the workshop and financed the prize.”

Given the environmental theme of some selected films, it’s no surprise that REEF’s program has a strong activist component, or that time has been allotted for post-projection discussions.

Rodrigue Zahr’s “Ink on Paper,” the opening film, is a doc concerned with quarries in north Lebanon. Another midlength doc, Laurent Sorcelle and Cecile Favier’s “The Battle of the Cedars,” recounts a local activist’s two-decade-long struggle to replant Bsharri’s Cedar reserve.

Other films are engaged with locally resonant global concerns. “More Than Honey,” Markus Imhoof’s 2012 feature-length doc, makes use of the latest filmmaking technology to illuminate colony collapse disorder, which has decimated international bee populations. A talk on local beekeeping will follow.

The entire program doesn’t hinge on environmental activism. Alison McAlpine’s 2017 nonfiction feature “Cielo” is a study of the confluence of science and spirituality, desert landscape and galaxy-filled night sky that is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The festival will also host the Lebanese premiere of Joud Said’s 2018 feature “War Travelers,” a fiction that follows a man as he joins a mass of people leaving war-torn Aleppo, intent on returning to his village, only to be stopped by fighting.

REEF’s closing film, Annemarie Jacir’s award-winning 2017 feature “Wajib” is a sometimes-comic family drama set in Nasra. It tells the story of a father who, wanting to honor local Palestinian custom, must hand-deliver his daughter’s wedding invitations, a task that requires him to get along with his newly returned ex-pat son.

Vatche Boulghourjian’s 2016 debut feature-length fiction “Rabih” relates the story of a gifted young musician, Rabih, whose efforts to apply for a passport provoke a journey across rural Lebanon in search of his birthplace, and identity, a passage made all the more complex by Rabih’s blindness.

The sole vintage film in REEF’s selection is Youssef Chahine’s 1973 feature “Biyaa Al-Khawatim” (The Ring Seller), starring Nasri Shamseddine and Fairouz. Based on a script penned by Assi and Mansour Rahbani, it tells the story of a village mukhtar (Shamseddine) who keeps his community in line with tales of Rajeh - a fiend who terrifies reckless rural folk - and how some local entrepreneurs decide to use the mukhtar’s fictions to their own advantage.

“Qobeiyat has restaurants and some accommodation for tourists,” Raheb remarked. “There are four or five chalet-style places and the Carmelite Brothers run a bed-and-breakfast. It’s a good place to take a breath and communicate.”

REEF will be held Sept. 6-9 at the Qobeiyat Social and Cultural Center and Samaha Mill. Films are subtitled in Arabic and English and admission is free. A Beirut-Qobeiyat bus leaves from around the Mohammad al-Amine Mosque, Downtown, Friday between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. For more, see:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 28, 2019, on page 12.




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