BEIRUT: Not everyone gets to say “I’m 25.” So 2019 marks a pleasant anniversary for Lebanese cinema lovers. For a quarter century now, the European Commission in Beirut has been promoting EU cinema hereabouts with its European Film Festival.
This edition will screen 34 more-or-less recent EU productions. When possible, programmers have drawn on award-winning and critically feted titles from past festivals, and otherwise try to showcase promising filmmakers’ freshman and sophomore works.
This year’s guest country is Switzerland, known by some as the Lebanon of Mitteleuropa.
Over the years EFF has diversified its Beirut programming and - between occasional projections of European-coproduced Lebanese features and vintage Lebanese movies, and the festival’s in-house competition for aspiring filmmakers - it’s had a hand in exhibiting Lebanese and Arab-language films that don’t make the cut at local multiplexes.
This year, EFF has partnered with Cinematheque Beirut to project three Lebanese-European co-productions - Ghassan Salhab’s “Beyrouth Fantome,” 1998, Jocelyne Saab’s “Kanya Ya Ma Kan, Beyrouth” (Once Upon a Time in Beirut) 1995, and Layla Assaf-Tengroth’s “Frihetsligan” (The Freedom Gang), 1994.
Other events at this edition draw upon works by some giants of European film history.
To mark the passing of Bernardo Bertolucci last year, EFF will project the Italian auteur’s seldom projected 2012 feature “Io e te” (Me and You).
Jean-Luc Godard, one of the few pioneers of the French New Wave who’s still alive, productive and provocative, also has a seat at EFF’s anniversary table. His 2018 feature “Le livre d’image” (The Image Book) will be projected, while the talk “Bienvenue au Langage” will see the film’s producers Fabrice Aragno and Mitra Farahani discuss Godard’s work and career.
Another French cinema pioneer, Jean Cocteau, will be differently honored at EFF. His 1930 film “Le Sang d’un Poete” will be projected in a cine-concert, accompanied by the Lebanese electro-acoustic duo Two or The Dragon (Abed Kobeissy and Ali Hout).
Most successful when pairing silent film with live performance of contemporary music, cine-concerts like this have become a regular feature at EFF. This stretching of film exhibition has successfully broadened EFF’s audience base.
The desire to expand the festival’s audience is also reflected in efforts to program titles appropriate for younger audiences. This year EFF will project four family-friendly films and organizers say they’re making an effort to get kids from poor families to attend.
In recent years the festival has sought audiences beyond its Beirut base at Metropolis cinema, partnering with the Institut Francais to tour select titles around towns with IF offices. The roadshow will hit Saida (Feb. 1-3), Nabatieh (Feb. 4), Tyre (Feb. 5), Jounieh (Feb. 4-8), Tripoli (Feb. 7-9), Zgharta (Feb. 8), Deir al-Qamar (Feb. 11-15), Zahle (Feb. 18-19) and Baalbeck (Feb. 20).
EFF will fly the colors in Jisr al-Wati too. On Jan. 31, Station Beirut will host an evening-long expo of works by eight Lebanese illustrators - Tracy Chahwan, Ghadi Ghosn, Carla Habib, Nour Hifaoui, Joseph Kai, Karen Keyrouz, Mohammad Kraytem and Raphaelle Macaron - commissioned to draw posters inspired by feted European films.
The meat and potatoes of a film festival is the core selection. This year’s program includes several titles embraced by critics and audiences worldwide, as well as recent work by celebrated filmmakers and reliable veterans.
Among the veterans here, few are more respected than Michael Haneke. EFF will project the Austrian auteur’s latest existentialist family drama, “Happy End,” from 2017.
For those craving an evening of Gallic science fiction, they could do worse than “High Life,” 2018. Claire Denis’ critically-lauded cross-genre leap into sci-fi and body horror revisits the tropes of outer space prisons and Robert Pattinson, medical experiments and Juliette Binoche.
Anyone with fond memories of Bille August’s Palme d’Or-, Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning “Pelle the Conqueror” may want to see his 2018 period drama “A Fortunate Man,” since elongated for television.
EFF is projecting a pair of award-winning, critically admired Italian character studies from 2018. Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher (“The Wonders”) “Happy as Lazzaro,” is the fabulist tale of the friendship between a young nobleman and an innocent commoner.
Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman” returns to the mundane peculiarities of Italian crime and punishment (remember “Gomorrah”?). Here, the film is more poetic (and comic) than the “true story” inspiring it.
A few years after his debut with the caustic Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” Laszlo Nemes returns with “Sunset.” A historical drama set in the months before the start of World War I, the film plays with the detective story genre as a young woman returns to Budapest and finds herself chasing after her family history.
If EFF has a must-see, it’s Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” whose prizes include Cannes’ Best Director prize and a nomination for Best Picture Oscar. Set in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, the film is a love story between two perfectly mismatched musicians.
If EFF’s screening schedule doesn’t suit you, Metropolis will host a limited release for “Cold War” in the following weeks.
The European Film Festival runs Jan. 24 to Feb. 4 at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more, see https://www.metropoliscinema.net.