BEIRUT: In sheer numbers, Lebanon punches well above its weight in film festival terms. New events regularly emerge, each specializing in specific types of cinema or playing to niche audiences.
The latest addition to Beirut’s bouquet of film platforms is Cinema al-Fouad (literally Cinema of the Heart), which opened at the French Institute’s Theatre Montaigne Monday evening. The six-day event is designed to exhibit films by and for members of the Middle East and North Africa region’s LGBTQ community. It takes its title from that of Mohamad Soueid’s 1994 documentary about a young Syrian cross-dresser who lived as a man on the street and a woman at home.
Most of the titles in the first edition have been doubly vetted, having been selected by major European film festivals - Cannes (Semaine de la Critique and the Quinzaine), the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the Berlinale and Locarno.
Cinema al-Fouad’s several institutional backers include the Movies that Matter film festival, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality and Human Rights Watch.
Hosted by comedian and activist Lary Bou Safi, the event’s opening evening was a lighthearted affair with two items on the agenda - the projection of five fiction shorts by aspiring Lebanese filmmakers and, to start, a panel discussion to launch “Facing Myths,” the second part of HRW and AFFE’s campaign “to confront myths and raise awareness around LGBT identities in the Arabic-speaking world.”
The core of the campaign - and the touchstone for the festival’s first panel discussion - is a short video, titled “Facing Myths,” produced and directed for HRW by Amanda Bailly. “We filmed 18 activists from all across the region,” Bailly told The Daily Star before the event, “the Gulf, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, etc., and across diverse sexual and gender identities.”
Framed in pairs, activists take turns presenting one another with common misconceptions about being part of the LGBTQ community - “Being LGBT is a disease,” say, “Lesbians hate men,” or “The term LGBT is a Western import.”
The premise is astute. While not making comedy of the discrimination people can face if their lifestyle isn’t heteronormative, the drift of the conversation is to lampoon cliches, so watching the video can be an amusing and entertaining exercise.
Rasha Younes, a senior research assistant in Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program, who was involved in researching Bailly’s work and helped lead Monday evening’s panel, spoke to The Daily Star about where Cinema al-Fouad fits in Beirut’s jigsaw puzzle of film events.
“Cinema al-Fouad is providing a much-needed, urgently needed, platform where members of the queer community can share their stories,” she said by phone, “a safe space for the exchange of personal experiences and knowledge.
“It’s a platform we haven’t had in Lebanon in a long time,” she continued. “There have always been individual events, festival programs and such that addressed queer themes, but to have a dedicated event that is explicitly and unapologetically queer is immensely important.
“The festival organizers did a very good job in choosing collaborators. There are a lot of young artists working in the country who have no space to show their work in Beirut, and so who have to take it overseas for exhibition.”
In February this year, HRW lodged complaints that Lebanon’s General Security had tried to shut down NEDWA (networking, exchange, developments, wellness and achievement), a conference AFFE organized in Beirut last September, taking passport information on all the participants from the hotel registry.
Cinema al-Fouad isn’t the first Beirut film event to have been birthed at the French Embassy, but recent history makes the decision to stage it on French soil seem a particularly defiant one.
“I think that question is best answered by festival organizers,” Younes said, “but, from my perspective, we need to find a place that’s secure enough to guarantee the safety of the participants. That means doing it on French soil, but the number of safe spaces for LGBTQ events is shrinking in Beirut and we don’t want to have to take them overseas.
“That’s not to say that we don’t want to do this in public spaces - in theaters or public gardens - but this is the only space available right now.”
Released from 2015 to 2019, the five shorts selected for opening night (to be reprised Saturday evening) run the gamut from conventional narrative to more allusive works.
Lara Zeidan’s nine-minute “Three Centimetres” follows four young women as they climb onto the Ferris wheel at Beirut’s Luna Park. The object of their day out is to console Suzie, who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend Marwan. One girl suggests Suzie should imagine Marwan’s gay, a proposal that irritates her pal Manal, making the balance of the carnival ride uncomfortable.
The seven-minute “Hide and Seek,” by Mark Karam, follows a couple of young men living rough on the streets of Beirut with a video camera. Their precarious existence is sketched without dialogue, with a few seconds of eleventh-hour monologue delivering the film’s title (“Aaysh” in Arabic) like a punch line.
Malak Mroue’s 20-minute “Rupture Divine” opens upon a montage from Maya and Mona’s passionate relationship, scenes that are later juxtaposed with Maya’s experience of electroshock conversion therapy, inflicted upon her when her mother discovers her daughter is lesbian.
Shot (or at least projected) in portrait-shaped aspect ratio, Mohammed Sabbah’s six-minute “Flesh and Love” commences with a series of definitions - terms include “sex,” “addiction,” “love” and “Grindr” - that become the basis of a wistful love note from a young Arab migrant in Europe to someone he left behind.
Davina Maria’s lyrical “Lits defaits” (“Beds undone”) is a 20-minute contemplation of “love” - drawing on scenes from straight and gay relationships captured in various stages of ascent, decline and rupture - accompanied intermittently by “Dido’s Lament,” the best-known aria in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
There seems precious little in these short studies of love and intimacy to intimidate or outrage an audience, though audience tastes can be surprising.
“Cinema al-Fouad” runs through June 29 at the French Institute’s Cinema Montaigne.