BEIRUT: “Some days I’m optimistic. Other days I’m very pessimistic,” Abbout Productions’ Myriam Sassine mused from the midst of Lebanon’s COVID-19 lockdown. “It’s gone on very long and there are limits to what we can do while working from home. We need to shoot. We need to do our postproduction. We need to launch our films and distribute them. We now have time to develop, but at one point we will need to go out.”
Abbout is perhaps the busiest film production company in Lebanon. When general mobilization was decreed in mid March, it had four features in postproduction, and was planning to start shooting another in September. In February, Sassine and Abbout founder Georges Choucair participated in Berlinale Series, the Berlin International Film Festival’s new television platform, representing “The King’s Wives,” Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s new collaboration with Amira Diab.
Lebanon isn’t a cinematic superpower. The country doesn’t have a proper film industry (most Arab countries don’t, aside from Egypt, possibly Morocco) and there’s next to no public sector support for cinema, but its filmmakers have punched above their weight internationally.
When COVID-19 descended and the global economy shuttered, the country’s film producers were already reeling from domestic financial meltdown, ensuring the disruption of film development, production, postproduction and distribution.
The most important instrument for the international exposure of Lebanon’s cinema has been film festivals – providing ecosystems for art house films and launch platforms for more commercial movies. When festivals started canceling or socially distancing online, it derailed rollout plans for several Lebanese-produced titles.
As calls of “thawra” were arising from Lebanon’s streets in late November, Elie Kamel’s debut feature “Beirut Terminus” premiered at the Cairo International Film Festival, where it won the best nonfiction feature prize in the Arab Cinema competition.
The film was later projected in Sudan and Tunisia (online). A competition screening in Jordan was cancelled along with its hosting event. The film’s Lebanon premiere has yet to happen.
“There was a discussion between the Tripoli Film Festival and Metropolis’ Ecrans du Reel” documentary festival, recalled The Attic Productions’ Jana Wehbe, “but with the coronavirus outbreak I suspect Tripoli won’t happen. There’s no news yet about Ecrans du Reel.”
Producers intending to premiere titles at Europe’s spring and summer festivals languished in uncertainty like the rest of the industry. Among them is Sabine Sidawi’s Orjouane Productions, which is among a cluster of co-producers backing “Notturno” (Nocturne), the new documentary of Oscar-nominated Gianfranco Rosi.
Before the Venice film festival announced it would go ahead in September, Sidawi expressed frustration at not being able to confirm the premiere of a well-regarded director’s anticipated film. Producers hesitated to finalize the production year, fearing that, if festivals sat out 2020, “Notturno” might whither on the vine.
“This is a big problem,” she said. “Are those films finished in 2019 going to grow old, even if they didn’t see the light in 2020?”
Abbout’s “Memory Box,” Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s new feature, had been destined for Cannes before that festival was canceled. (It has since announced the titles it will escort to French cinemas while freeing others to premiere elsewhere.)
“‘Memory Box’ is our biggest project to date,” Sassine said, “a coproduction with Canada and France, starring Manal Issa [“Parisienne,” “One of These Days”], among others. The film is ambitious, blending Joana and Khalil’s work as contemporary artists with their filmmaking. Since Cannes was canceled, we don’t have a clear vision of how we’ll proceed [but] the film has an experienced international sales agent in Playtime.
“We believe this film is strong and will resist the test of time,” she continued, “so even if we wait a few months or a year to launch, it will find its audience. We feel it needs a true audience with true film reviews and a proper life and not just an online premiere.”
These days Lebanon’s producers are struggling with stasis, as the domestic economy deteriorates and the world creeps from lockdown. The country’s season of crisis had a very cinematic start, however, when the civil disobedience campaign against the political class exploded on streets in mid-October.
In October 2019, The Attic was in the Chouf, preparing to shoot “The Maiden’s Pond,” the debut feature of Bassem Breish (“Shankaboot,” “Undocumented: Bidun Kaid”).
“Lebanon was burning,” Wehbe recalled. “Fires all over the country. We started shooting on 15 October. On 17 October the revolution started.
“The team and the actors wanted to join the demonstrators and on off-days they would demonstrate in Beirut. Then things escalated and it was really hard to keep everyone’s minds on the job rather than on their phones and the street with their friends.
“The Maiden’s Pond” was shot in two phases – 15 days during the revolution and 15 days in January. In the midst of the shoot, Lebanon’s commercial banks imposed capital controls, restricting withdrawals from US dollar accounts, like the one The Attic had been using to pay for its production.
Wehbe said the village shoot required more cash than one in Beirut, where people are more likely to have bank accounts and businesses are willing to accept checks and debit cards.
“Then they put limits on wire transfers,” she said. “I couldn’t pay people by check or credit card, and I couldn’t withdraw cash. I found myself unlocking a private account and resourcing cash from friends and from the company to carry on with the second half of the shoot.
“It has been the most terrifying experience. You have so much responsibility to a lot of people without knowing how you’re going to pay them or how to access your funds. I started thinking of opening bank accounts outside Lebanon.”
Breish wrapped the shoot on Jan. 26, 2020. Curfews accompanying the COVID-19 lockdown have complicated postproduction – the editing suite had to be moved to the editor’s house.
Preliminary contacts with sales agents and festivals have been disrupted, she said, because various industry labs were cancelled. Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubator, was forced to cancel most of its 2020 program, but successfully retooled as an online event. Wehbe said the project got good feedback and still hopes to premiere “The Maiden’s Pond” in 2021.
For some, the thawra was a cinematic opportunity. By early December, Orjouane and veteran filmmaker Mai Masri decided to shoot a documentary on the thawra, specifically several of its female activists.
“They are themselves a revolution in their personalities,” Sidawi said, and “the thawra was an expression of their characters.
“The documentary was in production when COVID-19 happened. We had to stop the shoot because our characters where dispersed – some outside, and some in Lebanon – so we decided to edit until the crisis ended.”
Orjouane was also doing line production for “Kishash al-Hamam,” a doc scheduled to start shooting March 15, the day the government declared a state of general mobilization. The small crew agreed it was best to postpone.
Marcelo Gomes’ new feature centring on Lebanese characters in Brazil, “Tales of a Certain Orient,” which Orjouane is coproducing, was more stressful.
Starting in March, the shoot was halted three days in by the pandemic, leaving three Lebanese cast members stranded. One actor finally returned to Lebanon in May.
In early 2020 Abbout started shooting “Harvest,” a Lebanese-French-Belgian coproduction written and helmed by Ely Dagher, who won Cannes’ short film Palme d’Or in 2015. The shoot began in January and wrapped in February, as Lebanon’s first COVID-19 cases were announced.
“We took a risk shooting this film in the middle of a financial crisis,” Sassine recalled. “It was complicated, and we were lucky to wrap before the general mobilization.”
Dagher has spent the lockdown editing, she said, waiting for Europe to re-open so he could meet with this French editor.
Abbout also has two features that, thanks to the pandemic, commenced postproduction from a distance – Nadim Mishlawi’s “After the End of the World” and Corine Shawi’s “The Passion According to Andrew.” As they’re both docs, Sassine says, they’re able to weather “a lighter production and post-production structure.”
These days, The Attic is working on “The Day Vladimir Died,” an animated short by Lebanon’s Fadi Syriani, and developing the feature film debut of Pascale Abou Jamra.
Helmed by French director David Oelhoffen, Orjouane’s’s next feature, “Le quatrième mur” (The Fourth Wall), was meant to start shooting in Lebanon in July.
“We were trying to find solutions for money transfers through banks, how to pay the crew in cash, the possibility of withdrawing money ... the normal banking needed to make a film,” Sidawi recalled. “It was very hectic, then the pandemic [descended] and the film was postponed until perhaps early 2021.”
Abbout’s next project is “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” the debut feature of Mounia Akl, scheduled to start in September.
“Making this happen is our greatest challenge now,” Sassine said. “The problems come from both the pandemic and the financial crisis, not being able to have a proper cash-flow for our productions. We raised a lot of capital internationally but it’s really hard to access this money in Lebanon. Our budgets are small and our films ambitious, so we really can’t afford any haircuts the banks might do to transfers.
“We’re working on the project as if it’s gonna be shot in September. We really need to have this target.”
Aside from money, cinema requires an optimistic temperament, especially in Lebanon. These days, circumstances are trying the patience of even the most stalwart optimists.
“Every day is a surprise in Lebanon,” Wehbe said. “As a producer, the stress and responsibility, the burden you have to take on in an unstable situation with an uncertain future, in a country that has no strategy, no plan – it’s very hard. Fighting for cinema in Lebanon gets harder every day.”
“The cancellation of so many film festivals [is] a big blow,” Sidawi reflected. “Orjouane’s films are conceived, filmed and edited to be seen on the big screen ... You will not fully appreciate them on a phone or a laptop.
“Now we need to re-think the films we make. Commercial movies will continue as normal. You can enjoy them on a big screen or a small screen. Art house movies are meant to [be] another experience that is, for the moment, lost.”
“I think the repercussions of the financial and economic crisis will be far worse than those of the pandemic,” Sassine said. “The world will always need storytelling and storytellers but I’m not sure which films will be able to adapt. I want to feel optimistic but, to be honest,” she laughs, “the state of the world right now makes it very hard.
“We need to adapt our projects to the new financial reality, to write stories keeping the budget in mind. We will definitely need to make films and projects that can access the widest possible audience. I think niche art house films won’t be able to survive as easily as before.
“Streamers will need accessible and popular content ... This is not the time for art for art’s sake. We need to focus on making films that can really have an impact on society, or on contemporary matters like the environmental crisis and corruption. I think such films are essential right now. They will find financing and an audience.”