BEIRUT: “This is the story of a man who lives his life in the background,” a narrator informs you in soulful Spanish tones, “but despite this, he will never be forgotten.”
The scene cuts to a corpse, seen from above, lying facedown in a muddy pond. A police procedural might open this way. The camera pans back, revealing the man to be wearing a 19th-century military uniform, nudging the story away from procedural and toward historical drama.
Abruptly, the corpse reanimates, shouts and thrashes in the water in a way weirdly reminiscent (perhaps) of that cool Bruce Campbell scene in Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II.”
The camera angle changes to show the film crew that’s shooting the facedown-corpse scene. The actor apologizes, saying he’d been spooked by a fish brushing against his face.
From its opening minutes, “Initials SG” notifies you that this is a filmmaker’s film, one that turns out to have an entertaining sense of humor.
Co-written and directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, this cleverly devised dark comedy tells the tale of Sergio Garces (Diego Peretti), the facedown corpse in the pond, and one of the titular SGs.
“Initials SG” is a filmmaker’s film not because Garces is an actor but because it flirts so engagingly with movie genres. Over its 90-odd minutes, Garcia and Attieh’s story careers among a surprising array of film types. As Garces is a gig economy laborer, the film even veers hilariously into the hallowed halls of VR porn.
Nearly all of “Initials SG” takes place during the 2014 World Cup, the year Germany humiliated its Brazilian hosts (much to the delight of Argentines), then went on to defeat Argentina in the final, 1-0.
Like many middle aged football fans, Garces feels a spiritual attachment to his team. He ritually wears the Argentine jersey under his shirt and meets his pals in the same pub to watch their matches because, as the narrator puts it, when Sergio’s squad does well, he does well.
The 2014 Mondial happens to overlap with a Buenos Aires film festival whose program includes over a dozen films in which Garces has worked as an extra (though his performances were edited out of half of them). It’s while discussing this with a pal from the festival that he meets Jane (Julianne Nicholson), an American sales agent in the mood for love.
Circumstances keep pushing Jane and Garces together, but the world weary actor remains cool, having had his fill of American women looking to hook up with a local guy while they’re in town on business.
Julia, and Garces’ attitudes toward women generally, becomes an important part of the story, one among many.
Garces has a prominent nose – dwarfing that of Serge Gainsbourg (the other titular SG), whose songs Garces covered on a Spanish-language CD titled “Initials SG.” Bicycling home after watching the German squad dismember Brazil that evening, he crashes into an opening car door, wrecking his bike and his snout.
His damaged sniffer is one of the film’s several comic motifs, which bizarrely evokes another cinema subgenre – body horror sci-fi, a-la Ridley Scott’s “Alien” films.
Though not unsympathetic, Garces is a disagreeable guy with a short fuse, which has earned him assault charges. After looking over his file the judge puts him on probation and orders him to attend anger management sessions with a psychologist – a premise that may ring some bells with movie-goers.
Our hero’s irritability is generally played as a comic asset, but it finds darker expression too. When he goes to the festival to watch a movie one evening, for instance, the woman sitting alongside asks him to please stop his distracting fiddling. Furious, he notices the offending cinephile outside the theater and decides to follow her home.
“He loved the way it felt when he followed people, like a detective or even a spy,” the narrator confides darkly. “She’d never irritate anyone again.”
Then the actor remembers he’s on probation, so the film serves off in another direction before returning to his temper.
“Initials SG” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, where it received the Nora Ephron Award (given to “a woman who embodies the spirit and vision of the legendary filmmaker and writer Nora Ephron”). The film will have its online premiere in Lebanon starting June 10, courtesy of the Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival, edition four, the yearly event Metropolis Cinema launched in partnership with Abbout Productions.
Maskoon was scheduled for November, 2019. In those pre-catastrophe days – when global pandemic hadn’t yet shuttered cinemas and the venality of the country’s political class had inspired an uprising but had yet to beggar its constituents – Metropolis still had an actual theater to which audience members could physically flock.
In lieu of all that, Maskoon has become Lebanon’s first full-fledged online film festival. Facebook users in the know will have been eyeballing the program online for a few days now. Anyone wanting to join the official June 10-16 event, free of charge, can sign up for a Spamflix account.
Maskoon four is a more varied festival. The noncompetitive program of international and Arab films will be presented alongside a competition of Lebanese short genre films, filmmaker Q&A sessions, workshops and the first edition of Maskoon Fantastic Lab – devoted to encouraging the region’s genre film production.
In addition to “Initials SG,” program highlights include several other titles that attracted global attention at recent international film festivals.
Among them is Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin,” which opened the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes 2019. Another Quinzaine veteran is Takashi Miike’s yakuza romance “First Love.”
Cannes devotees will have an opportunity to have another look at Amin Sidi-Boumedine’s art house procedural “Abou Leila,” which premiered at Cannes’ 2019 Critics’ Week.
Genre lovers will be keen to catch Mattie Do’s science fiction thriller “The Long Walk,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week.
There are several highly regarded short films in Maskoon’s program as well, including Sofia Alaoui’s “So What If the Goats Die,” which was feted at Sundance.
It’s always a pleasure to watch banned films, of course, and Maskoon will give its audience another chance to see Gaspar Noé’s ecstatic, drug-inflected dance-slash-horror film “Climax.”
In parallel to the Spamflix programming, through June 17, Beirut DC’s online platform Aflamuna is hosting a selection of Arab genre features and shorts. The titles include previous winners of the Maskoon competition and “horror” and sci-fi-inflected works by Ghassan Salhab and Larissa Sansour.
Maskoon runs June 10-16 on Spamflix. For more information on the festival program, see: https://www.beirutdc.org/maskoon. To register for a Spamflix account, see: https://spamflix.com/register.do