DAMASCUS: Under the title Damascus Embraces the World, Syria kicked off the 13th edition of its bi-annual film festival this weekend, promising to dazzle film lovers with nearly round-the-clock showings of cinema from around the world.
Festival director Mohammed al-Ahmad is proud to have nearly doubled the festival’s offerings, from approximately 230 to 450 movies, since his first time at the helm two years ago.
The 13th edition of the festival is celebrating a number of occasions in 2003: the diamond jubilee of Syrian cinema, which began with Under the Sky of Damascus (1928), and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the National Film Organization, the public sector institution that produces almost all Syrian films and runs the festival.
Festival organizers also decided to mark the international year of women in cinema by selecting an international jury for the feature film competition made up entirely of women, from Europe, Africa and the Arab world. Women in Cinema is one of the 20 or so panoramas on the sidelines of the festival, along with tributes to the cinema of India, Algeria, France, Italy, Egypt, Germany, Shakespeare-adapted films, the works of directors from the United Kingdom Italy, Greece, Armenia, Egypt and Syria, winners of Cannes’ Golden Palm, and winners of honors at other festivals.
The sheer volume of films is impressive; after the 2001 edition delighted Syria’s cinema-going public by so many offerings that organizers decided to extend the showings by an extra week. Two dozen books on various cinematic topics have been published by the NFO on the occasion of this year’s festival, both original works or translation.
Ahmad told the several thousand on hand for Saturday evening’s opening ceremony that the festival included “450 films in nearly all the living languages of the world.
“There is a place for everyone in Damascus, which today is embracing the world. Our many films speak in different languages but there is only one language in the cinema: the picture. It is, as we all know, an international language, a common language for all peoples, which is what has made it an amazing means of dialogue among people, an amazing means of dialogue, not conflict, among different cultures.
“The dialogue of cultures is what we had as a goal when we adopted the slogan ‘Damascus Embraces the World,’” he said.
But the perils of globalization and openness were emphasized by Minister of Culture Mahmoud Sayyed, who addressed the opening night ceremony.
Sayyed warned that the world is witnessing a process of globalization that seeks the domination of the strong over the weak, and blasted “imported” films for glorifying violence and presenting a “distorted” image of Arabs and Muslims.
Sayyed cited recent criticism by American actor Edward Norton a star in the slick crime drama Confidence, the American entry in the festival’s official competition about Hollywood’s lack of respect for human values, and mentioned the work done by Jack Shaheen, who has documented anti-Arab stereotypes in film.
Although some in the audience appeared to become restless when the minister continued to criticize the “dark side” of globalization and violent movies, there was applause when he discussed the need to provide more positive portrayals of women.
After the dignitaries and more than half of the audience filed out at the intermission of the opening night ceremony, several hundred people did stay on to see the first-time showing in the Arab world of The Return, which took the top honors at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.
The stark tale of the return of a wayward father to his two young sons, by Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev, was warmly received by those who stayed on, who might have been seeing globalization at its best the detailing of people’s lives that are distant from yours, but with whom you might share something that you didn’t even know.