Little Film Festival That Could: Beirut Beats the Odds

The Beirut International Film Festival was cut short this year because of security concerns, but director Colette Naufal still clandestinely screened a film by a famed Iranian director shot in Israel. She talked with Al-Monitor about censorship and the effect of the Arab Spring on movie-making. Hint: she expects to see films from Syria soon.

al-monitor The Beirut International Film Festival was cut short this year because of security concerns, but still managed to pull off a few impressive feats. Photo by

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documentary film, film production, film, beirut

Oct 10, 2012

In the shadow of violence, grave and unpredictable, the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF) launched last week. But it was forced to truncate its program and welcome fewer guests than anticipated as directors pulled out, citing security concerns. Nevertheless, Colette Naufal, the festival’s founder and longstanding director, managed to clandestinely screen a controversial film by famed-Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in which he visits Israel; and launch a new segment devoted to activist movies. She talked with Al-Monitor about how the region’s film industry has changed over the last 15 years, including the effect of the Arab Spring on movie-making. Hint: after a year of virtual silence, she expects to see films coming out of Syria by next year. Read the full interview.

Al-Monitor: What are some of the changes in the Arab film industry you’ve seen since co-founding the Beirut Film Festival?

Naufal : When we started in ‘97, we focused on Lebanese cinema and that was it. We were seven years out of the war and Lebanon had not been reconstructed yet… By the third year I realized that there wasn’t enough production in Lebanon to hold a competition just for Lebanese films so we decided to go Pan Arab. 

Now, 12 years since we went Pan Arab, you have at least two feature films coming out of Lebanon every year. You have feature films coming out of Jordan, out of Iraq, out of Kurdistan Iraq — big production — the Gulf countries, all of them. You could say this region here equals the North African production, as far as art house films are concerned… The Gulf countries now have more production than Lebanon, in many cases, because in Lebanon there is no government funding, whereas Kurdistan Iraq, since the downfall of Saddam, has put a lot of money into film production.

So the region has seen a huge turnaround and this, I think, explains the fact that festivals were born all of sudden.

Al-Monitor: You issued a statement this year about the challenges that BIFF faced, including cancelations of visits and non-receipt of titles, partially because of security concerns. It was actually reported that your festival canceled its feature film competition and morphed its special jury prize into an audience award. What could you tell us…

Naufal: Oh, no, no this is not true. Some press member changed that around. We’ve always had the audience award.

Al-Monitor: Has the feature film competition persisted or has that indeed been canceled?

This year, we didn’t hold the feature film competition. We hold a competition for Middle Eastern films. I say Middle Eastern, not Arab, because we include films from Turkey and from Iran. This year, we had only six feature films, so when the situation turned around and went haywire — the airport closed for a couple of hours, kidnappings, I don’t know what — a week later we started receiving cancelations from the guests. First of all the Arabs, by the way. Some of the films, when their directors could not come, were withdrawn.  And some of these were within the Middle Eastern feature competition. So we canceled the feature film competition but have continued the documentary competition and the short film competition for the Middle East.

Al-Monitor: Censorship has figured with quite a bit of fanfare in past editions of BIFF, reportedly, with at least one title whose screening had been halted.

Naufal: We had movies that were blocked… In the case of several Iranian movies, the regime in Iran, all of a sudden its Press Department starts sending me all the press that’s coming out in Tehran, how we as a festival are against the Islamic Republic. I can’t tell you how much buzz they created around our festival.

Al-Monitor: The Gardner, a controversial film by famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf who is now living in exile in France film tells the story of his visit to Isr…

Naufal: It is about the Baha’i religion. How it was born. You see, it was born in Iran about 150 years ago.

Al-Monitor: And now its headquarters is in Isr…

Naufal: Is in Israel. I think they were thrown out of Iran at a certain stage. And then he talks about how religions, the three religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — interact and how they are basically peaceful religions. They don’t teach people who to go to school and commit suicide to kill others. And then he talks about what a peaceful religion Baha’i is. I don’t know why he based it on Baha’i, but it is a beautiful movie … beautiful.

Al-Monitor: You had problems with the Iranian government in 2010 when you tried to screen Makhmalbaf’s daughter’s documentary, Green Days, which is about the Green Movement in Iran. Seems like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film would be blocked. Did you encounter any problems this year?

Naufal: No, no, no this passed! I don’t know how this passed, to tell you the truth, but I think as they knew nothing about it — it was a very secret affair. It was only announced this weekend,… a day or two before it was screened in Korea for its world premiere. It was screened at 7 PM [Monday] in Korea. Nobody knew anything about it. You had only a sentence about it on the internet… We screened it… seven hours after its world premiere in South Korea, which is six hours ahead of us, so I think nobody had heard of this movie.

Al-Monitor: I see. And that’s how you managed to screen it.

Naufal: I think so. I imagine so.

Al-Monitor: What are your thoughts about violence in film, particularly in Arab film, especially considering the effect that violence has had on the carrying out of BIFF. Has your perspective on the imperative of art to reflect what’s going on in the world been affected by the hindrances that the festival itself has experienced because of either actual violence or the threat of violence in the vicinity?

Naufal: Let me tell you. With our selection, we have not at all been affected by the violence which we live in or that surrounds us in the region, or that we see on television everyday with the news, because we literally live in a very violent neighborhood here. Violence, in all manners: physically, mentally, everything.

Secondly, it so happens that when you live in this sort of environment a lot of the movies that you get coming out of this region — this neighborhood, I call it neighborhood — are going to portray what’s going on in their country. We, when we first came out of the Civil War, for four years, five years, all we got were movies on the war. I got to a stage, I couldn’t stand the movies anymore. You’re so saturated with [the] subject, you need something that opens up your heart —get away from all that.

At this stage, particularly after the Arab Spring, we’ve been receiving a lot on the revolutions, particularly from Egypt, much more than Tunisia. In Iraq, for example, the problems and the suffering that the Kurds went through. All over, everyone within his own country. The country we have not received much from up till now is Syria. And I presume it’s because it’s only been this year that they’ve been able to get pictures out of there. Last year, it was much more difficult. I presume by next year, we will receive a lot.

Al-Monitor: It seems you have contrasted such documentary film offerings out there to films that depict unnecessary, or empty violence, like some large commercial films, especially ones coming out of Hollywood. Yet, your festival has chosen to focus on the work of Stanly Kubrick and you’re screening two violent films of his — Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange.

Naufal: A Clockwork Orange and Lolita were banned when they came out. They were on the blacklist. When these movies came out they had to be really edited, cut down, or they would not screen here. So that’s why they’ve been screened in full in the festival.

Al-Monitor: So then the audience did get the chance to see A Clockwork Orange in all of its violent glory then?

Naufal: Yes, but that sort of violence is so different to the kind of violence that we live here.

Al-Monitor: It’s stylized.

Naufal: There’s a message to the violence in this movie. It’s different to the violence we see in the big commercial blockbusters. I can’t even see them. These movies … A Clockwork Orange … I was so impressed that the movie never went out of my mind and I saw that a long time ago. But it had something going for it, other than the violence.

Al-Monitor: How did the Human Rights Watch segment go?  How was it received?

Naufal: I was quite anxious about that section. That’s why I had agreed with Human Rights here in Beirut to start with four movies. We had to see if people were interested in these sorts of movies — activist movies actually.

There was quite an interest. For example, the film The Price of Sex filled up. It’s a very good movie. All of their movies are very well made. We only take movies that pass in other festivals, New York and London festivals. We don’t take outside of their selections. Although we have a few that could go within the Human Rights Watch section. Extremely well made movies, high quality documentaries and, you know what, the audience is interested. OK, some of them had a lesser audience. But there is a big interest and when you create a bit of hype around a movie as they did with The Price of Sex — they brought in the victim who sat behind a curtain and there was a panel, experts talking and so on. This is a section that will do well with us and we are going to continue with it and enlarge it.

Mohannad Ghawanmeh works in developmental affairs at Levantine Films, a sister company to Al-Monitor. He has produced, acted in, curated for, written about, and lectured on film history and theory. His expertise is centered on Arab cinema, but thoroughly extends into French, Italian and Japanese cinemas. He led the first edition of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Italian Film Festival in 2008 and is co-founder, leader and artistic curator of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Mohannad also blogs on world cinema under Cinema Arabiata.

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