Beirut Holds Art Film Fest Against All Odds in The Bruised Lebanese Capital

Images of a woman walking through apocalyptic scenes of devastated buildings and deserted streets littered with rubble and charred twisted metal filled the screen at Beirut’s Theatre Monot.

The movie, “Une ville et une femme” (A city and a woman) by Lebanese director Nicolas Khoury is featured among 20 international films screened at the 6th edition of the Beirut Art Film Festival (BAFF), which is being held against all odds in the bruised Lebanese capital from December 3-9.

The scenes were shot recently in the wake of the seismic Beirut port explosion on August 4. The script, however, was taken from a letter that American-Syrian poet Etel Adnan wrote almost three decades earlier in 1992 after the civil war, but which still applies today.

“It was the biggest challenge ever to organise such an event under the current circumstances,” said BAFF organiser Alice Mogabgab.

“However, in this ultimate attempt at survival, BAFF wanted to share with the Lebanese people their pain and the degradation of their daily lives; to participate in the expression of their humanity, their resilience and their attachment to life in the face of the terrible calamities that have torn our existence.”

“Producing this VIth edition of BAFF, in the middle of the rubble of Beirut, in the heart of its August 4 disaster’s most affected neighborhoods, is not only a tour de force, but the affirmation of our hope for a better future,” Mogabgab said.

The week-long festival was organised despite the country’s unprecedented economic hardships compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The strong support of sponsors, including the embassies of the US, Spain, Belgium, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura and the Goethe Institut was fundamental.

“This shows that cultural exchange with Lebanon is important and that they all continue to believe in our country, and in the ability of the Lebanese to recover and emerge from the abyss,” Mogabgab said.

While Lebanon is locked down in its misery and tragedies, the festival is meant to open up to the universal through art and cinema.

“Here we are, despite the vagaries of the Covid-19 (pandemic) and its confinement, despite the gloom and distress surrounding the land, back with a new edition of BAFF to express a message of love, compassion and humanity,” Mogabgab said.

“The festival is also meant to bring people back together and to help

Lebanon in its renaissance and rebirth. That is our message. It is our faith in life and the regeneration of Lebanese society and revival of friendship and love between people,” she added.

Unlike previous editions, the films will not be screened in schools and cultural centres due to the pandemic. Shows will be limited to the Theatre Mono at half capacity.

The opening movie, “Beethoven’s Ninth: Symphony for the World” by Austrian cinematographer Christian Berger marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven and gives a close look back on one of the composer’s many masterpieces, “Ode to Joy.”

“We started with Beethoven’s 9th symphony because it is a rhyme of joy that accompanied big revolutions and calamities such as the Tiananmen Square protest in China, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the aftermath of Japan’s Tsunami… This anthem has reassembled people all over the world and still inspires humanity 200 years after it was composed. It is closely related to the crisis that we are living in Lebanon today… and what we need right now is an anthem of joy,” Mogabgab said.

The festival also featured “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by British filmmaker David Bickerstaff, a documentary on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, in tribute to Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, wife of the Dutch ambassador in Lebanon who was killed in the August 4 port blast.

“On her hospital bed, before passing away, Waltmans-Molier donated her organs to two Lebanese patients. No tribute or masterpiece can honor such a lesson of love. The festival wanted to keep alive the memory of this exceptional woman and her act of love, by associating her to Vermeer’s masterpiece,” Mogabgab said.

The featured films also included “Raphael Revealed,” a World Premiere marking the 500th anniversary of the Italian Renaissance master’s death with over two hundred masterpieces, including paintings and drawings; “Images of the East,” a 27-minute documentary featuring Syrian sculptor Nizar Ali Badr, who has been capturing the story of refugees from his country using pebbles from his local beach; and “Cunningham,” a long film which follows legendary American choreographer Merce Cunningham’s artistic evolution from his early years as a struggling dancer in New York city to his emergence as one of the most visionary choreographers in the world.

BAFF is meant to bring a glimmer of hope to the embittered Lebanese in their scarred city, Magabgab said.

“We are in the midst of a terrible crisis; however, we need to remain alive and vigorous despite everything. I believe that the most urgent thing now is to bring back people together after a complete halt of social and cultural activities,” she said.

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