Mideast fests press ahead as skedded

Beirut, Cairo experience cancellations, but carry on

Despite worldwide shock waves still radiating from the terrorist attacks in the U.S., two of the Mideast’s best-known film festivals intend to take place this month as planned.

The Beirut Film Festival, which has dug in roots after just three previous rounds, unspools Oct. 3-10, notwithstanding worries about the always-hot situation in Lebanon’s southernmost Bekka region on the Israeli border.

Following on its heels, the Cairo Intl. Film Festival celebrates its 25th jubilee from Oct. 9 to 20, braving the growing hostility towards Americans by fundamentalist groups in Egypt.

Both festivals are well known for their gracious hospitality toward U.S. filmmakers and industryites.

But this year, as far as guests go, “we have had a lot of cancellations since the situation blew up,” admits Beirut fest chief Colette Naufal, who organizes with president Edward Aoun. “No Americans are coming and hardly any Europeans.” However, those who are making the trip are quite determined.

“We are definitely going to Beirut to open the festival with ‘No Man’s Land,’ ” Paris-based producer Cedomir Kolar tells Variety. Director Danis Tanovic, who won the special jury prize in Cannes with the picture, feels strongly that his story — set among opposing factions during the Bosnian war — has a special relevance to Lebanon and its people.

Fest will close with Venice’s special jury prize winner, “Secret Ballot,” by Iranian helmer Babak Payami. The pic’s Italo producer, Marco Muller, has been confirmed as president of the jury that will be judging an eight-film Middle East/Arab feature competition. This new section is the pride of organizers, who hope to turn Beirut into “the festival of the region.” This year they have mustered two premieres, Ched Chenouga’s Algerian “17 Rue Bleu” and Magdi Ahmad Ali’s Egyptian “Secrets of Girls.”

Tributes & retrospective

Other sidebars at Beirut include a tribute to Syrian helmer Mohammed Malas, a retrospective of films from the Armenian diaspora and a selection of Lebanese shorts and documentaries.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, popular actor Hussein Fahmi will again preside. On behalf of the festival, a proud member of international fest group Fiapf, he recently signed “brotherhood” agreements with the Damascus Intl. Festival in Syria, Carthage in Tunisia and the Bahrain Festival for Arabic Cinema, aiming to exchange experiences and strengthen international ties.

A highlight of this year’s ambitious program, put together by Madame Soheir Abdel Kader, is a 25-year panorama of Arab cinema.

Most recent of the Egyptian titles being shown are Mohamad Khan’s “Days of Sadat” and Tarek el-Eryan’s “Snakes and Ladders.”

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie From Montmartre” is set to open fest, and US entry “Almost Famous” by Cameron Crowe is in competition.

The modern Cairo Opera House will host a film market with stands offered free to exhibitors.

Sole American on the Cairo jury is Peter Scarlet, the former director of the San Francisco Film Festival who was recently appointed director of the French Cinematheque in Paris. “Last year,” recounts Scarlet, “I saw the extraordinary Egyptian film ‘The Storm’ by Khalid Youssef. It opened my eyes to the anger felt throughout the Arab world at the situation in Palestine. It’s to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening there that I’m going back to Cairo this year.”

The impact of the tragedies in New York and Washington on Arabic films sales and screenings is still difficult to gauge. There are signs that some fests will more actively court these films. The NatFilm Festival, Denmark’s largest, is planning to include an overview of recent Arabic films and a retro of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s work in April.

“In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center,” notes fest programmer Kim Foss, “the hostility against anyone/anything Arabic has been widespread, also in Denmark. We would like to go in the opposite direction and try to expose the humanistic and tolerant side of Arabic (and Islamic) culture.”

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