'Gate' keeper carves Mideast movie niche

LONDON — While the Middle East is too hot to handle for most producers, Humbert Balsan has carved out a lucrative niche producing films by Arab filmmakers.

His new project promises to raise more eyebrows. Premiering at Cannes, “The Gate of the Sun” (“Bab El Shams”) is a 4½-hour epic that charts the history of Palestine from 1943 to the present day.

Balsan’s films have featured subjects ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. He picked up the Silver Lion at Venice last year for “Le Cerf-Volant” by Randa Chahal Sabag, and the Jury Prize at Cannes the year before for Elia Suleiman’s Mideast allegory “Divine Intervention.”

“It happened by accident, but it’s since become something of a ritual,” he says of his forays into this frequent hotbed. “I love helping directors from the region, but it is not a political statement. I could easily produce an Israeli film tomorrow. Cinema crosses borders, and in the Middle East these borders are very delicate.”

While at Cannes, Balsan announced that distribution had been secured on “Gate” for much of the Mideast and Europe. There’s no deal yet for Israel, where the film’s depiction of the violent eviction of Palestinian villagers from their homes in 1948 is bound to stir heated debate, but Balsan, who was appointed chairman of the European Film Academy (EFA) in December, hasn’t given up hope for a release.

“Definitely” says Balsan of his aspirations for Israel. “It would be very good if it was shown in Israel.”

As an example of the emotions stirred up by films dealing with the region, “Gate’s” Cannes screening was enlivened by a heated discussion between the pic’s director, Yousry Nasrallah, and Lia Van Leer, the director of the Jerusalem Film Fest, who chided him for his portrayal of Israeli soldiers.

Balsan says, “If moments in the first part are painful, then these are counterbalanced in the second half of the film, but it is about what happened to the Palestinians. They weren’t asked to leave nicely, but the film is entirely against hate. It’s very poetic.”

One of the first initiatives Balsan proposed as chairman of EFA was the invitation to Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers to join the academy.

“There has been great enthusiasm in Israel. It’s important that they and other Mediterranean countries feel part of our community. Cinema is a tool to bring people together.”

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