Media try to survive the hot zone

While the recent fighting in Lebanon won’t derail Hollywood production — films had been avoiding the region for several years — local media are finding themselves in the direct line of fire.

Three years ago, when the Iraq war started, the U.S. studios started canceling plans to film in Morocco and Tunisia, which, though attractive and far from the conflict, made folks nervous about lensing in Muslim countries. Many execs even nixed plans to film in southern Europe.

Hollywood is continuing to avoid hot spots like Lebanon and Israel but so far is going ahead with plans in North Africa. Universal may still use Morocco for its Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts project “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about CIA support of Afghanistan freedom fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s, with production set to get under way in the fall under helmer Mike Nichols.

Morocco and Tunisia have hosted a number of high-profile recent projects, including the Brad Pitt starrer “Babel” and last year’s “Syriana” and “Sahara.” And Dubai’s imminent Studio City is proving a one-stop shop for shingles from development through all stages of production.

Closer to the war zone, local filmmakers continue to work, and the indie “The Little Traitor,” starring Alfred Molina, wrapped last week in Israel.

But while the major studios’ slates feature several projects reflecting recent events in the Mideast, for the most part they are being produced far from the troubled region. Indeed, “The Kingdom” — which stars Jaime Foxx and Chris Cooper as counterterrorism agents sent to investigate a bombing attack against Americans in a hostile Arab nation — is lensing primarily in Arizona.

Before the storm

Even before the most recent flare-up between Israel and Lebanon, production in the region came with its own set of complications.

Less than two months before Israel began its current Lebanese campaign, Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar was shooting “Beaufort,” which tells the story of the last troops posted in Lebanon before Israel pulled out its forces in 2000.

Cedar had considered shooting on the actual site of the Beaufort hill in Lebanon, but security concerns led them to select another hill, just a few miles away in Israel.

Because the production called for battle reenactments, Cedar said U.N. officials were notified lest Hezbollah observation posts mistake the film set for an Israeli military build-up.

“It’s a delicate area,” Cedar said Tuesday from Tel Aviv. “Any change in the status quo can possibly trigger a war, so building a fort on a mountain is a huge change in the status quo. If they know it’s a movie set, that helps.”

Still, Cedar remains a booster for Israeli film. “There used to be many Hollywood productions in Israel, and it really fueled the industry. But in the last 10 years or so, it’s rare, even though Tel Aviv life continues no matter what — right now there’s helicopters flying over my head, but aside from that, you don’t feel the war despite it being 30 minutes away.”

Only last week, production wrapped in Israel on “The Little Traitor,” a film starring Molina and helmed by Lynn Roth. Adaptation of the Amos Oz novel follows the friendship between a British soldier and an 11-year-old Israeli militant fighting against the occupation in 1947.

Most of the pic was shot in Jaffa, outside Tel Aviv, but some locations nearer the Lebanese border were used. “There were many hair-raising moments, and many of the cast and crew are in the army reserves,” said Joan Hyler, Molina’s manager. “So the finishing of the movie and the professionalism up and down the line was a great indication of the best of artistic commitment in this kind of extreme situation.”

Local problems

Meanwhile, the local media in Lebanon are trying to stay on the air from within a war zone.

The last few days have seen a rise in Israel’s attacks on Lebanon’s media infrastructure. While Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV has been a target for Israeli air strikes from the beginning of the bombardment of Lebanon, Saturday saw transmitters for popular Lebanese satcasters LBC and Future TV also knocked out.

Sleiman Chidia, an LBC technician, was killed when installations in Satka, in East Beirut, were attacked. The strikes saw broadcasts of LBC and Future TV blacked out in some areas of the country, although they can still be viewed by Lebanese auds via satellite feed.

“We had three of our main transmitters hit. One was totaled, and the other two are beyond repair for now,” LBC chief exec Pierre Daher told Daily Variety from Beirut.

One of the most popular Arab satcasters in the region with its blend of chat shows, gameshows and musicvideos, LBC has given its sked over entirely to coverage of the situation. “It’s 24-hour news,” added Daher.

Al-Manar has also confounded its critics by staying on the air despite the devastation of its HQ early on in Israel’s military campaign. How the satcaster — banned by France and Australia and deemed a terrorist entity by the U.S. government — has maintained its broadcasts has led to much speculation in the country and beyond.

Some have alleged it is transmitting out of the basement of the Iranian embassy in Beirut, or even neighboring Syria; Al-Manar execs deny both charges. Another possibility is the channel could be transmitting from mobile vans driving around the country.

Arab journalists covering the hostilities from the other side of the border have also accused Israeli authorities of deliberately targeting them. Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, Walid Al-Omary, was detained last week by Israeli authorities for questioning before being released hours later.

It was the second time Al-Omary had been detained since terrorist group Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel. Al-Jazeera also reported that a crew covering an Israeli incursion into the West Bank town of Nablus came under fire from Israeli authorities.

“Since the start of the current war on Lebanon, Al-Jazeera crews have consistently been targeted by the Israeli authorities, resulting in a constant hindrance and obstruction of their work,” read a release issued by the Doha-based satcaster.

In a separate incident, Layal Nagib, a 23-year-old Lebanese photographer who worked for Al-Jaras newspaper, died Sunday following an Israeli attack on the southern Lebanese town of Cana.

Israeli authorities have rejected the claims, claiming that Al-Jazeera’s broadcasting of unedited, extended coverage of scenes of carnage in both Lebanon and Gaza is biased. Danny Seaman, director of the Israeli government press office, told the Guardian newspaper, “I don’t care what Al-Jazeera has to say about the situation. We don’t target journalists.”

Brotherly love

One unlikely side effect of the current crisis, however, is that some Israelis and Iranians have discovered they can agree on something after all. The filmmaking community of both countries have, separately, sent messages of solidarity to their Lebanese counterparts. A group of Israeli helmers sent a letter of support to Arab directors attending the Biennale of Arab cinema in Paris.

“We wish to convey a message of camaraderie and solidarity with our Lebanese and Palestinian colleagues, who are currently besieged and bombarded by our country’s army. We unequivocally oppose the brutality and cruelty of Israeli policy, which has reached new heights in recent weeks,” read the letter, signed by 40 Israeli helmers.

On the Iranian side, Khaneh Cinema, the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, also sent through a statement decrying the violence in Lebanon, which has seen more than 350 Lebanese civilians killed and widespread damage to the country’s infrastructure. Khaneh’s statement called on filmmakers around the world to do more to work for peace.

“The artists, rightly, are the pioneers of defending the human dignity and freedom, and they are considered as the real reformists of human communities as well.”

Lebanon had been in the early stages of encouraging both domestic and foreign film productions. The creation of the Fondation Cinema Liban last year, as well as the boffo domestic box office of the entirely Lebanese funded and shot musical “Bosta” this year, had sparked some hopes of restoring confidence in the country’s film industry. That appears a long way off now.

“It’s too soon to talk about tomorrow now,” said Daher. “Let’s stop this situation first so we can make an assessment about the damage and the future.”

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