Beirut Film Festival Defies the Odds and Censors

Modestly tucked away below a Dunkin’ Donuts in Beirut’s built-up Ain el-Rammaneh district, the Abraj multiplex does not often play host to international movie stars. Yet while gracing its linoleum-floored halls on Oct. 1 for the Middle Eastern premiere of her film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Juliette Binoche seemed sufficiently overwhelmed by the reception to tear up visibly before leaving the stage, reappearing in a more jovial mood for the more elegantly appointed afterparty.

The occasion was the opening night of the Beirut Intl. Film Festival, and Binoche’s reaction seemed appropriate for an event that aims for a delicate balance of glamour and gravitas. Pushing liberal social ideals and freedom of expression in a vibrant country still culturally scarred by the Lebanese Civil War, it’s a more intimate affair than other fests in the region like Doha or Dubai, which is how festival director Colette Naufal likes it: Its bijou scale and political positioning allows her to be both selective and progressive in her programming. “We are able to bring movies others can’t,” she says. “We don’t auto-censor at all.”

True enough, this year’s Beirut program — while replete with hand-picked big-name highlights from Cannes, Venice and Sundance — boasted some daring entries with a more local flavor. The selection of Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s provocative political allegory “The President” encountered resistance from outside forces; “Syria Inside,” a documentary by the late Tamer Alawam that scathingly satirizes the political regime of Lebanon’s wartorn geographical neighbor, was a hot potato among the festival’s competition titles.

Festival closed Oct. 9.

Naufal is particularly proud of the number of LGBT-themed films in this year’s lineup; they included such high-profile festival favorites as Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” and Hong Khaou’s “Lilting,” but also “Will You Marry Me?,” a short from Lebanese filmmaker Zuheir Kreideh chronicling his relationship with his HIV-positive boyfriend and advocating gay marriage. It’s typical of the kind of boundary-pushing, issue-driven work for which the festival established the Rejection Front section — so named, explains Naufal, because there’s nowhere else in the region that will give them a platform.

“I’m not going to refuse them,” she continues. “For the Lebanese, something like gay marriage, that’s a big deal. And the censorship board passed it: They know that if they block something, that will just generate huge publicity toward the issue.” As such, the festival enjoys a general peaceful relationship with the Lebanese censors, though that doesn’t stop Naufal testing their limits. Last year, the sexually explicit thriller “Stranger by the Lake” had to be pulled from the program. “That was too much for them,” she says with a sly smile. “But let’s see how far they will go!”

Though star guests like Binoche and this year’s jury president, Julie Gayet, offered a valuable boost to the festival’s profile, the Lebanese public is Naufal’s first priority, as she goes to dedicated lengths to ensure them access to films they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. When the new government axed five titles from the 2010 lineup, her solution was to regroup them for a one-off Forbidden Film Festival the next summer. Only three survived the bureaucratic red tape, but the statement of defiance was clear.

The festival was founded in 1997, though political unrest — notably, the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — has forced it to go dark in certain years. In its 14th edition, however, Beirut looked feistier and more robust than ever: This year’s program was the largest in the event’s history, abetted by the addition of former Sundance exec Alesia Weston as international advisor to the Beirut team. Attendees, meanwhile, ranged from eager film students to local housewives.

“I see kids at the theater, I see 85-year-olds, and people always ask me who my target audience is,” says Naufal. “How can I say? It’s for everyone.”

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