Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

For the love of cinema

Samir Farid is impressed with the Thessaloniki International Film Festival

For the love of cinema
For the love of cinema
Al-Ahram Weekly

Man does not live by bread alone. Nor do film festivals live solely by money. No doubt the larger the budget the better, but the point of a festival is its concept, the question of why it is held in the first place. And that is why the 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival (November 6-15) was held despite the terrible financial crisis in Greece.

The festival was held to purely cultural ends, which is the original and fundamental purpose of any festival. The Thessaloniki Festival has managed to promote filmmaking, facilitate viewing and networking without too much red carpet fanfare. Its awards are no longer financial, its jury has been cut down from nine to five members and its guests now have to pay most of their air fare. But it screened a total of 186 films (145 features) representing every continent.

Another 226 features were screened through an international digital video market in the Agora, together with a coproduction project competition (in which the Lebanese filmmaker Hussein Ibrahim’s project Teddy participated) and a postproduction competition (in which the Egyptian filmmaker Sherif Al-Bendari’s Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim took part).

The competition included 15 films from 12 countries, 1o European, with the notable absence of France, Italy, the UK and the US. The festival preserved its sections and traditions including the Lesson in Cinema this year presented by the French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, the festival’s guest of honour, eight of whose films were screened in a special programme. Desplechin’s My Golden Days was also the closing film.

In addition to special Austrian and Balkan programmes, all the masterpieces of 2015 were screened, making Thessaloniki a festival of festivals: the Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul, Cannes’s great discovery, the two most important films at the Venice Film Festival (the Polish 11 Minutes by Jerzy Skolimowski and the French Francofonia by Aleksandr Sokurov) as well as the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the Berlinale’s Golden Bear winner, and another major Berlinale film, the Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s Aferim!. Also screened were the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor and France’s representative at the Oscars, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.

And like a truly modern festival, Thessaloniki included a symphony orchestra concert of film music featuring the original score of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, composed by Gottfried Huppertz, book publications, seminars and exhibitions.

***

In the Open Horizons programme, outside the competition, the Lebanese filmmaker  Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya’s debut feature Very Big Shot (107 min) – which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and opened in Beirut this week – heralds the birth of a true cinematic talent.

The film was not screened in the First or Second Film Competition due, in my view, to its lack of technical polish in the script and the editing. It is at least ten minutes longer than it could be, and being a fantastical comedy directed at the mainstream audience it is perhaps not ideal for juried festival competitions. But cinema does not live by prizes alone.

Born in Beirut in 1989, Bou Chaaya graduated form the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in 2012 but gained experience in screenwriting, directing and editing short, documentary and feature films starting in 2008. He cowrote the script with Alain Saadeh (who plays the lead), and coedited the film with Simon Hibri. Clearly Bou Chaaya thinks in the language of cinema as well as expressing himself in it.

The film is the story of three Christian brothers who inherited a pizza joint from their father: Ziad (Saadeh), the eldest, who uses the pizza business as a cover for drug dealing, Jo (Tarek Yakoub) and Jad (Wasim Fares). They belong to the bottom of the contemporary Lebanese middle class.

Before the credits, Ziad commits manslaughter, but it is Jad who confesses to it, receiving a five-year prison sentence. The film starts with Jad leaving prison to find Ziad a major drug lord whose business extends to Syria and Iraq. Jad starts working with his brother. Jo disapproves and refuses to take part in his brothers’ drug dealing but his only option is to succumb.

Yet this is also a film about cinema. There is a film within the film directed by Charbel (Fouad Yammine), a regular customer of the pizza joint, in which his wife Aliaa (Alexandra Kahwaji) stars. In a moving tribute to the Lebanese director Georges Nasser, 86 – whose Wither? was the first Lebanese film to screen in the Cannes competition in 1957 – Charbel is seen interviewing him at the start of the film.

In the interview Nasser says that some drug dealers used film cases to smuggle drugs, because they are not opened when they travel from one country’s labs to another’s. Once Ziad hears this statement he becomes the producer of the film Charbel is making about a love story between a Muslim young man and a Christian young woman, played by Jad and Aliaa. Once he has used cinema to his ends, Ziad moves onto politics, becoming a parliamentary candidate.

Like the late Rafaat Al-Mihi’s 1982 Avvocato, this is a farce that induces laughter but it is a laughter like weeping. It is a political film par exellance, and the very big shot of the title is but a metaphor for Lebanon itself – perhaps for Syria and Iraq too. Jad, for example, refuses to say, “I am Muslim” in the film even though it is the role he is playing, and how this forces the two characters to switch religions. All that appears of Islam is the hijab worn by Aliaa... But anyway the politician is actually a drug dealer.

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