Nelida Nassar 10.14.2014
Hania Mroue and Rabih el-Khoury head one of the most vibrant film festivals that the capital Beirut screens each October. For film buffs, it might seem like they entered a giant playground, a job to die for. Mroue is the general manager of Metropolis Association while El-Khoury is the managing director. Created in 2006, Metropolis combines both festivals direction (Arte Film Week and Cannes’ Critics Week) and year-round venue programming (Cinema Days of Beirut, The European Film Festival and Lanterne Magique). Their sixth edition program for Arte Film Week, which artandculturetodaywordpress.com will be covering extensively, just kicked off last night.
It’s a massive event, but one for which Mroue and El-Khoury’s 8 years in the film business each makes them unusually well-suited while their passion is contagious. Hania and Rabih are individuals with a mission, to reshape the way in which to develop a dialogue and a cinema culture as well as film festivals/weeks engaging with the audience. At Metropolis, they and their team introduce films that are courageous, audacious and cutting-edge, documentaries as well as the only alternative for authors’ films in Lebanon. They also present the selection in a new way, through snappily titled and accessible subjects rather than national or genre categories. As a result, a percentage of the audience in 2008 and 2009 that has attended their Arte Film Week for the first time returned for this edition, with a substantial growth in younger audiences.
The 6th edition presents films clustered around the themes of Genius, Kidnapping, Thrill, Friendship, National Identities, Journey, Love, Death, Dare, Laugh, Thrill and Family, with each strand featuring its own screening. As the French Ambassador Paoli and André de Margerie — Director of International Relations at Arte France declared at the launch of the program, the Metropolis Association has shown “a wonderful commitment for cinema” that Arte cannot think of a better partnership than with them, a habit that “he does not wish to break”. I had the opportunity to converse with these two young industrious organizers, they generously shared their thoughts with us, come meet them:
NN: Can you recall the film, or films, that inspired you to pursue a career in cinema?
HM+ REK: It wasn’t one film or films, but the need to see something that is different from what is usually playing at commercial movie theatres in Lebanon. How to transform the frustration of not having access to movies coming from parts of the world that are as close to us as the Arab world, or as far as Asia, Latin America and Africa? In the absence of a national film archives, where one could watch world cinema classics from the 20s and 30s, and discover Lebanese films from the 60s and 70s, films that embody the history of cinema in our collective memory, films that we read about or studied at the university, but never had the chance to see on the big screen; all this led to the founding of Metropolis.
NN: Have you run any previous festival and in what capacity?
HM+ REK: In 2001, Hania has co-founded “Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya” Beirut Days of Cinema and has been appointed its managing director for 10 consecutive years. “Ayam Beirut” is a non-profit Arab Film Festival organized by the cultural association Beirut DC and dedicated to independent Arab productions. Before the birth of all the current festivals in the Gulf region, Ayam Beirut was the only platform for Arab filmmakers to meet, discuss, show films; attend workshops held in parallel with film screenings, and share expertise through master classes and talks. Without any award distribution, red carpet or stars, the festival was, and still is, a unique space of encounter, dialogue and collaboration among artists from all over the Arab region. This is a collective run by a group of independent cinema lovers. Throughout the years, Rabih has tremendously contributed to its success, by being deeply involved in both its programming and management.
NN: What compelled you to start the collaboration with Arte not another
HM+ REK: We have been collaborating with Arte for a long time, and this partnership was born out of mutual understanding and an opportunity for both of us. Arte has been producing remarkable films for many years from which we were keen to present a selection in Lebanon. From the onset, the challenge was to build an audience for this program. Now that we have reached the sixth edition, our collaboration is generating a larger public each year for the incredible films we are presenting.
Also, we are constantly trying to build and nurture partnerships with as many European platforms as possible in order to have access to a wide range of films and provide a rich and diverse program to our Lebanese audiences. The rerun of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, the Venezia Cinema week, the recent collaboration with the Berlinale, are initiatives to foster our cinema programming and to bring to Beirut the best of what is being produced worldwide.
NN: You’ve been running the Arte Film Week for 6 years now. So what have you learned about Lebanon audiences? Is there something that marks them out from filmgoers in anywhere else in the world?
HM+ REK: It is actually more than six years, the partnership started in 2007. The idea was to have a biannual program. But we had a great public response that we decided in 2011 and in partnership with Arte France that the event should be held yearly during the second half of the month of October.
As an independent art house, we believe that during the Arte Film Week, we can present distinct art house films from renowned and emerging filmmakers of various countries. We also have to promote them making sure the public knows about them. The audience in Lebanon is very curious and the films we present during the Week are not only crowd pleasers but also experimental ones to be discovered and embraced. When every night you notice such great attendance, you know that the public is interested and is asking for more. That’s what shaped the Arte Film Week the way you see it today, and encouraged us to take the risk of showing a combination of much awaited titles (such as the Saint Laurent opening film for this edition and others less known or accessible.
NN: How did the selection of eight movies take place? Was it Arte’s selection, Metropolis or in collaboration?
HM+ REK: We are very fortunate to have the complete freedom of choice! Arte proposes to us a vast assortment of its newest co-productions. We assemble a preliminary selection, narrow it to the films Metropolis Association would like to screen and support but also what we believe our audience may be interested to discover. We then make sure the films are available, that they have not previously been screened in Lebanon. Lastly, we present them for the first time at Metropolis theatre.
NN: Is this selection thematic,stylistic or random?
HM+ REK: We try not to have a theme. Currently, we are presenting a selection of very recent works from 2013 and 2014, many of which during this edition have just premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, among them two that were in competition (Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water which closes the program and Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent that launched it). The program is coherent while diverse inviting the public to discover different styles of filmmaking. In the previous editions, we have presented films from Senegal, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vietnam and this year they are from Cuba, Argentina and Greece: movies from countries that are not often presented on our Lebanese screens.
NN: What can you bring that is different and valuable from a cultural perspective?
HM+ REK: This event is mostly a celebration of filmmaking. The valuable cultural perspective we foster is to have our audience discover movies that it won’t likely get to see in commercial movie houses or even on a DVD around the country. Some years ago, we screened the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives where the filmmaker tackled the issues of reincarnation, while leading the audience on an intimate and poetic journey. Last year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the making of the Vietnamese film The Scent of the Green Papaya by screening it in 35mm for the first time in Lebanon to a sold out audience. These are worthwhile moments as our association aims to promote and advance a cinema of all genres and forms.
NN: What are the biggest changes we can expect to see in this 6th edition?
HM+ REK: Most importantly and with every edition the films carry specific programming! Our event is devoid of “paillettes and pearls” and all the festivals glitz. We’re interested in presenting a program that is different, experimental and that the public is willing to encounter.
NN: Can you give a few examples from the program, including events, which somehow epitomize the spirit of this year’s festival?
HM+ REK: The films are powerful enough to be showcased alone, and that’s why we don’t have side events. We call it a film week as opposed to a film festival. We give each film breathing space and this is why we screen only one per evening. In a way, each film is its very own event!
NN: One of the biggest thrills of attending a film week is that of discovery: the movie that has arrived unheralded, out of nowhere, and astounds you. Can you think of one or two of your own? What are your most electric film festival moments?
HM+ REK: As programmers, we select films that elicit emotions because we want to share them, to anticipate feedback and discussion, they also do not always have to have positive outcomes. We are privileged to watch people every evening, discuss how these films resonate with their personal experiences or relate to their collective memory as Lebanese. For example the audience was astounded after the screening of Rithy Panh’s harrowing documentary The Missing Picture, or Leos Carax’ magical Holy Motors. In seeing the films once more and sharing them with the audience, they acquire another dimension for us, thus validating our programming. What makes a film event is not only the selection; it is also the audience and the discourse it generates following the screening.
NN: What’s your biggest fear? What’s the worst thing that can happen in the next few days?
HM+ REK: We’re always afraid of the country’s safety issues. We are also well aware that it is something that we cannot control. As with organizing any activity, one has to take into consideration Lebanon’s ongoing instability. Back in 2012, we had just opened our 4th edition and on the very next day, minutes away from the cinema, ISF General Brigadier Wissam Al Hassan was assassinated. And yet we had 50 attendees that same evening, who insisted on watching the film. The full program continued, proving Lebanese’s resilience and desire to overcome tragedies determined to experience and see something else than the continuous news coverage on television.
NN: Any tips for Beirut filmgoers on getting the best out of the 6th edition?
HM+ REK: Each of the 8 films selected adds something to the program and we hope the audience will enjoy the diversity that we are proposing as much as we did in preparing it. Every film is a different adventure, a journey that provides a various setting. The spectators are up for a very unique experience whether they’re discovering the Argentinean pampa in Lisandro Alonso’s soul searching Jauja, or some distant Japanese island in Naomi Kawase’s emotional Still the Water, or also in the dark side of the Parisian suburbs in Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles.
Come share and enjoy with the organizers and their team the wonderful selection of
Arte Film Festival
12 October to 19 October 2014
Metropolis Empire Sofil
Tickets: 6,000 LL; Info: 01.20 40 80
Photographic Credit: Ghassan Aflak