Using culture to resist the status quo: film festival tours 5 Lebanese cities

A still from the movie "Zanj Revolution” by Algerian director Tareq Teguia. Photo courtesy of the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival

A still from the movie “Zanj Revolution” by Algerian director Tareq Teguia. Photo courtesy of the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival

An article about a Lebanese film festival, published in Al-Akhbar English in November 2014. 

From November 12 to 17, the second edition of the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival will bring dozens of movies to the public in Lebanon’s major cities – Beirut, Tyre, Saida, Tripoli and Zahleh – with one goal in mind: to use socially conscious cinema to galvanize its audience.

The idea for the festival came to Jocelyne Saab, a Lebanese film director and the organizer of the event, last year as she felt growing apprehension over the fate of her country.

“I experienced the civil war and what followed it,” she told Al-Akhbar English. “Last year in Tripoli… I had the unpleasant feeling that it was going to happen again. I had three projects in the works, but I felt that everything was absurd. So I told myself: ‘I have to do something for this country.’ And well, I can’t do politics, I can’t build houses, but I can work with cinema.”

So Saab put together a movie festival in 2013 in Tripoli as a “committed artistic gesture,” and decided to reiterate the experience this year.

“I do this to jolt the public. I shake them up on one hand and offer them wonderful things on the other,” Saab said.

“We don’t pretend we will change the country, we don’t pretend to be part of a political party, but it’s a way to bring together those who want to think,” she said when asked to define her understanding of cultural resistance. “It is time to no longer be passive. We need to get out of our apathy, to do things for all of us [in Lebanon].”

In addition to the film screening, the event – which is partially sponsored by Al-Akhbar – will also host discussions on cinema, including a film critic competition for students in four Lebanese universities.

Al-Akhbar English was able to see three of the festival’s 39 movies ahead of the event: “Nagima,” by Kazakh director Zhanna Issabayeva; the Iranian movie “Tales” by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad; and “Zanj Revolution” by Algerian director Tareq Teguia.

“Nagima,” which will be featured on the festival’s opening night, is the heart-wrenching story of the eponymous protagonist, an orphaned, undocumented young woman struggling to survive her difficult life circumstances. Issabayeva, the director, paints both a harsh and tender portrait of her characters, letting the story speak for itself without resorting to trite sentimentalism.

“Tales” brings together the intersecting paths of members of Iran’s working class struggling to deal with drug abuse, poverty, prostitution or bureaucracy, using both humor and gravity to denounce the absurdities of life. It took the director eight years to make the film by circumventing the censorship of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As for “Zanj Revolution,” the movie follows Battuta, an Algerian journalist, and Nahla, a Palestinian activist, in a visually stunning journey across Algeria, Greece, Lebanon and Iraq in search of revolutions past and present.While these movies distinguish themselves by being both esthetically remarkable and narratively compelling, their purpose runs deeper than that. These stories are simultaneously tragic and funny, personal and yet deeply, and are undeniably political.

The decision to focus mainly on Middle-Eastern and Asian cinema was in itself a conscious choice, according to Saab.

“We see American movies, we see European movies, but not Asian movies. Above all, I want to resituate ourselves, and this cinematography is close to us. You cannot not understand it,” she said. “We are a part of this land, we have the same traditions, everything was interwoven under the Ottoman empire. We have forgotten that… but we are a continent that is very much alike.”

Many of the struggles shown on screen hit close to home. The festival might show us stories taking place in Japan, India or Spain, but their message is addressed squarely to Lebanon in hopes of getting people to reflect on their own political and social context. These struggles are ours as well, and just as we are revolted by the injustices faced by these fictional – yet very real – characters, so should we resist the similar circumstances which hold down too many people in this country.

This festival, Saab said, “is not a call for help, it’s a call for reflection.”

She mentioned two movies, the Kazakh “The Owners” and “Ordinary People” from Serbia, saying they particularly spoke to the Lebanese experience, respectively addressing corruption and the dehumanization of war.

“It is not just a mirror,” she said, “it’s as if we were wearing the same clothes.”

The same can be said for “Censors Must Die,” a Thai documentary on the director’s fight against state authorities trying to ban her retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or “Powerless,” a comedic Indian film addressing, among other topics, electricity shortages.

The Cultural Resistance Festival is undeniably a product of its time. Only days after Lebanon’s parliament renewed its own mandate, the event’s ambitions to shake the public out of its sense of apathy and despair – feelings that have sadly come to dominate the national mindset – are more relevant than ever. Through thought-provoking stories, this festival aims to denounce the status quo and reject resignation, using the best weapon at the disposal of its creators: cinema.

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