SYN FEATURES: LEBANESE FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA 2019
SYN FEATURES: LEBANESE FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA 2019
11th – 12th October 2019 Hoyts Cinema, Melbourne Central
The 2019 Lebanese Film Festival Australia brought Melbourne a weekend of sharing culture and pride through the big screen.
A country can not be fully explored in two days. An entire history cannot be understood over a weekend.
However, in the simple setting of the cinema, one cannot underestimate the uniting experience that film can create. On Friday and Saturday night, I headed along the Lebanese Film Festival Australia’s (LFFAU) Melbourne leg and witnessed three films that highlighted the cultural quirks, historical structure and social conditions of Lebanon.
Words: Rebecca Maakasa
Tickets provided courtesy of the festival.
NIGHT 1 // Friday 11th of October
Wanted / مطلوبين Matloubin (Dir. Nibal Arakji 2019)
Synopsis in a sentence: Four aging residents of a nursing home escape to prevent the demolition of the site of a widow’s husbands grave site which lays under a 200 year old olive tree.
As a young Lebanese-Australian who has been fortunate enough to visit the Middle-East recently, I am the first to admit that although I have an instinctive sense of pride to boast about my culture, I do not have the scope to know and understand all its multifaceted stories. By attending the festival, I could sit amongst a diverse audience. Certainly, there were not just Arab-Aussies amongst me. To my left, a group of young guys chat about their desire to travel to the Middle-East. To my right, a group of friends of different backgrounds almost choke on their popcorn laughing through Wanted. I become cautious of when I take a bite too – timing my mouthfuls between punchlines proves difficult. It is also difficult for a director to maintain such an elated sense of humor over an hour long film but Wanted does just that. At times we are pulled back, when the themes of loneliness and ageing are conveyed. When we see that not all the residents are fortunate to get visitors from their families. These moments of sadness are purposefully brief, and much of the action in the story is driven through physical humour and the antics of the four residents who aim to get to get to the bubbly lady in pink Jacko’s ‘Da’yaa’ (village) before her husband’s grave is upturned to make room for development. The acting credits and cast really struck me. We are accustomed to seeing a certain type-casting in ‘mosalsalats’ (soap operas), genetically blessed (and surgically enhanced) beauties, the typical TDHs (tall, dark and handsomes) . What was refreshing was seeing a film that gives air-time to an older cast, who so often miss the spotlight. Wanted’s strengths lie in its cause-and-effect structure of comedy, heartfelt themes that play out what so many older people do not get to do – relive their youth! The audience participates by wanting to cheer on there adventure. Overall, this first session gave a Friday-night after work crowd what they deserved. To relax with a film that didn’t demand too much thought process. I think we underestimated just how much our cheeks would hurt from laughing. That is my only isolated ‘complaint’!
NIGHT 2 // Saturday 12th October
On night two, we are treated to a double header. A documentary screening at 6pm and a drama/comedy at 9pm.
On The Footsteps of Christ (Dir. Phillippe Aractingi)
- Synopsis in a sentence: Nine school children and their three teachers travel across Lebanon to sacred sites documented in the Holy Bible.
Whilst Night #1 provided heartwarming laughter, our first sesion let us explore Lebanon more broadly, and in detail. Through documentary, we immediately have a more serious tone, but this did not mean the mood was tense. More so, excitement built in the foyer as the crowd chatted about places they had been personally, or sites they had heard tales about from friends.
Just like a school excursion, we are taken along with nine other children and three teachers as they travel by minivan through some lesser known sites in Lebanon. They are lesser-known not due to lack of interest or significance, but they are not typical tourist sights such as Baalbek or the Cedars of Barouk. Our first stop is Qana, which is said to be where Jesus performed his first miracle – turning water into wine. The device of magic-realism is adopted by Aractingi by allowing the children to recreate the specific biblical stories. In this way we can suspend reality, gain context and then learn more when the scene breaks and continues to the next location. As a viewer, the best editing feels seamless. This film gives enough information through titles and mapping without being over-the-top.
Aractingi’s most clever device is the use of narration. It breaks away from the trek and summit and adds weight to the significance of what the adults and children are experiencing. What is particularly moving is having the experts along the way (historians, archeologists and religious scholars alike) affirm factual accounts of the site’s age, location and relation to many religious scripts. Initially we only hear from the adults, but thankfully we are given insight from the children and their encounters along the journey.
Christians and non-Christians alike will enjoy this documentary as it takes an educational approach, bringing to light the sites that are of religious and historical significance. By the end of the film, the audience comes to a similar conclusion of the participants, that people who call Lebanon home, and those abroad should know more of its history. This film is definitely a good conversation starter and will hopefully see more tourism into the region.
Good Morning (Dir. Bahij Hojeij 2018)
- Synopsis in a sentence: Two old friends – a retired military doctor and a retired army general spend their mornings sipping coffee and filling in newspaper crosswords at a Beirut Cafe …
Whilst the first two sessions took us around the country, Good Morning was a fitting end to the evening. The entire film is set within a quaint and modern yet often empty cafe. As we know the cafe setting and sharing of coffee amongst neighbours, colleagues and friends alike is quintessentially Lebanese culture. Therefore it is fitting that within these walls, and through the descript window we see a lens into the daily happenings of Beirut life.
The two men muse the families that squash onto one motorbike and the unofficial parking attendants that insist on controlling spaces on the road. For some, it can be frustrating to sit through a screening with only one location, however through witty and refined script writing the time passes quickly. It seems counterintuitive for the click-centric tech generation to sit still and give an hour of our time to the ordinary life. In many ways, I found this relaxing with the only real tension building in front of me – the unpredictability of the daytime Beirut and the simmering political climate. We know in reality this boils over many times, but in the scope of the film drama is only confined. As an audience, we longed to escape to the outside. At times the repetitive set up of scenes can become tiring. In saying this, repetition does leave room for spontaneity. The snippets of old poems and jokes is charming. A particularly warm scene that breaks this structure, is when young waitress Ghinwa dances, as the General sings ‘O Noura O Noura’ affectionately (somewhat of an old folk-song, that I recall my father often singing on long drives). I wanted this scene to linger, wanting to stay with the characters in the happiness of this moment.
In many ways this encapsulates the spirit of the film. The desire to escape the mundane in every day. Ghinwa’s dreams of travelling to Paris are squashed when we are shown a news break through the cafe’s TV. This is the only other ‘window’ or lens we have outside the cafe. So, we are drawn back to the everyday and there is a beautiful simplicity in this. I found myself reflecting on the often unmeasured and unappreciated times we spend with family and friends and in that moment becoming very grateful for them.
Caption: Rebecca Maakasa (left) with film co-director & programmer Jessica Khoury (centre) and manager of public affairs and marketing Julia Lattouf (right).
THE FINAL WORD
Despite having a long-standing and prestigious reputation interstate, the LFFAU are only in their second year of featuring in Melbourne. Personally I would love to see this festival grow as a hub that can bring together all aspects of Lebanese culture. It no doubt will prevail with thoughtful consideration to the scope of films selected – in genre, theme and director credits.
The directors and programmers of the festival emphasise that LFFAU is not just for the Lebanese diaspora, but for everyone. In 2020 and beyond, I can see that the direction and vision for LFFAU will grow in audience, event attendance and establish itself in Melbourne, just as comedy, arts and film festivals have become a staple of the cultural calendar. Until now, getting to experience Lebanese cinema in Melbourne, despite having an established multi-generational diaspora and community, has been rare. With just 3 screenings over 2 nights, those in attendance certainly felt they have uncovered some gems and in the years to come these experiences should not be scarce, but, in the true hospitality of the Lebanese spirit, welcomed and shared with all.
Listen to the SYN’s full interview with festival Co-Director – Jessica Khoury here.
[Culture Cult is a SYN Media Podcast Produced by Rebecca Maakasa & Maria Konidaris]