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Third Annual Cultural Resistance International Film Festival of Lebanon

[Anurag Kashyap's [Anurag Kashyap's "Gangs of Wasseypur," one of three films that were screened at the 2015 Cultural Resistance International Film Festival of Lebanon. Image copyright the filmmaker, courtesy of Cinelicious Pics.]

Cultural Resistance International Film Festival of Lebanon, Beirut, 9-10 November 2015.

Sandwiched between the Beirut International Film Festival and a slew of ongoing fall film offerings, the third annual Cultural Resistance International Film Festival of Lebanon (CRIFF) concluded in mid-November. This curiously-named, soon-to-be-renamed-and-revamped festival remains noteworthy for its unique Asia-Mediterranean focus, notwithstanding the modest size of the three-film package that was curated for this year’s edition.

The festival opened at Metropolis Cinema, a hub for several festivals and film exhibitions in Beirut, with Tayfun Pirselimoğlu’s I Am Not Him (2013, Turkey/France/Germany/Greece, Turkish). A neo-noir thriller—an aptly seasonal “Noirvember” selection—and winner of the Golden Tulip award at the Istanbul International Film Festival, I Am Not Him unravels through a drama of doppelgängers and assumed identities, which becomes an inevitable nod to Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958). The film’s measured pace and stark realism unfold through long takes that are heavy with stillness and silence, shrouded in the melancholia of isolation. Plaintive clarinet strains float in and out of scenes to complement the film’s explorations of abjectness and desolation, conjured as dystopian hallmarks of urban modernity.

Nihat (Ercan Keysal), a middle-aged bachelor who works in a cafeteria in Istanbul, accepts a dinner invitation from Ayse (Mariam Zaree), a dishwasher who works in the same cafeteria. Rather mechanically and impersonally, an affair commences between them. Nihat comes to know not only that Ayse’s husband Necip is in prison, but also that he happens to be Necip’s dead ringer—save for his mustache. Strong performances make the characters convincing and compelling. Their motives are not plumbed with detailed, psychologized back stories, and the latter half of the film hinges upon unlikely coincidences; yet this only contributes further to the film’s atmosphere of emptiness that, heightened by its trudging pace, amounts to an effectively chilling meditation on both the labors and the laboriousness of modern life.

The opening night’s double bill bled into the morning hours, and by the time I Am Not Him gave way to Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of WasseypurPart 1 (2012, India, Hindi) the house was packed. The internationally-acclaimed director—or so it was announced—was expected to land in Beirut in time for a question and answer session following the screening. The first half of a work hailed as Kashyap’s magnum opus, the two-hour-forty-five-minute-long Gangs of Wasseypur—Part I was a treat to behold on the big screen. Sensual, gritty, and entertaining, the film explores layered histories—the grime of land and labor exploitation, corruption, and violence—that coat the multi-generational story of feuding mafias across a network of coalmining towns in the heartland of North India. Introductory remarks by Anita Nayar, Indian Ambassador to Lebanon, as well as later exchanges between Kashyap and audiences in the question and answer session, highlighted the film’s resonances with Lebanese contexts, where mafia rings, corruption, crime, and violence have hardly remained strangers to politics.

Replete with tongue-in-cheek references to popular cinema and bursting with songs whose lyrics ooze with innuendos, Gangs of Wasseypur incorporates, on the one hand, idioms of popular Hindi cinema, aka “Bollywood”—including those of the “underworld” or gangster film that was enshrined through a series of 1970s Amitabh Bacchan features. On the other hand, however, Gangs of Wassypur distinguishes a strand of contemporary popular Hindi cinema—in which Kashyap himself has played no small part—that is both far less sentimental and far more declamatory of its investments in a certain kind of (neo)realist auterism. While worlds apart in terms of pacing and degree of onscreen action, it is here, in the festival-friendly currents of their respective realisms heralded as new waves—whether of Turkish or of “Bollywood” cinema—that Gangs of Wasseypur and I Am Not Him cross paths.

CRIFF 2015 closed with Jacques Kebedian’s Dis-moi Porquoi Tu Danses? [Tell Me, Why Do You Dance?] (2014, France, French/Armenian), a documentary that focuses on Armenian dance companies in Paris and Beirut. Having completed ten or so films that engage questions of memory, community, and identity in the Armenian diaspora, Kebedian’s Dis-moi Porquoi Tu Danses? grew out of a 2007 installation in Paris called Armenian Memories, during the course of which a dancer approached Kebedian with the prospect of making such a documentary. Even with occasional voiceover narrations and talking heads, Dis-moi Porquoi Tu Danses? largely engages the viewer as a bodily participant in a modern ritual of memory through a film that is itself performance, music, and dance. The film is in this sense reminiscent of French-Algerian filmmaker Tony Gatlif’s stunning documentary Latcho Drom [Safe Journey] (1993, France, French), in which the story of the Roma diaspora unfolds across Eurasia, from India to Spain, remaining emphatically insistent on political questions of class, marginalization, and displacement—yet entirely through footage of music and dance.

Between the double-bill festival opener and the subsequent finale the next evening, CRIFF brought a much rarer event to the city—an enviable opportunity for aspiring filmmakers and enthusiasts to attend a series of free master classes with Kashyap and Kebedian at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) and Université Saint-Joseph. In addition, students across institutions were invited, for the second year in a row, to participate in a film review competition. The master class with Kashyap, open to the public, ended up being an intimate conversation through which Kashyap shared insights and details of his personal journey as a filmmaker, in addition to offering a sneak preview of a film project that is currently under way. Kashyap singled out—as noted in several of his press bytes and bios—Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Theives (1948, Italy, Italian) as inducing his desire to become a filmmaker. When asked by a student whether his work has been compared to that of Quentin Tarantino, Kashyap acknowledged his regard for Tarantino, despite eschewing this comparison that, he attested, is rather frequently leveled in response to Gangs of Wasseypur in particular.

Kashyap’s two hats as a director and writer, both worn with considerable experience and accomplishment, were evident in two simple, prescient recommendations for aspiring filmmakers. “The biggest mistake writers make,” he cautioned, “is to write [too much].” Writing for cinema, he offered, is an art of setting the scenario to inspire the actors, rather than setting out detailed lines and instructions for them. In addition, Kashyap urged aspiring filmmakers to read voraciously and watch widely, across genres, periods, stylistic genealogies, and geographies of cinema. Doing so, he insisted, was the most crucial moment for his own maturation as a writer and filmmaker.

This year’s festival, according to director Jocelyne Saab and assistant director Mathilde Rouxel, was scaled down in preparation for the next phase of the three-year-old event—that of a Biennale that will be inaugurated next fall, under the name Biennale Libanaise Internationale pour le Cinema et les Arts / Lebanese International Biennale for Cinema and the Arts, or BLICA. Rouxel explained that the festival had to change its name in order to grow, having encountered funding roadblocks with organizations that were instantly turned off by the radical overtones of “Cultural Resistance.”

Throughout its infancy, the festival has remained committed to reaching diverse audiences, with the first edition hosting screenings and master classes in Beirut and Tripoli. The second edition showed forty films in Beirut, Saida, Sur, and Zahle, in addition to hosting three competitions under the categories of Documentary, Fiction, and films acquired through the Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), with which Saab has been working for a number of years. The inaugural BLICA Biennale, to take place next fall at the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MACAM) in Byblos, will include an art exhibition alongside the film festival.

CRIFF’s stated mission is “to question the identity and heritage of our country today through the parallels that emerge from the crises that the different films portray.” A festival that is dedicated neither to any particular national, linguistic, nor genre of cinema on the one hand, nor oriented around a categorically sweeping, panoramic notion of “world cinema” on the other, CRIFF’s programmatic choices provoke important questions over the politics of contemporary film-going cultures and distribution circuits across the region. Despite the decades-long history of Hindi films’ prolific circulation across the Middle East, for example, and the ubiquity of dubbed “Bollywood” films and serials broadcast on television programs, it is much rarer that festivals in Beirut have highlighted such cinema as worthy of critical attention.

Together, this year’s trio of films raises issues of corruption, exploitation, and displacement through their stories. Given the festival’s Asia-Mediterranean focus, the elephant in the room, perhaps, is the simultaneous ubiquity of labor and public invisibility of South and Southeast Asian communities in Lebanon. Addressing and involving these communities, it can be hoped, will become integral to future directions of an innovative and unique festival, as it continues to grow.

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