Beirut International Women Film Festival returns after cancellation last year

Festival director Sam Lahoud is trying to push the work of female filmmakers to the forefront

It's been a challenging year and a half for the entire world, but few can have felt those challenges more than those in Beirut.

Between political turmoil, a devastating explosion that destroyed the city's port district, and an ongoing pandemic, the cancellation of a film festival may seem fairly trivial. Nonetheless, Sam Lahoud, director of the Beirut International Women Film Festival, is hoping to bring some joy to the local population with the return of the event, after its cancellation in 2020 – a year that many would doubtless rather forget.

“Despite the harsh conditions, we still hope for a better tomorrow, so we've been trying to organise a regular normal edition in cinemas,” Lahoud tells The National. “And we're delighted that the fourth edition of the Beirut International Women Film Festival will take place from Monday, July 19.”

The 2020 event, which should have taken place last March, was cancelled at the last minute owing to global lockdowns . The festival was going to honour Lebanese actress Takla Chamoun and Lebanese-French filmmaker and activist Delphine Seyrig at an opening ceremony hosted by actress Elsa Zgheib.

Although audiences may have been denied that pleasure, this year's physical event will continue the festival's four-year tradition of honouring seminal figures from the local cinema and arts scene by putting the opening night spotlight on Aimee Boulos, founder of Beirut's Monnot Theatre.

Boulos has also been an important figure in Beirut's Fondation Liban Cinema , as well as bringing alternative cinema to more mainstream audiences through her curation work at Vox Cinemas City Centre Beirut.

More than 90 shorts, features, documentaries and animations from around the world will be screened at Beirut's LFA-Cinema Abraj as part of the Beirut International Women Film Festival, alongside seminars and masterclasses. Films will travel from almost every country for this year's live event, including Brazil, Turkey, and Vietnam, and there will be a healthy dose of Lebanese cinema.

Lahoud is confident that local audiences will love the opportunity to see new cultures, as well as their own, playing out on the big screen, after a year of cinema closures. “The Lebanese audience likes to see that – new experiences. Especially those they can’t see in mainstream cinema, where it's popcorn films or blockbusters.”

It's perhaps surprising, then, given the festival's distinctly female theme, that not all the films being shown are from female directors. Lahoud explains that even films that are not directed by women will have some form of a “women's theme.”

“We found [in our own research] that women in cinema are not well represented on the technical side and in the leading positions,” he says. “If you follow the statistics in the West, we find an average of 20 per cent of women in key roles. In the universities, you have 65 per cent females as students, so there is a disequilibrium in this and one of the mission of the festival is to raise awareness about this discrepancy.”

Lahoud says he also has a good idea of what causes these skewed figures and, unsurprisingly, it’s men.

“This club is dominated by men and, I think, it doesn't renew itself. There is this matter of authority in the workplace, and we discovered that the producers or funders, the commercial funders, tend to trust men more as a cinematographer, as a director,” he says.

“It's like flying on a plane – if you're going on a flight and a woman is the pilot, some people say ‘oh, a woman is driving, I’m leaving the plane.’ It's a kind of a pre-judgment, a bad judgment that you have to correct.”

It is no surprise to see this approach taken on by a Lebanese festival, considering the country's most successful cinematic export is a woman – Nadine Labaki, the writing and directing mind behind striking films such as Where Do We Go Now?, Caramel, and the Oscar-nominated Capernaum.

Lahoud has certainly made noble efforts to redress the balance of female representation in the Lebanese film industry over the years, through the Beirut International Women Film festival and through its parent organisation the Beirut Film Society, which he also founded.

The organisation leads and supplies Lebanese films to international festivals and organises about eight festivals of its own in Lebanon, at least when pandemics aren't getting in the way. But you can’t help noticing that the man running the festival and doing all the talking about women in cinema is just that – a man. So how does he justify his role at the festival?

“We are a team and the team is dominated by women,” he says. “I'm an activist myself, so I feel that I'm responsible for working together and communicating how we can do the best for our projects, and this is what happens.”

Beirut International Women Film festival runs until Friday, July 23, at LFA Cinema Abraj, Beirut. More information is available at beirutwomenfilmfestival.com

Updated: July 18th 2021, 11:53 AM