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The 12th edition of the Franco-Arab Film Festival in Noisy-le-Sec opened on Friday November 17 and will continue until November 28 at the Le Trianon cinema in Romainville, as well as in various cultural establishments across Noisy-le-Sec. Lebanese-Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri discussed the significance of cinema for Lebanon in an interview with This Is Beirut.

The festival, which opened on November 17 at Le Trianon, spotlights Lebanese cinema. It features two pivotal directors in Lebanese cinema history: Jocelyne Saab (1948-2019), with an extensive retrospective of her work (the first in France), much of which has been recently restored, and Lebanese-Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri. The festival will showcase two of Masri’s films, including her latest and previously unseen work, Beirut: Eye of the Storm, and she will also lead a masterclass on her career as a war correspondent and documentary filmmaker.

More than 30 filmmakers from Arab countries will engage in dialogue and discussion. The festival’s lineup includes 15 feature-length films (eight fiction and seven documentaries), featuring eight premieres, six previews, and one national release. This is complemented by short film competitions. Additionally, off-site activities are scheduled in cultural establishments of Est-Ensemble, including seven screenings, concerts (Souad Massi, the collective “Les Arabes du Futur”…) and exhibitions (Lebanese artist Sirine Fattouh, Franco-Tunisian artist Abdallah Akar…), further enriching the festival’s portrayal of contemporary Franco-Arab creativity.

Witness to History

The recent surge in both fictional and documentary film productions is noteworthy. These films, essential witnesses to historical movements, reflect the new realities faced by the Lebanese. This is highlighted by filmmaker Mai Masri, who will present two documentaries illustrating the political upheavals in Lebanon: Children of Shatila (1998) and her latest unreleased film, Beirut: The Eye of the Storm (2021).

Maï Masri

As the first female director in Palestinian cinema and a pioneering cinematographer and editor, Masri has produced numerous documentaries on the Lebanese Civil War and the plight of Palestinians. Her films, including Children of Shatila and her first fiction feature, 3000 Nights (2015), about the detention of Palestinian women in Israel, are critical testimonies. Her latest film, Beirut: The Eye of the Storm, continues this tradition.

Despite their potential for journalistic documentary, Masri deliberately chooses a different path. In a brief interview with This Is Beirut, she explains, “I deliberately distance myself from journalism. While maintaining authenticity in reflecting reality, what interests me is to narrate a story with facts, integrating characters inspired by real life. My approach is creative documentary-making, conveying a message through creativity, thus narrating a story with characters to bring out a certain poetry from this reality.”

Her documentaries and fiction films cover various social topics, humanity and daily life. For her, cinema is a medium through which one can understand and perceive the reality of a situation, capable of delivering an authentic voice, message and images.

An Indispensable Testimony

Having primarily filmed in war and conflict zones, particularly in Palestinian territories and Lebanon, Masri has learned to adapt to the present moment and situation, which has made her films indispensable testimonies. “For example, in my film Children of Fire, I focused on children, their daily lives, and how they perceived and lived through the war situation,” Masri recounts. “I found myself filming secretly through a window due to the real danger outside. I was living the moment with them, creating as I went along.”

Masri adds, “These experiences taught me to adapt and create according to the present moment, without preconceived ideas. For me, these types of films show the moment’s reality, more authentic and true than that portrayed by mainstream media.”

Jocelyne Saab’s Work

Masri will share her experiences during her master class on Saturday, November 25, at 4 PM at the Trianon. She will screen excerpts from her films and documentaries to demonstrate the importance of images and on-ground realities. This approach resonates with that of Jocelyne Saab, who also worked on creative documentaries.

Jocelyne Saab

To further understand Saab’s work and explore real-life experiences, the festival also focuses on the restoration of Jocelyne Saab’s entire body of work, comprising around 15 films. For the first time in France, the festival presents a retrospective of Saab’s work, including three short films: South Lebanon, Story of a Besieged Village (1976), Children of War (1976), and Letter from Beirut (1978). Four fiction or docu-fiction films will also be showcased: Une vie suspendue (1985), Once Upon a Time in Beirut: The Story of a Star (1994), Dunia (2005), and What’s Going On? (2009) are among the films included in Jocelyne Saab’s comprehensive retrospective. Following the festival, these films will be screened until December 10 across various cultural venues and cinemas. The screenings will feature discussions with personalities who knew Saab, providing a broader perspective on her significant contribution to Lebanese cinema.

This Is Beirut recently interviewed Mathilde Rouxel, a collaborator, co-founder and president of the Jocelyne Saab Association, as well as the artistic director of the Franco-Arab Festival in Noisy-le-Sec. Rouxel discussed the context behind the restoration of Saab’s works and the organization of the retrospective in Paris during the meeting at Fluctuart’s premises in Paris. This encounter will be the subject of an upcoming article.