The Tripoli Film Festival has been bringing cinema to the masses since 2014. Currently in their fourth year, things are set to be bigger and better: From April 27th to May 4th, 45 films – submitted from all over the world – will be screened at Rabitah el Sakafiyah and Azm Cultural Center Beit el Fan, covering all forms of cinema, including features, shorts, documentaries and animation films.

Over the past few years, Lebanon’s second city has been on a rocky road. Since the outbreak of the civil war in neighbouring Syria, an influx of refugees has strained the city’s already stretched capacities. And when fighting erupted in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli was pushed to a breaking point. News of this nature paints a grim picture, but also emphasises the achievements of Elias Khlat, director of the Tripoli Film Festival.

The city was in a fragile state when the festival first began. Today, stability has returned and the festival’s prominence has grown in the city, but also across the rest of the country and abroad. Festival director Elias Khlat explains that, “A few years ago, when we spoke of the Tripoli Film Festival abroad, people would say: ‘In Libya?’. No, not in Libya… In Lebanon. Now when you mention the festival in the region or in Europe, people react differently. As the reputation of the festival has grown, the number of entries that the festival receives has exponentially increased. In 2014 they received 53 entries, compared to 401 this year.

With so many entries being submitted, sifting through them to ensure quality was an easy task for the team, their biggest challenge remaining the city itself. The image of Tripoli had been tainted by bouts of fighting and a lower standard of living than the capital. Consequently, since its establishment, the festival has been at the forefront in promoting everything the city has to offer. As Elias describes it, “this festival is an open gate to the rest of the world, and its impact is significant. You can see it when you have international guests visiting Tripoli exclusively for the event and staying a few days, or when the only hotel in the city get fully booked for visitors of the festival”.

The inevitable funding factor
Getting to this point has been tough, and was made even more difficult by the lack of funding options available. One of the strong points of the festival is its independence, however this means that the festival is stuck in a rather vicious circle; To remain autonomous, they reject overt backing from politicians and their respective parties. “They still help us with small things privately, they can’t ignore us”, explains Elias. “We’re making a lot of noise. Not just in the city, but across the Arab region”.

USAID has been one of the biggest backers of the festival providing between 40% to 60% of their funding needs. The rest is made from a variety of sources, including private individuals, local companies and some crowd funding.

Aside from the official competition, Tripoli Film Festival will be having a retrospective of acclaimed Lebanese filmmaker and native of Tripoli, Georges Nasser. “He is the father of Lebanese cinema, and this year marks the 60th anniversary of his film Ila Ayn competing in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival in 1957”. The festival will be celebrating the monumental work that Nasser has accomplished and the contributions he’s made to the art form, by showcasing many of his films including Ila Ayn (1957), Le Petit Étranger (1958) and Film Kteer Kbeer (2015) in which he played himself recently. Georges Nasser will also be acting as the festival’s Honorary President.

The different verticals
Theme Day has been an important part of the festival’s programme since it started. It serves as a chance to explore current issues that affect the city’s residents and the rest of the region, and takes place at Tripoli University. Previous themes have been Women & Conflict, and Youth & Conflict. This year’s theme will be Refugees & Conflict. Three documentaries will be screened, followed by an open discussion with a panel of moderators, members of the public and students from the university.
Although there is a focus on providing cinema to the public and boosting the image of the city, the festival is also acting as an opportunity for filmmakers from across the country and the region to meet, exchange ideas, pitch their latest project and get support and advice from festival representatives, production houses and funding institutions. Last year there were three films that received financing through the Tripoli Film Festival Forum. As part of the Forum, the festival will be hosting workshops and speaker sessions, covering all aspects of the filmmaking process.

When Elias and his team started the Tripoli Film Festival, the city was at a low point; Fighting was frequent and the city was being pushed to its limits. Elias recalls “this festival was born out of an initiative taken by the civil society during war, it was a cultural resistance.”
Since then, they have continued to keep fighting the good fight, and proving that Tripoli always rises above the violent newspaper headlines, and cinema can help the city overcome its problems.

by Hugo Goodridge