The art of bringing people together

9 May

BEIRUT: Art’s ability to incite social change is one of history’s most discussed topics. Since “The Republic,” in which Plato famously argues for poetry’s removal from the state, the subject has been debated by philosophers and artists alike.

Plato wasn’t as anti-art as is popularly believed. His stance against poetry was rather against its power; poetry, he urged, ought to not “only give pleasure but bring lasting benefit to human life and human society.”

It is a strong claim for the form, and one that might – and has – put off artists and readers alike. Not, however, Reel Festivals, an international arts festival that hopes to “bring a different face to regions in conflict.”

“Art,” says festival coordinator Daniel Gorman, “can bring people together like nothing else; it can speak directly to our emotions and bring us together to celebrate both similarities and differences.”

Reel is all about bringing people together. The concept was born in 2007 after Gorman and his colleagues visited Afghanistan with the Scottish organization Afghan Schools Trust. “I met a huge amount of inspiring people,” says Gorman. So many, indeed, that the idea of communicating through each nation’s art took hold, and Afghani culture was brought home along with the returning voyagers. “Reel Afghanistan” took place in 2009 in Edinburgh, though regional instability prevented the festival from presenting a reciprocal festival in Kabul.

A year later “Reel Iraq” continued the cultural exchange, bringing to Edinburgh an entirely different Iraq from the one seen in daily headlines.

Now Reel Festivals is being held in its partner countries for the first time. This year’s festival is trilateral, crossing the borders between Scotland, Syria and Lebanon.

Recent events in Syria have led to the cancellation of the Damascus-based events, which were to have begun on May 7. The Syrian-inspired events planned to take place in Scotland will go ahead.

The first festival bringing Scottish films, music and poetry to Lebanon, Reel is as much about exposing Scottish culture to the Lebanese as the other way around.

The Beirut section of Reel 2011 begins Monday and continues until Sunday, May 15. Events include screenings of six classic and contemporary films, musical performances, discussions on poetry and a live poetry session.

Films, showing daily at 8 p.m. until Saturday at Metropolis-Empire Sofil, include premieres, documentaries and shorts. Three question-and-answer sessions with Scottish directors will also take place. A “Story-Telling of Cinema” workshop will take place following Thursday’s film, Amy Hardie’s “The Edge of Dreaming.”

The organizers seem to be savoring a sense of irony, having scheduled a Scottish horror film, “The Wicker Man,” for Friday the 13th. Saturday sees the first ever Arabic-language screening of Christopher Young’s “Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle,” the first feature film made in Scottish Gaelic.

Music is also a crucial part of the festival. Internationally renowned Scottish musician Bill Drummond will be in town with his new choir “The17,” and is to give a lecture Wednesday at USJ’s Beirut campus on the future of music. The lecture will be followed by a performance with the choir.

Art aficionados will want to keep a lookout for a piece of graffiti which, courtesy of Drummond, is to appear somewhere in Beirut over the next seven days: “Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music had disappeared.”

Four poets hailing from Scotland (Emily Ballou, William Letford, Tom Pow and Ryan Van Winkle), two Syrian poets (Golan Haji and Rasha Omran) and two Lebanon-based poets (Mazen Maarouf and Yehia Jaber) will take part in poetry events in Beirut and Edinburgh. Somewhat topically, they will also be discussing borders and the poet’s (in)ability to cross them.

Celtic folk-techno fusion pioneers “Shooglenifty” are set to play at Beirut’s legendary Music Hall in a grand finale Sunday.

While Reel Festivals exists partly in order “to empower cultural figures and encourage their development,” another of its stated intentions is to “spread awareness of areas in conflict beyond the headlines.” The final sector of the festival thus takes place from May 16-21 in Scotland, and is to include a selection of Lebanese films – one of which is Zeina Daccache’s “Twelve Angry Lebanese” – and a retrospective from the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Scotland will also witness a fusion of dabke-electronica beats from Syrian and Lebanese artists. Reel Festivals is a project of Firefly International, a Scottish charity aiming to encourage dialogue and communication through the arts. Run by Gorman and Syrian-born Palestinian Yasmin Fedda, both of whom are filmmakers, Firefly aims, through Reel, to “shine a little light” on the aspects of the Middle East that international media tend to shun – namely, its arts and culture.

Reel wants to encourage both “engagement with the arts and international issues” and “dialogue between communities.”

Given recent developments in Syria and the fact that the festival has had to be cancelled there, such exchange has never seemed more necessary. “We believe that art can transcend barriers,” says Gorman. Whether or not Plato would agree, it has got to be worth a try.

Reel Festivals 2011 begins in Beirut Monday and continues until May 15. For more information and the schedule of events visit


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