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Beirut Art Film Festival Brings Contemporary Art in China to Screens

We started with a small festival for amateurs. We weren't expecting people to respond so well, said Alice Mogabgab, one of the founders

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Representational image. VOA
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Beirut, November 3, 2016: When Uli Sigg began looking for contemporary art in China nearly three decades ago, he was surprised nobody was collecting it systematically. So he decided to do it himself.

The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg, a documentary to be screened alongside 44 others at this month’s Beirut Art Film Festival tells how Sigg became the world’s largest collector of Chinese contemporary art, gathering more than 2000 pieces. In 2012, he donated around 1,400 of them to the M+ Museum for Visual Design, set to open in Hong Kong in 2019.

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“I thought it’s very weird, the biggest culture space in the world and nobody’s paying attention to the contemporary artists,” said the Swiss diplomat and businessman during a visit to Lebanon last month.

He described the film festival, which is run in partnership with the Lebanese ministry of culture, and the British, Swiss and other embassies, as “an interesting initiative to cover documentaries about art so extensively.”

FILE - Uli Sigg in a former metallurgic factory, Beijing, China. VOA
FILE – Uli Sigg in a former metallurgic factory, Beijing, China. VOA

Sigg began visiting China in the late 1970s, as former leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in landmark economic reforms that eventually opened up the country to the outside world.

Working for Swiss manufacturer Schindler, he helped negotiate the first industrial joint venture between China and Europe. “Nobody was willing to do it at the time,” Sigg recalled. “People thought we were crazy.”

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In the turbulent period following the death of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, Sigg – Swiss ambassador to Beijing in the late 1990s – says he looked for art that could give insights into the country’s transformations.

“I hoped the artists would be another source of information. But there was nothing to see, because they had been totally isolated,” Sigg said. “When they found their language, it became much more interesting,” he added. “I thought I would collect the way a national institution should but didn’t.”

In 1997, Sigg created the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) to encourage artists who then worked largely underground.

Now in its second year, the Beirut Art Film Festival will showcase films from around the world, including a selection dedicated to Lebanese producers.

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Screening locations will take the festival outside the capital, to a cafe on a former frontline in the northern city of Tripoli, and a theater in the south that is reopening after a two-decade shutdown.

“We started with a small festival for amateurs. We weren’t expecting people to respond so well,” said Alice Mogabgab, one of the founders. “This year, it has become national.” (VOA)

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Old Cinemas: Abandoned Picture Houses Become Cultural Centers in Lebanon

Qassem Istanbouli, an art and cinema enthusiast from Lebanon, shows films by directors such as Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier in his picture houses

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Qassem Istanbouli
Qassem Istanbouli holds a film negative, in Tripoli, Lebanon, July 5, 2017. Istanbouli is restoring old cinemas into cultural centers. VOA
  • An abandoned picture house and its renovation in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli is more than a dream for Qassem Istanbouli
  • The 31-year-old has reopened three such cinemas, two in his home city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, and another in Nabatiyeh, and has transformed them into hubs for film, art and theatre
  • Istanbouli, who was born in Tyre and studied fine arts and directing at the Lebanese University, initially relied on a bank loan and donations from the public for his projects

Tripoli, Lebanon, July 14, 2017: With peeling paint and crumbling plasterwork, an abandoned picture house and its renovation in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli is more than a dream for Qassem Istanbouli.

The 31-year-old has reopened three such cinemas, two in his home city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, and another in Nabatiyeh, and has transformed them into hubs for film, art and theater.

“When I embarked on this journey, I felt I shared this dream with people in my city who are eager to have a cultural life restored,” said Istanbouli, who shows films by directors such as Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier.

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Istanbouli, who was born in Tyre and studied fine arts and directing at the Lebanese University, initially relied on a bank loan and donations from the public for his projects but now gets financial support from the Lebanese ministry of culture, a Dutch NGO and the United Nations force in Lebanon.

Istanbouli’s dream is also driven by a family connection, his father used to repair cinema projectors, while his grandfather screened movies from Greece and the Palestinian territories, projecting them on a wall.

“This is a way to achieve my father’s dream,” he said. (VOA)