Lebanon loses filmmaking pioneer Georges Nasser.
BEIRUT: Georges Nasser, one of the great pioneers of Lebanese and Arab cinema, passed away Wednesday at the age of 91. The writer-director will be remembered as the first Lebanese filmmaker to have had his work screened beyond the country's borders, at the Cannes Film Festival no less. Nasser was born in Tripoli in 1927 and eventually relocated to the U.S., where he studied cinema at the University of California, Los Angeles. He later returned to Lebanon, intent on making films, though cinema was still in its infancy in the country and the film industry nonexistent.
It was Nasser's debut feature, 1957's "Ila Ayn?" ("Where To Now?"), that was selected for the Cannes Film Festival's competition program, projected alongside works by such European filmmaking giants as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Robert Bresson.
Co-written by Nasser, Halim Fares and Youssef Habchi Achkar, "Ila Ayn?" tells a story of overseas migration - a theme that was then, and remains, central to the Lebanese condition. In an anonymous Mount Lebanon village, two farming families live side by side.
The sons of Abu Said and his missis, Said and Farid grow up alongside the neighbors' daughter, Amal.
Abu Said's struggling to make ends meet so he decides to follow the stream of Levantines seeking their fortune in Brazil, leaving his family behind, never to be heard from again.
"Ila Ayn?" is an intriguing emulation of Italian neorealism a nonprofessional cast and a plot interested in migration's impact upon family structure and social cohesion. At some point in the production process, though, the filmmakers stray from neorealism's grim materialism to linger upon the culture of Lebanon's rural idyll.
Nasser returned to the Cannes competition program in 1962 with his sophomore effort, "Al gharib al saghir" ("The Little Stranger"). A French-language film (said to be Lebanon's first), "Stranger" tells another migration story - that of a young village man lured toward the bright lights of big-city life.
Nasser released his third title, "Al-Matloub Rajal Wahed" ("A Man is Needed") in Syria in 1975. It's said the film was well-received at its premiere but it was seldom projected afterward indeed it's a bit challenging finding out what the film was about. His efforts to make a fourth feature were stymied by the outbreak of Lebanon's Civil War in 1975.
While the 15-year-long conflict pushed a new generation of documentary and feature filmmakers - Maroun Baghdadi, Borhane Alaouie, Jocelyne Saab, Randa Chahal Sabbag and Jean Chamoun - to the fore, Nasser remained relatively quiet.
Nasser stayed in Lebanon, working as a production manager on a number of foreign productions, including Volker Schloendorff's "Circle of Deceit." He continued to write and tried to raise the funds to produce his own screenplays, but none were ever made.
He also tried to establish a syndicate of film technicians. His efforts inspired little enthusiasm on the part of state agencies at the time and they came to nothing. He decided to channel his creativity and reserves of energy into teaching film at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, where he was still going strong until quite recently.
The 60th anniversary of Nasser's work inspired several local actors, led by Abbout Productions, to undertake a digital restoration of the original 35 mm print. Cannes screened the restored version at its 2017 edition as part of its Cannes Classics program.
The restored print of "Ila Ayn?" returned home in January 2018, where it was projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil alongside Badih Massaad and Antoine Waked's hourlong 2017 documentary "A Certain Nasser." The doc centers on Nasser's own recollections of the filmmaking culture of the country and the region during his long career.
Lebanon's National News Agency reported that Nasser's funeral would be held Thursday, Jan. 24 at St. Maroun Church in Tripoli.
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