Maskoon: The Arab world’s first sci-fi and fantasy film festival

Sunday 16/10/2016
The inauguration of the Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival in Beirut, the Arab region’s first festival for sci-fi and fantasy films.

Beirut - Extending beyond the glitz of Hollywood’s block­buster-saturated silver screens, genre films are gaining popularity and, for more than a decade, festivals have provided a platform for specialised filmmakers to showcase their films.
In the Arab world, where the in­dustry has taken a different trajecto­ry, considerable change has shaped the film scene over recent years. A number of production companies, creative producers and funds have proved to be propelling forces and support systems for Arab filmmak­ers interested in exploring less com­mercial approaches to storytelling.
The Maskoon Fantastic Film Festi­val — “Maskoon” means “haunted” — debuted in Beirut in September and ushered in the region’s first fes­tival for horror, action, fantasy and science fiction films.
“The partners backing Maskoon reflect the spirit of the festival and represent the whole produc­tion chain from learning the craft to showing the work. Each one of them has been creating fresh initia­tives and injecting dynamism in our regional cinema,” Myriam Sassine, producer at Beirut’s Abbout Produc­tions, which organised the event, said in festival promotional material.
Attracting an eclectic programme, the festival showcased a variety of films from the United States, France, Turkey, India, Iran and Greece. The last day of the festival saw the screening of genre Arab shorts from Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
“The idea started because we felt like there was a lack of genre-orient­ed films,” Sassine said in an inter­view. “And all of the Arab films we have been producing and receiving are mainly dramas or comedies, so we thought it would be good to start showcasing other types of films and showing that they can also be high-quality films with a new cinematic language presented.”
With the gradual evolution of the regional film industry, Sassine said it was only a matter of time before the interest and demand for differ­ent types of films caught up.
“I think it’s taking time for Arab cinema in general on all levels. First, there were very few movies being produced and now we have more and more films being produced and there are more co-productions and funds and other initiatives happen­ing. Little by little, the industry has become more established. Now the time has come to produce differ­ent kinds of films and to stress the importance of genre films,” Sassine said.
“Somehow it’s starting to be more prolific in terms of themes and sto­ries and in terms of styles as well. The fact that this festival [took place], it felt like it was the right timing for it and the first edition’s success showed us that it was in­deed the right timing for it.”
Met with some misconceptions around the nature of the films, Sassine said she is interested in breaking beyond stereotypes to re­flect how sophisticated and influen­tial smaller films can be.
“There’s a need to first show that these films are not just limited to the blockbusters of Hollywood and are not just cheap movies that you watch to entertain yourself. These are really high-quality films,” she said. “You can [understand] your society through these films.”
It is no secret that the socio-po­litical tensions of the region seeped into the scripts of older Arab film­makers but, as the region has be­come more globalised, Sassine said younger filmmakers seem to be breaking from the patterns of their predecessors and are exploring new territories of storytelling.
“It’s mainly younger filmmakers who are interested in doing genre films. Maybe the older generation is more attached to what they are used to. You can see more things happen­ing than what you used to see be­fore,” Sassine said.
“Somehow, I think filmmakers were used to familiar grounds by do­ing films that addressed the wounds of the (Lebanese) civil war and this is what they have been living in for a while. Today there are more themes they want to talk about and there are more topics,” she said.
As the interest for genre films in the region continues to mount, Sassine affirmed that there is a great deal of potential on the horizon.
“This comes from our feeling as producers that we would like to re­ceive different kinds of projects and we have started to develop other types than what we used to develop when we first started in 2005,” she said. “We have new upcoming film­makers who are writing scenarios that are totally different than what we used to receive three or four years earlier. It shows that some­thing is cooking.”