Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival: Q&A with executive director Myriam Sassine
On this day last year, I was sitting at home eagerly awaiting the start of the second batch of screenings courtesy of Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival. The Festival’s opening night had left me in awe of its quirky first selection, Swiss Army Man, and excited for the round-up of films and workshops to come. By the end of that week, I’d found myself a part of a tight-knit community of film lovers, exposed to work and people from different parts of the world. Perhaps it is in that sense of unity, in going every day and seeing the faces of familiar strangers, that the beauty of festivals exists.
And that makes me even more excited for this year’s iteration of Maskoon Film Festival, helmed once again by executive director Myriam Sassine, who was nice enough to sit down with Reel Rambler to talk about the festival’s origins, the team’s challenges, and the future of the festival.
Can you tell me a bit about your career in the industry?
I studied filmmaking at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA) then obtained an MA in Cinema Research from IESAV. I worked in television for a while and in 2010, I joined Abbout Productions and later became a film producer. I’ve always been interested in making culture widely accessible to people as I believe it’s only through arts and culture that one can grow up to be open-minded and aware of the other and of the world’s various issues.
I believe cinema is the best medium for that as it is the most popular artform. For years, I worked with Nadi Lekol Nas on projects to conserve our cultural heritage and spreading it such as making available the works of older Lebanese filmmakers like Maroun Baghdadi, Borhane Alaouié and, more recently, Georges Nasser – the founding father of Lebanese Cinema.
How did Maskoon come about exactly?
Maskoon’s idea stems from all [the aforementioned], my work as a film producer, and my genuine desire to [reconcile] two different worlds: the cinephile and the mass audience; the film professionals and the average spectators. It started with an idea that my colleague and long term friend Antoine Waked got and later on Abbout Productions, Cinemoz, ALBA, and Metropolis joined us on as the festival’s main partners.
And I, for one, am very thankful for that! So, why exactly did you opt for a festival in genre films specifically?
First of all, I’ve always dreamt of having my own festival where I could show movies, invite guests, initiate debates, and defend projects I believe in. That being said, I didn’t know exactly what I kind of festival I wanted. There are many film festivals in Lebanon, and I needed to find the proper angle to create [something fresh].
And so came the idea of genre films.
Yes. One day, Antoine and I were having one of our recurrent discussions about genre films, how financially viable they are and how [there is a lack] of genre films coming out of the Middle East. Antoine suggested we create a Fantastic Film Festival. The idea immediately appealed to me and we started developing and researching it to be able to pitch it […]. We booked the dates [at Metropolis] and Maskoon suddenly became a reality. We had less than a year to make it happen. We were lucky that Abbout’s entire team volunteered to work on the festival, and we started defining our objectives.
And what are those objectives?
Maskoon aims to showcase the best genre world cinema films to show that genre films can be high-end auteur films and at the same time films that appeal to large audiences. We ultimately wanted to encourage local filmmakers to start thinking and developing genre projects. The Lebanese short film competition we launched this year, the guests we bring, the masterclasses ,and networking sessions we organise all aim to create a platform where people with similar tastes and ideas meet, discuss, and potentially collaborate in the future.
What’s your favourite part about curating MaskoonFFF?
The most exciting part is deciding on the content of the festival. We need to ask ourselves a lot of questions before moving forward with our choices. What kind of masterclasses will we host this year? Who are the guests? What are the films? And how can we link all this together so the spectator can get the most out of the festival?
What about this year specifically?
This year, we wanted to do a masterclass on alternative posters design and we approached our first choice Laurent Durieux. It took a bit of time to get his confirmation but when he said he’d come to Beirut, we were thrilled. Also, the Italian tribute just came together! In partnership with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, we decided to show the Suspiria’s restoration that was made on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary. Afterwards, Evrim Ersoy, Fantastic Fest Creative Director who attended Maskoon last year introduced us to Fabio Frizzi, a renouned composer of the Italian Horror. Suspiria and The Beyond are two cult films that influenced generations to come. And it’s quite surreal to invite Fabio Frizzi who composed the original music of The Beyond to give a concert where he would play the film’s score live with his band. Another exciting part is the short film competition. We launched it with no expectations at all. Each time we received a new film, we would scream and rush to watch it. In the end, we were very pleasantly surprised with the films we received and we selected 12 films that we can’t wait to have the audience and the international jury discover.
I’m excited. So, what would you say is the most challenging part of running this shindig?
I’ll be cliché in my answer: finding financing. And with limited means, everything becomes more difficult – especially considering the state doesn’t offer any privileges or help to encourage cultural events. Another challenge would be getting the films we would like. We’re a small festival, and it’s only the second edition. So, sometimes, the distributor or sales agent doesn’t have us in his/her plans. For this year’s program, we really had to fight for each title we’re showing.
Maskoon was a huge success last year. What do you hope for this year, what with the inclusion of region-specific themes?
We hope that people will come to the festival, that they’ll enjoy what we have prepared for them, and that they’ll be active parts of the debates and all side events we have prepared. It’s only this way that we’ll be able to grow and develop the festival and its different initiatives further. Also, it’s important for us that people don’t see Maskoon as just a horror film festival but a festival that offers a wide variety of films from different genres (action, thrillers, film noir, fantasy, supernatural…etc.). Maskoon is also a platform for Lebanese and Arab genre films or series to be either born or promoted. Cinemoz trusted us to promote their genre series. We hope we’ll be promoting many other filmmakers’ and producers’ work in the future.
And we can’t wait to see the fruit of local talent! Last question. Future plans for Maskoon?
We have a lot of ideas, but it all depends on how the audience will react to this edition – to the many initiatives we launched such as the short competition, the cine-concert, and the merchandising. Maskoon’s future ultimately depends of the financing. We’re lucky to have a big and competent team of volunteers that make the festival happen, but everything else requires funds and without our sponsors, we cannot do anything. Therefore, I’m very grateful to them and hope they’ll continue to support the festival for the years to come so it can grow to be as big as our ambitions.
A huge thank you to Myriam for taking the time out of what is undoubtedly a busy week to have a talk with me about the festival. MaskoonFFF will be running from September 13 till 17 at Metropolis Empire Cinema (Sofil). We can’t wait to see everyone there, so check out the program below for more info!