The Beirut Institute for Media Arts (BIMA): An Interview with Director Ramez Maaluf

 

The Beirut Institute for Media Arts (BIMA) is part of the Lebanese American University and was founded in 1999. In the wake of its recent conference, Yasmine Shubaiber interviewed BIMA's director, Ramez Maaluf, for TBS.

 


TBS:
What was the theme of this year's conference?

Maaluf: This year's theme was "Media and the Transformation of Arab Societies." Other themes have included "Arab Stereotyping; How Arabs are seen and how they see others," "Creating a Media Community," and "Media and Arab Culture." The conferences cover everything from advertising to satellite television to novels to music, basically media in its broadest definition. A main focus of our research interests, present in all our conferences, has been a concern with the development of transnational media, television but also print. While people of my generation spent a lot of time debating the global village, the concept is today superseded by a generation that lives in its reality. Those of the age of our students do not know a world without satellite television, the internet, and mobile phone. Technological changes are moving faster than our ability to understand them.

TBS: What are BIMA's main objectives?

Maaluf: The primary purpose was to create an institute in the university that would strengthen the relationship between media professionals and educators. I felt that the transformations in the media industry were so significant that for educators to keep up with all the changes they would have to be in constant contact with the professionals. The other purpose is that as researchers and students of media, we are also called upon to give our input on these developments. So the association is meant to benefit both sides. The media needs research, needs people who analyze, critique, and evaluate these developments. So we felt there should be more contact between the two sides.

TBS: What steps did BIMA have to go through to come into existence?

Maaluf: There is a procedure at LAU where you need to define what the institutes purposes are, and what kind of activities will be involved. That is then sent to the executive council of the university. Once approved, this allows the faculty to operate outside their normal channels. A budget is then created where you are responsible to the Dean. On a practical level it enables you to have greater discretion with funds and can also allow it to become interdisciplinary. BIMA has faculty members that aren't just necessarily in communications, such as people in architecture, the social sciences, the arts and cultural studies.


TBS: How long has it been operating for? What sort of activities is BIMA involved in?

Maaluf: It has been operating for five years. It has conducted four international media conferences that have attracted scholars from around the world who are interested in media studies. We also have guest lecturers come to LAU and talk to the students. We've invited actors such as Hussein Fahmy and directors such as Muhammad Khan both of whom are Egyptian. We've also had locals such as Marcel Ghanem and Gibran Tweiny. Also we have conducted workshops in such things as public relations, film production, scriptwriting, camera work etc. Workshops are organized according to demand by companies and government agencies all over the Arab world. For example, we did a workshop for the Ministry of Health in Jordan a couple of years ago. They sent seven people and we trained them from A to Z on how to produce a film. We call upon our faculty members, depending on their expertise, and ask them to conduct the workshops. Last year we did something with the International Committee of the Red Cross which and the theme was "women and war". We are also going to start publishing the research procedures from our conferences. The whole idea of BIMA is to remain in touch with this great transformation that is going on in the Arab world vis-a-vis media, so that we can find out what is happening, be part of the process, assist it, learn from it, through structured activities.

TBS: Does BIMA aim to create awareness?

Maaluf: BIMA is not a moralizing institute. We aren't here to direct people on the right path. We are here to address the need for serious information. One of the aims we have is to generate information about the Arab world that is relevant to the Arab world mainly, because there is too much study that happens about the Arabs from a western perspective. Historically one of the problems in these conferences is that a lot of these kinds of events in the Arab world have been a gathering of people who come to moralize about "the western invasion of our culture" and in particular the American media. We have come a long way from that to make our conferences truly a research oriented gathering, rather than an occasion to sit around and bash the US. During BIMA's first few conferences, this problem was encountered quite often. With time and effort this has decreased immensely, due to the awareness of this problem. It certainly happens much less here than in any other conference in the Arab World. Often, the people who present papers condemnatory of the US are Arab scholars who live abroad and want to show the Americans what they know, but when they present their findings here they don't reveal anything new to us. So what is the problem? The problem is that there isn't enough research going on in the Arab world.

TBS: How is BIMA proposing to solve this problem?

Maaluf: Unfortunately, this isn't a process that can be transformed overnight, especially since there is a lack of funding for research. We are counting on publishing the research developed from our conferences so that there will be a body of knowledge out there. Out of the fifty speakers in our conferences at least twenty of their papers will be published.

TBS: How soon will BIMA be able to publish?

Maaluf: Well so far we've already started publishing some of the papers on the LAU website (www.lau.edu.lb/centers-institutes/bima). But we are soon going to start produce them in hard copy as conference proceedings. We want to make these available for people to read. This is what the Arab world lacks when it comes to media studies.

TBS: What differentiates BIMA from other institutes?

Maaluf: For a university to become a producer of knowledge or for an institute to become a producer of knowledge, and I said this in my opening speech at this year's conference, it has to enjoy a certain amount of freedom of expression. The country that is at the forefront of freedom of expression in the Arab world is Lebanon. So we have a certain advantage.

TBS: What other people have been involved in BIMA?

Maaluf: This year I was graciously assisted by Ziad Mawlawi, Rachid Chamoun, Mahmoud Tarabaya (who is not a faculty member here but a staff member at the Lebanese University), and Kareem Moufarij.

TBS: How is BIMA funded?

Maaluf: Normally, institutes are subsidized by the university for three years but then we are expected to become self-sufficient. This year we are in debt to the university, so we need to think of ways to raise money in order to survive. I support this university approach. The principle being that if our activities are really relevant to the community then the community should respond. TBS


Yasmine Shuhaiber is a recent graduate of the Lebanese American University with a BA in Communication Arts (Radio/TV/Film).
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