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Wynnewood Win: Middle Eastern -- or Middle American Film?

April 27, 2011 By:
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A touching moment between Josh Hopkins and Rachel Kitson (a Temple University student) in "Lebanon, PA," opening at the Ritz at the Bourse on April 28. Photos courtesy of Lebanon Productions, LLC

Lebanon and the not-so-civil war that erupted between the right and the left brings its battlefield to the big screen this weekend, with all the religious and political rancor endemic to the region played out by flame-throwers on a combustible crusade.

"Well, we have been confused with that Lebanon," quips Jason Contino, co-producer of "Lebanon, PA," opening on Friday, April 29 at the Ritz at the Bourse after a series of successes at film festival screenings.

"Which is why we added the 'PA' to our title."

This is not the Middle East, but Middle America mentality being showcased on the screen, and "Lebanon, PA" is far from the intrigue and incendiary clashes some 6,000 miles away.

Don't confuse one with the other -- although some have.

"For a day, we had the trailer from 'Lebanon,' " an acclaimed 2009 Israeli film about the Mideast mess, "showing on a site about our film."

Well, it is suggested to the filmmaker from Philadelphia that originally Israel's "Lebanon" was titled "Lebanon, PA," reflecting its connection to dealing with the Palestinian Authority dilemma.

Silence; Contino, 33, gets the joke: "I may use that from now on."

He may have great opportunity to do so; "Lebanon, PA" -- which, prior to its release, had an award-winning date at the Philadelphia Film Festival -- is making the rounds, also opening in New York on Friday.

And what do audiences get? A saga of a burned-out mad ad man from Philly, whose estranged dad's death sends him to Lebanon to sort out his father's estate and sell his house.

What he finds is a region riven with religious biases, an anti-abortion resolve and a mistrust of strangers.

In a way, Contino himself is a stranger in a strange land, working with his buddy Ben Hickernell, the Philadelphia-born film's writer/director/editor.

Growing up as a Jewish kid in Wynnewood, winning over friends and family with his short films shot as a pre-adolescent, Contino is far from the madding Christian crowd that populates the depicted Pennsylvania hinterland of Lebanon.

"But it's a great story, and when Ben told me what he was writing, I said, 'Sign me up.' "

Maybe it was an early sign that the first couple of movies Contino worked on pre-"Lebanon, PA" were shot in -- Lebanon, PA? And maybe more of an omen that those films were horror films?

"Well, actually, that's how Ben and I met, both making horror movies."

It was all guts, no glory in the blood-splattered cheap indies they managed to make. But "Lebanon, PA" took heart and soul -- not the tossed intestines used in their prior efforts.

Here, the main character from Philly who befriends a young woman and woos another in Lebanon is lost in his own maze of a life. When his young acquaintance -- just accepted to Drexel University -- comes looking to him for advice over her unwanted pregnancy not derailing her college plans, he pauses long enough to show his talent as an equal-opportunity equivocator.

Although the director's dad was from Lebanon, Contino assures that "this was not an autobiographical film for Ben."

But what it is is a sure thing of a first shot for the director. who happens to be lead manager of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

It helped. "Ben and I received a lot of favors from the Philadelphia film community, big and small," relates the co-producer, recalling a major fundraiser in Northern Liberties.

But with all he did for the low-budget film with high expectations, the hands-on Contino has to hand it to his buddy Ben. "I can write schlocky horror movies, but when it comes to real emotions, that's not what I do," says the self-described "Main Line kid."

His focus hasn't always been on film; Contino also did some acting. And if you look closely, he avers, "I'm the out-of-focus guy in this film," referring to a scene in which his character is shot in a haze at high school graduation ceremonies.

He himself graduated from Towson University in Maryland with a bio that reeks of ... biology? "I majored in marine biology," says this real-life George Costanza without the self-identity problems." But about halfway through I switched majors to film."

Nice track he's on now -- from marine biologist to cellphones calling shots as a producer. He and Hickernell are now planning their next move and movie -- and it's not a remake of "Creature From the Black Lagoon," chuckles the former marine bio major.

"No, it's 'Lebanon II,' " he jokes.

And speaking of Lebanon, are the residents there still speaking to him after this fisticuff of a film, with no punches pulled on its look at abortion and ambition?

"Well, it opens there May 6," he says.

"But people from there who have seen it at screenings elsewhere have reacted positively."

Wonder how it will do in Israel.

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