12 Films From the Arab Film Festival

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Beverly Berning
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12 Films From The Arab Film Festival

13-23 October 2012
San Francisco. San Jose. Berkeley. Los Angeles

Who would have thought that the wave of revolutions sweeping the world would have started in the supposedly backward even primitive Middle East and North Africa? And who would have thought that the courage and perseverance of its people could teach the narcissistic West and especially the US a thing or two? Palestinian AFF head Michel Shehadeh and his fellow Palestinian board president Jess Ghanam put this evolving historical context center stage in their remarks to a large receptive audience at the Arab Film Festival’s opening night at the historic Castro Theatre.

Would that Mohamed Amir’s “Egyptian Maidens” had been as strong as previous fest openers like Najwa Najjar’s “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (Palestine) in 2009 and Lyes Salem’s “Mascarades” (Algeria) in 2010. But Amir’s tale of two pretty just-turned-30 husband-hunting cousins Dalia (Sabrina Mubarak) and Hannan (Zeina) in pre-revolutionary Tahrir Square Egypt played like a soap opera that wanted to take on big issues like Internet dating, the emergency laws, and the efficacy of strikes. There were too many characters, a warren of subplots, and did we need several scenes making the same point? All the great directors from Griffith to Renoir to George Stevens knew how much was enough. Amir’s film could have worked just as well in half its 130 minutes. Fortunately, Egypt was also represented by Magdi Ahmed Ali’s literary-almost Proustian-voiceover-laden film “The Birds of the Nile” (2009), which held one’s attention from beginning to end through the vigor of its storytelling and performances, especially the actress who played the hero’s sister Narges, who looked a lot like Shelley Winters.


A film doesn’t have to go like a freight train but it helps, and Rachid Bouchareb’s 2010 “Outside the Law” (“Hors la loi”), though even longer than “Egyptian Maidens”, went by in a flash, and established its theme in the very first frames: Algeria, 1925, land, a boy touches the earth, dispossession. A boy and his family are thrown off their ancestral land by an Algerian collaborator who has given it to a French colonial. These themes, plus the struggle for social and personal liberation, continue when the brothers Abdelbaker (Sami Bouajila), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), Said (Jamel Debouze) and their mother (Chafia Boudraa) resettle in Nanterre-a suburban shantytown of Paris-where Abdelbaker and later Messaoud, who slowly realizes what happened to him when he fought for the French in Indochine, decide to “bring the war home.” A turf war erupts between the Algerians in the FLN (Front de Liberation National) and the MNA (Mouvement National Algerien), the French police, and the state’s security apparatus headed by Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan), who will stop at nothing to keep the French colony, a war that Bouchareb and his co-scenarist Olivier Lorelle’s script and their superb cast make us realize is utterly inevitable. “Outside the Law” has a contemporary relevance-the leitmotif that loyality to the state is necessary to keep “terrorists” at bay bears out Gertrude Stein’s observation that the only thing that changes is what we’re looking at. Bouchareb is one of the few real auteurs working today, and his latest film asks one essential question: Can fighting against others – the lesser jihad splashed across our TV and computer screens every day – defeat the greater jihad – itijihad-or war within oneself? [Editor’s note: see McDonagh’s review of “Outside the Law” in culturevulture’s archived articles.]

Internal and external struggles drive David Zlutnick’s trenchant documentary “Occupation Has No Future: Militarism and Resistance in Israel/Palestine (2010), which exposes Israel’s brutal 63-year colonial occupation of Palestine and the occupied territories in the West Bank from a variety of perspectives. We get former IDF (Israel Defense Force) soldiers who’ve founded Breaking The Silence, to the most passionate and articulate Israeli May; to Palestinians like Jamal, who spearheads the campaign against The Apartheid Wall that divides his people from their land; and many Palestinian village groups who resist the internationally condemned 500-mile-long ” security fence” that ostensibly protects Israelis from suicide bombers. Zlutnick and his characters eviscerate the racism, hubris, and outright delusion that poison even the liberal contingent in Israeli society, like The New York Times approved revisionist historian Benny Morris. Zlutnick’s film deserves to be widely seen, even though it may only on be accessible though DVD.

Parts of Iara Lee’s rousing and beautiful-to-look-at, shot-on-five-continents documentary “Cultures of Resistance” (2010) covers the same facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine, though the point of her film is that injustice is injustice everywhere. Iara Lee is already well known for her capturing on video camera the May 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Gaza bound Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara as it was happening in real time.

A little known and largely ignored side of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights-which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 War and still has “joint custody ” over with UN peacekeeping troops-is exposed in Sabrina Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould’s documentary “Shout” (2009). Their film follows best friends Ezat and Bayan as they go to study for a year in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital city Damascus, which politics denies them access to, even though it’s only 60 kilometers away. It doesn’t hurt that the directors have two charming and handsome central characters through whom to tell their story, and the complex horrific events unfolding in Syria now – President Assad’s picture looms in several scenes – gives it a extra charge.

Yet another occupation, this time by the US, is the subject of Mohamed Al-Daradji’s raw and moving documentary “Iraq: War, Love, God & Madness” (2008). American helicopters buzzing over Baghdad like huge insects, car-bombed streets, the charm, humor and resilience of the Iraqi people in the face of impossible odds. And though Al-Daradji doesn’t mention the much ballyhooed exit of all US troops by the end of 2011, it should be noted that the US has established more than a “footprint ” in Iraq with the largest embassy in the world being built in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the presence of thousands of mercenary contractors immune from prosecution, and military bases to extend their presence in the land for years to come.

Occupied land isn’t a problem in Lebanese director Bahji Hoeiji’s “Here Comes the Rain” (2009) or Canadian Daniel Gervais’ Morocco-set “Taza” (2010), but their landscapes shape their internal dramas. Hilly Beirut frames a Chekhovian study in self-absorption that plays out when Ramez (Hassan Mrad), kidnapped 20 years ago in the Lebanon Civil War, returns home to his wife Marie (Julia Kassar) and a son and daughter in their twenties living there. The Middle Atlas Mountains is the backdrop for Gervais’ story about recovering alcoholic gnawi musician Omar (Mohamed Bastaoui) and how he, his daughter, and his fellow musicians come to terms with the emotional wreckage he’s wrought as they go to play a wedding in a stunning tiled house in Taza. Occupied land may not be a problem here, but occupied time is. Hoeiji and Gervais, who’ve directed many documentaries, don’t seem up to the completely different pacing demands in fiction film where character and story, and not real time, run the show. The “set-up time” in “Taza” was almost unbearably slow, and the dramatic pay off in “Here Comes the Sun”, despite rock solid performances, came at the very end, which was almost, but not quite, too late.

The languorous pace of Selma Bergach’s “The Fifth String” (2011) works for and against her elliptical story of the musical and spiritual coming of age of teenaged lute player Malek (Ali Esmili). We get the physical sense of contemporary Morocco, Essaouria, Tangier, and the old city of Casablanca where the story is set, and Bergach’s cinematographer Yohann Charnin gets evocative results in every frame. Bergach’s script-this is her first feature-struggles to be profound and yet barely supports her story of Malek’s battle with himself and his vain sadistic teacher, Uncle Amir (Hichem Rostom), who takes him into his home, which houses his music school. And Rostom’s Amir makes the notoriously demanding pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught everyone from Virgil Thomson to Philip Glass, look like a creampuff. The gravely handsome Rostom, with his imperious bearing and ever-present canes (now there’s a cliché that works) easily steals every scene he’s in, though his fierce confrontations with Malek could have been fewer, and thus more pointed.

No problems with pacing, point or script mar “Bahiya…& Mahmoud” (2010), Zaid Abu Hamdan’s entry from Lebanon, which encapsulates a 51-year co-dependent marriage-or, as Bahiya puts it, “since you got glued to my face”-in less than 12 minutes. Everything works to one end, with hilarious performances by Layla Hakim as Bahiya, and Faek Homaisi as Mahmoud. The film plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” before that alcoholic pair take the gloves off, and Abu Hamdan’s acutely chosen images reminded me of Satyagit Ray’s work both early and late. The 28-year-old filmmaker may have a good solid career ahead of him, and it will be interesting to see how he fills the time in his imminent first feature “Nostalgia”.

Time isn’t a problem in Shakir Abal and Tim Longford’s documentary “Richard III: An Arab VIP” (2010), which plays like a guided tour of contemporary Arab identity seen through the lens of Kuwaiti writer/director Sulayman Al-Bassam’s adaptation of the Bard’s eponymous political tragedy commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company-a murderous dictator, political corruption, gender issues, revenge. As one of Al-Bassam’s company members puts it, “Arabs understand the tribal system, and the feud between Lancaster and York in the play.” The film reveals the complex aesthetic and political logistics of getting this play on the road with a lively committed company from Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, with back-to-back performances for the Emir of Kuwait and Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center, a locale that Fayez Kazak, who plays Richard dubs “the heart of the new occupier.” It’s a fascinating, entertaining, and disturbing look at work in our very troubled time. As Al-Bassam puts it: “Who is right? Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? This is the question asked by the play.” The Syrian actress Amal Omran goes him one better: “I read history and I see.”

Michael McDonagh

c 2012 all rights reserved

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