The 2012 Arab Film Festival

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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The Arab Film Festival’s opening night film, “The Man Without a Cell Phone”

The 2012 Arab Film Festival

San Francisco. Berkeley. San Jose. Los Angeles

It’s fun to talk to Philip Glass because he always says something that gets you thinking, as when he told me that his opera “Akhnaten” (1983) was “pretty gloomy but that’s a part of our world too.” And “a part of our world” is the kicker because, as our Buddhist friends would say, “the idea that we are separate is an illusion, not a fact.” But that’s hard to see in our increasingly quarrelsome global village, and you’d never know we were connected from watching the 2012 presidential race between Obama and Romney, when Romney said “Obama’s thrown Israel under the bus,” and both played the us vs. them card. The 16th annual Arab Film Festival put these facts center stage by offering 40 films from 27 countries, including several European ones, as the Arab Spring is still unfolding in “that part” of our world.

But what does that world look and feel like? David Munoz’s documentary “Another Night On Earth” (2011) takes an up close and frequently hilarious peek at cabbies and their fares in Cairo viewed through an invisible camera mounted on their dashboards. A 60-ish woman cabbie who has put all her children through school pulls a smoke from inside her bra. A little boy says he’s into sports when he only “does” PlayStation. Three club kids gyp their driver and a man defends Mubarak-era Egypt. Mai Iskander’s also Cairo-set doc “Words of Witness” (2012) puts the 22-year-old novice reporter Heba Afify, armed only with her cell and notepad, as Tahrir Square becomes one of the most dangerous and inspiring places on earth. “We’re in an ambiguous place” she says, and her struggle, which is Egypt’s and the world’s, has been superbly visualized, expertly cut, and movingly scored by Barbara Cohen.

Teamwork of a different kind is explored in Viola Shafik’s doc “My Name Is Not Ali” (2011) which looks at the volatile relationship between the poster child of “The New German Cinema” Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) and his Moroccan lover El Hedi Ben Salem M’ubarek Mohammed Mustafa (c.1935-1982) who is famous for his title role in the director’s “Ali-Fear Eats The Soul “(1973), and as part of Fassbinder’s alcohol and drug crazed company. The director knocked out about as many films as Godard at his peak, but the few Fassbinder films I’ve seen don’t stick in the mind like those of Godard who managed to make a vital new language and entertain. This doc is fitfully entertaining, but you wonder why the members of Fassbinder’s company would stick around with the famously mean director, and those here are hardly campers.

The real life characters in Lebanese-Syrian Rami Nihawi’s quasi doc “Yamo” (2011) aren’t happy campers either. But his use of clichés like the ubiquitous shaky camera, oddly framed shots a la Cassavetes, and a fractured narrative both express and threaten to derail his attempt at bridging the gap between his taciturn mother’s troubled history and his own, which hasn’t quite come into focus. It’s also significant that he was born in 1982, not just because that was the year that the Israelis invaded Beirut to drive out Arafat and the PLO, and that General Sharon “presided” over the Phalangist massacre of perhaps 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians (mostly women, children and the elderly) on the night of September16, but because the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) still haunts his mother, and how could it not? “Yamo” ends up being both annoying and moving, but Nihawi largely succeeds despite or because of his self-absorption and that of his fellow slacker friends who aren’t half as amusing and /or horrifying as Snooks and her “Jersey Shore” ones. Merva Faddoul’s narrative short “Teta”(2011) explores Lebanese identity, but this time through the eyes of two young sisters living with their grandmother in her Maronite Christian community in ancient Byblos, where its icon of the Virgin Mary appears to be shedding tears. It’s charming, impressionistically shot, and would work even better if fleshed out to say, 50 minutes. Namir Abdel Messah’s entertaining but too long doc “The Virgin, The Copts, and Me” (2012) used the Virgin’s purported appearance to Copts in Egypt as a starting point for all kinds of adventures, including the director’s tussles with his equally headstrong mother, and his Doha producer who pulls the plug when the film goes “off message.”

Another side of pre-revolution Egypt is seen in Khaled El Hajir’s “Lust” (2011), of which I caught only the last 70 minutes of its 135-minute running time, due to a much-needed dinner break. But judging by what I did see this is a beautifully observed, and sensitively shot, by Spanish cinematographer Nestor Calvo, look at a tiny impoverished Alexandrian street run by Um Shooq (Sasawan Badr), who does whatever she can to survive. Melodrama is frequently derided by the “highbrow” set, but one of its greatest pleasures is when a gifted director, cast, and crew make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, and Badr’s justly awarded performance has a double effect. You see what she’s about and why. El Hajir’s work as an assistant to the late great Egyptian director Youssef Chahine shows in his acute sensitivity to character, place, and mood, and Hisham Gabr’s serpentine score is a very big plus.

Making sense of our world is always a struggle, and the Palestinian part was represented by seven films, of which I caught three. Abdallah Omeish’s “The War Around Us” (2012) (see my review in film’s archives) is a harrowing and very moving look at Israel’s winter ’08-’09 “Cast Lead” operation on the largely defenseless 1.6 million inhabitants of Gaza with state of the art weapons supplied by the US and its EU friends killing 1,400, maiming many for life, while systematically destroying Gaza’s infrastructure, It’s seen through the eyes of reporters Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros, and what they see should give any truly sensitive viewer pause about the United States’ 3 billion plus totally-free armed support for Israel which prevents any resolution to the conflict, or as journalist/documentarian John Pilger puts it “Palestine is still the issue.” Muayad Alayan and Laila Higaz’s made for Al-Jazeera doc “Sacred Stones” (2011), which looked dry as dust in the AFF booklet, is a startling and beautifully shot take on the limestone/marble business in the “occupied Palestinian territories” where each side looks the other way because it profits Israel and/or its equally unscrupulous Palestinian business partners, with environmental degradation afflicting the poor Palestinian families forced to live above or near the quarries. Director Sameh Zoabi’s first narrative feature “Man Without A Cell Phone” (2011) was the festival’s opening night film at San Francisco’s fabled Castro Theatre and a comedy about occupied Palestine that Zoabi set and filmed in his hometown of Iskol, which is a few scant meters from Nazareth, in the Galilee. It plays like a French farce by Molière. The villagers fight to have a cell phone tower removed from their olive fields, and the dating life of Zoabi’s twenty-something hero Jawdat (Razi Shawadeh) goes kaput when the cell tower’s signal is down, which shows how everyone in Iskol and the world at large is a slave to cell phones and computer technology in general. Zoabi gets sharp, entertaining and charming performances from professionals and non-professionals alike, his camera work fluid, the editing seamless, and no point is held or pressed too long.

The apparent point of Iara Lee’s doc “The Suffering Grasses” (2011) was “progressive political correctness,” or the West and its allies/satellites always know best. It pretends to be a “balanced” look at all sides of the Syrian “revolution,” but relies on lots of stock footage (if Lee was so committed why wasn’t she there?) and plays like agitprop from CNN, Fox, “the liberal” New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the BBC. Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad may have missed a golden opportunity for implementing his reforms before the “revolution” began, but has Obama really delivered on any of his? It’s also true that 1.2 million Iraqis fled to Syria during the US-led second Gulf War during a severe drought and high unemployment. What’s happening in Syria is also the working out of Richard Perle and his co-Zionist neo-cons’ 1996 position paper for Netanyahu “A Clean Break-Reclaiming The Realm” and the Syrian “revolution” has been conveniently piggy-backed on the world public’s sympathy for the Arab Spring. Other facts are even more salient. Special ops from Mossad, the CIA, MI6, NATO, and mercenaries from Saudi, Qatar (Al-Jazzera is based there), Libya, and, yes, Salafis and Al-Queda, have been on the ground since Day One in Syria. The US ambassador to Syria Robert M. Ford formed death squads in Baghdad under the expert tutelage of the US former ambassador to the UN John “the Salvador option” Negroponte. And one last and very important fact: in June 2010 Texas-based Noble Energy discovered the “new Persian Gulf,” aka The Leviathan Oil and Gas Field, which just happens to be off the coast of Syria, because theft and control of natural resources has always been the motor for war. Two wrongs never make a right, but a clearer view of the real facts on the ground in Syria can be found on;;;, and Patrick Seale’s “The Destruction of Syria “

I wish I could say laudatory things about Iraqi director Oday Rasheed’s obviously well intentioned feature “Qarantina”(2010), which didn’t do much despite an interesting premise. A family is held hostage by a hit man (Assad Abdul Majid) in a desolate house in Baghdad during the second Gulf War. The situation is plausible because hit men were hired by Mafiosi to rub out the Iraqi intellectual class, including professors and doctors. But Rasheed’s leaden pace over ninety excruciating minutes sabotaged whatever virtues his picture had like the well-lit and carefully composed cinematography by his brother Osama. Sure, the characters were trapped in an impossible situation, but you could almost hear the actors saying “beat” before they spoke their lines. Even a sexy Mephistophelean hit man couldn’t save it.

The fest also included several “social witness” docs like Feurat Alani’s “Fallujah: A Lost Generation?” (2011). It’s a disturbing look at his father’s Iraqi hometown devastated by the US army which used the latest off the shelf weapons like white phosphorous, depleted uranium, and napalm. Fallujah is a city famously resistant to foreign occupation (they threw out the Brits in 1920) and the irony here is that the “blowback” the invaders get is that the chemical agents they’ve used to kill are now killing them, and their unborn babies will suffer and perhaps die from the same birth defects the Iraqis contracted. Yemeni director Sara Ishaq’s harrowing “Karama Has No Walls” (2011) records the massacre that occurred in Yemen’s capitol San’a just after Friday prayers on 18 March 2011, which the protestors have dubbed the Friday of Karama (Dignity). Ishaq saw the horrific carnage with her own eyes. Both films are hard but necessary sits.

The real finds in the narrative feature department were Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi’s “Death for Sale” (2011), and Dutch directors Victor Ponten and Jim Taihuttu’s first fiction film “Rabat” (2011).

Bensaidi is that rare animal, a true auteur, and not just because he directed, wrote and acted in “Death for Sale” but because his authorial point of view clearly shapes his film, which was the official Moroccan entry for the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar. He’s also a keen observer of people and the social conditions they find themselves in. Three out-of-work 18 to 30-year-old friends Soufiane (Fouad Labied), Malik (Fehd Benchemsi), and Allal (Mouchine Malzi) living in the Moroccan port city of Tetouan become petty criminals in a town where poverty is king, drug trafficking rife (the town is across from Gibraltar, is the point of entry for the European/world market, and where Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise). The sweet-faced Malik falls in love with the beautiful prostitute Dounia (Imane Elmechrafi) and this l’amour fou, which is largely his, but sometimes hers, centers the film and drives it forward. Bensaidi manages to fuse four seemingly disparate genres – crime thriller, noir, neorealism, love story – into one coherent whole. Character becomes place, and place character, the faces and fates of the actors inseparable from Tetouan’s streets and jumbled houses, the Rif mountains against the pale winter sky. All of the performances are convincing and finely shaded and cinematographer Marc-Andre Batigne’s camerawork seems to echo that of Antonioni’s cameramen at times, as in the asymmetrically composed high overhead shot of the sewing factory where Malik’s older sister works. American composer Richard Horowitz also provides a short, unobtrusive, but very evocative score. This is an ultra stylish and very contemporary look at some Moroccan youth in crisis just before the Arab Spring, which deserves far more than festival play.

“Rabat” is hardly as ambitious as “Death for Sale” but it’s not fluff either. The plot is simple. Nadir (Nasrdin Dchar) is asked by his father to drive an old Mercedes taxi from Amsterdam to Rabat, Morocco, and his two best friends in Amsterdam Abel (Achmed Akkabi), Zakaria (Marwan “Chico” Kenzari) invite themselves along for the ride. They have numerous adventures and misadventures that include picking up a pretty young French hitchhiker named Ann (Stepahane Caillard) who is on her way to Barcelona for a surprise birthday party for two gay friends who are boyfriends — “our friends think you’re hot” one of them says – and they’re right. The trio end up in Rabat where the real reason for the trip is revealed. The picture has a wonderfully artless look and feel with fluid mini cam work by Dutch cinematographers Verstegen and Wuijts. It’s also utterly charming, and charm is a virtue in short supply today. Dchar deservedly won best actor in the Netherlands Film Festival, but his also nominated co-stars are just as good. And there’s a scene with a Rabat mechanic (Mohamed Benbrahim) that is just as off the wall funny as the one in Godard’s “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965) where Belmondo and Karina meet a short woman in white complete with parasol coming off a boat, who announces: “I am queen of Lebanon in exile for, as you know, my country is currently a socialist republic. I am therefore in Nice incognito.” There’s nothing incognito in “Rabat” and its gentle insistence that the West should learn to get along with the largely Muslim Arab world is a message everyone should heed.

This is also one of the messages in Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” (“Le Fils D’Autre”) (2011), which wasn’t in the festival, but was last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but surely would have been at home here. Two teenaged boys have been accidentally switched at birth in a hospital in Haifa in Israel/Palestine as Saddam’s SCUD missiles rain down during the first 1991 Gulf War. The boys’ true identities are revealed when the “Jewish” son Alon Silbers (Pascal Elbe), who lives in a Tel Aviv suburb with his parents, is about to go into the army (IDF); while the “Palestinian” boy Yacine (Mehdi Debbi), who was raised in a village in the West Bank, returns from his medical studies in Paris. The two meet and go back and forth to their “rightful” worlds as well as the ones they were raised in. Levy, who also co-scripted, draws strong performances from a sympathetic cast, though the standouts here are Debbi, and Khalifa Nafer and Areen Omari as Alon’s real Palestinian parents whose faces speak volumes, because film, whether clotted with CGI or not, is always really only about the basic human condition told through look and gesture.

Judging by what I saw at this year’s festival, the Arab film world is clearly alive, and certainly kicking.

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