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writing for godot

2017 San Diego Arab Film Festival Surpasses Expectations

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Written by Mukul Khurana   
Sunday, 05 November 2017 22:35

Sometimes, it’s easier to comment on something after a little time has passed.  That is definitely the case with the 2017 San Diego Arab Film Festival.  Despite the technical glitches that started to crop up on the second weekend of the festival (the first weekend started on the 20th of October), it was one of the best programmed festivals in recent memory—the film choices were excellent.  The sixth annual festival opened with a powerful and courageous film from Egypt called Mawlana

After the Arab Spring, a big chill descended on Arab cinema as the powers that be sought to quell dissent across the board.  It has taken some time, but deeply critical and thought-provoking movies are back!  Directed by Magdy Ahmed Aly, Malwana is the story of a young sheikh who preaches in a government run mosque.  His job is simple—lead prayers and eventually become a celebrity—celebrity enough to issue religious rulings…

One would think it’s a cushy job, right?  Not so fast…  In a fundamentalist society, that can make a religious figure powerful beyond measure or maligned as a threat to the establishment.  In our dangerous black and white times, a man such as Hatem (Amr Saad) can inspire a loyal following.  Then again, given that politics and power go hand in hand, dangerous power struggles can also engender odd configurations.

Hatem is plagued by all kinds of temptations.  There are the twin temptations of fame and riches.  After all, who doesn’t know of religious people who are more attracted by materialistic aspirations rather than spiritual ones?  Then, there is the most basic of all temptations—the temptation of the flesh.  Our protagonist is faced by all of them.  To make matters worse, his son falls prey to ill health and his wife’s love has grown cold.

The stage is set.  Hatem’s rise to the top is not going to be without moral dilemmas and conflict.  It seems like there is only one way to be in such situations, but the movie is not that simple.  It is a statement to the fact that despite great odds, idealism never perishes where hope survives.

In a totally different manner, the documentary Stitching Palestine tells the story of twelve Palestinian women.  Using embroidery as a very effective metaphor, the director, Carol Mansour, weaves together the individual stories of the women in order to tell the collective story of Palestine—specifically the Palestinian diaspora after the formation of the State of Israel in the Middle East.  It is a story of lives and the role memory plays in the concept of identity.  Mainly, it is about identity and how identity survives when the place where it was nurtured is taken away.

The threads that bind these women together are more than physical.  They are all professional, resilient and articulate women.  None of them fit the stereotype of the victim.  They do, however, speak of being unfairly dispossessed.  We are talking about justice.

Karama, as an organization, seeks to promote the understanding of the Arab and Islamic world—especially when it comes to the cause of Palestine.  This movie is exactly the kind that fits their bill.  Carol Mansour is the kind of new feminist film maker who combines the ideals of feminism yet goes far beyond—into common political ground.  Of Palestinian origin, her sensibilities were honed in Montreal, Canada.  She now makes her base in Beirut, Lebanon.  She is a good representative of the women she interviewed—diasporic and well-travelled.  That is the Palestinian reality.

A telling fact about the reality of Palestine and this movie…  It is a documentary about Palestine, but meetings and interviews could not be held there for obvious reasons.  Carol Mansour had to meet with the chosen women in Lebanon and Jordan.  There were broader questions raised in this documentary and the Q&A session after the screening, but they were not the focus of the film.  It is possible to make sure that a people don’t exist—take for instance the obvious example of Palestinians.

We can, however, look closer to home.  After all, as a member of the audience pointed out—Native-Americans have not fared well either.  As far as the early settlers were concerned, America was comprised of “wide open and unpopulated spaces!”  Very much like the logic of colonialism, how do we “weave together an exploited culture?”  Indeed, the net becomes a larger one when we look at it in this perspective.  Was it really so different for Algeria, Brazil, or India?  Did anyone really see the native people?

And the opening weekend ended with a spectacular film—Tramontane.  It stands for “across the mountain” but also it is the name of a wind that travels north.  There is good reason for that choice of a word.  But the story itself begins with Rabih, a young blind man from a Lebanese village.  He is a singer who gets a chance to travel to Europe due to his choir being invited.  He needs a passport.  That’s when his life and identity begin to unravel.

Identity is the common theme in all the movies—what defines a Mawlana?  What defines a people who don’t have their ancestral lands to define them in Stitching Violence?  What defines a country that seeks to forget its past—because of the brutality of sectarian violence (as is the case in Tremontane)?

A blind man trying to “see” what war has done to his country—the lies and the cover-ups.  No one knows what the truth is anymore and what they are fighting for.  In the end, Rabih must accept reality—his reality.  To understand what actually transpired in this masterfully told story, it is worth seeing this “must see” film.  Also worth mentioning, the music is perfectly suited to the mood and tone of this movie.  The Arab Spring may be over, but the questions that drove that narrative are still relevant.  If that was the first weekend, what happened in the second one—28th and 29th of October?

The answer began with a documentary called Reel Bad Arabs (2006).  As the name implies, something has been going on in Hollywood since the earliest days—Arabs have been purposefully depicted in a negative light.  Why is that so?  Dr. Jack Shaheen is featured making the point forcefully that Hollywood and Washington are politically and ideologically aligned.  Jack Valenti says as much in one of his statements in the movie.  Scenes from multiple movies are used to illustrate this basic truth.  Arabs are bandits, terrorists, or seductive belly dancers.

If it seems like these things don’t matter, nothing could be further from the truth.  By forming public perception, it becomes possible to justify anything against certain groups.  We normalize ways of seeing Arabs (or any minority group for that matter).  Written by Jeremy Earp and Jack Shaheen, this fine piece of work is also directed by Jeremy Earp (and co-directed by Sut Jhally).  It is a sad commentary on our society that we don’t encourage critical thinking skills—people don’t know how to analyze background material.

Small Pleasures, a Moroccan film was the first casualty of a technical glitch.  The English subtitles weren’t working.  That forced the organizers to put on the French subtitled version (which, in turn, meant that those who didn’t understand French had to leave).  Suddenly, the audience shrunk to half its initial size.

The story about Far’Hook (Sadek) in Tour de France centers around a drive to all the ports of France with Serge (Gerard Depardieu) following in the footsteps of the painter Vernet.  Serge is the father of Bilal (Nicolas Maretheu).  Written and directed by Rachid Djaidani, this movie parallels the painting skills of Vernet in its depiction of visual images.  Though ports are gritty places nowadays, there is visual poetry that is hard to miss.  The credits for cinematography and visual effects go to Luc Pages and Thibaut Granier respectively.

But it’s not just the visual images; it is also a story about rapping and racism.  Rapping is a subculture with distinct mores and rules.  As such, we learn to appreciate its essence through Far’Hook.  The racism faced by Arabs in France is very real and presented in a human way.  It isn’t a documentary, but sometimes, fiction conveys reality better than any documentary.  The attitudes in the “new Europe” and increasingly in our “new America” are clearly shown.  It doesn’t matter how long someone has lived in France or the U.S., they don’t belong according to some people.

Hedi was a “no show” film.  Instead, the closing film for Sunday night was shown in its place (but more on that later…).  To make up for that disappointment, Sunday’s screening of 1948: Creation and Catastrophe was a spectacular look into a year that was instrumental in setting the tone for Israeli Palestinian relations for years to come.  What got set into motion almost seven decades ago, still has a bearing on our world political stage today.  Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb explored and worked on this topic for over a decade resulting in a hard-hitting historical documentary.

It’s a matter of record that the Palestinians who were dispossessed, were never able to go back.  To this day, there are refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon that still house uprooted people from Palestine (this prior to the Syrian crisis).  Little has changed in the seven decades since 1948—In fact, things have gotten worse in many ways--a wall was built, checkpoints were set up, and home invasions continue…  It is an occupation, but “people don’t talk about it.”

The screening was packed—it was incredibly well attended.  Just as the Jewish population doesn’t want anyone to forget the holocaust, the Palestinian population does not want anyone to forget what happened in 1948.

The program of shorts was a mixed bag.  There were some really good pieces and there were some awkward pieces.  Worth mentioning for content and interesting ways to visually convey messages—Fireflies (directed by Raouf Zaki), Here You Are (directed by Tyma Hezam), and One Minute (directed by Dina Naser).  They all deal with war and refugee status.  Fireflies, for instance, is the story of a Middle Eastern man who visits a café on a regular basis.  He has witnessed war and is now a refugee.  However, the waiter gets suspicious…

Here You Are combines text and trance in an experimental piece that attempts to explain the refugee state of mind.  Likewise, One Minute experimentally uses the medium of film to help us feel what it is like to experience bombings and war in Gaza.  Though short, they share the common trait of all good works—the message comes across effectively.

And yet another surprise film from Egypt/France/Qatar—Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim.  This film seemed to be loud and obnoxious in the beginning.  Once the initial set-up was over, it became clear that it was a brilliant film with multiple layers.  Mainly, it was about friends from the ‘hood—the poor part of town.  Ali is a simple guy who is in love with a goat!  Ibrahim records ambient sounds.  One of the layers in this movie is sounds and their role in our lives.  Besides that layer, this is another example of excellent visuals and production values of the highest caliber.

Directed by Sharif El-Bindari, the writing credits go to Ahmed Amer and Ibrahim El-Batout.  Though all the performances in this movie are stellar, the main parts are played by Ali (Ali Subhi), Ibrahim (Ahmad Magdi), Nousa (Salwa Mohamed Ali), and Sabah (Nahed El Sebai).

Did I mention multiple metaphors?  There are stones (three in number) and water (the three bodies of water close to Egypt).  But the film is about so much more.  It is a buddy film about friendship.  It is also a road trip film.  Then, sound gets used as a weapon in the form of a sonic boom.  Finally, it is also a story about community.  A heartwarming story with a lot of soul--this film fits in the “do not miss” category.

All in all, a very satisfying experience.  The film selection in this festival was interesting because of the diversity and the depth.  If this is any indication of what the future holds, 2018 should be a great festival too.

Mukul Khurana writes about art and culture in San Diego—especially about film and theater.

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