Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes is a revelatory film

DUNIA_bedroomMore then 10 years ago, Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab set out to make a film in Egypt that seemed nearly impossible. The film, Dunia: Kiss Me Mot on the Eyes, follows a young female dancer named Dunia (Hanan Turk), who lives in Cairo, and is studying at the University with a blind philosophy professor (Mohamed Mounir) who has been persecuted by religious fundamentalists. Between studying with him and studying belly dance Dunia realizes that she has been cut off from her ability to express herself by a patriarchal society that still promotes female circumcision, and which condemns self-expression in the name of religion.

The process of making Dunia was a difficult one. Director Saab first had difficulty even getting permission to film in Egypt and then once she did, she was blocked at every turn. Even the actors found it difficult. And in fact the beautiful Hanan Turk, who played Dunia, retired from acting completely after first donning a headscarf, shortly after this film was released  amid great controversy.

In a statement for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, at which Dunia made its US premiere, Saab explained: ” The struggles and difficulties surrounding the making of Kiss Me Not on the Eyes were unfortunately of epic proportions…. [My] main challenges were: To obtain permission to shoot the film on location in Cairo, Egypt as the censorship body fought the scenario fiercely… Considering it to be pornographic. [After the] permission was obtained, the next challenge was to set up production, which usually is quite a task, and being weighed down by such controversy only made it harder. Then came finding actors, who had to be convinced of assuming responsibilities for their roles. It was a long and hard process as all [the actors were] concerned about their reputation and also their safety. I would love to write and direct a modern, highly stylized and political musical, based on the paradigms of Western and Arabic musicals-modernized, combined, with artists from both worlds singing together. Maybe the graceful look I carry from the east, beyond the veil of clichés that usually stigmatizes the occidental point-of-view, will allow the orient to be restored in its just and rightful place and value. We have to dare to do what the film is doing now. If we hide and switch ourselves off because we do not want to be slapped, we will not be able to express who we are and what our heritage is. Westerners look at us in a disgusting way, we need to fix this. My excitement was beyond words. I was being fought by everyone for daring to dream and realizing this film, and all of a sudden, the best thing that could ever happen to me, happened – professional recognition by the beacon festival of independent cinema.”

The resulting film is revelatory and astonishing. Although it certainly is not an explicit film by Western standards, it was in Egypt, where it was called pornographic by the authorities for its sensual dance sequences and for its focus on female sexuality. From a Western perspective, however, it is still an unusual film. This is not just because it is an Arab film, but because even in the West we rarely have films that tell stories with such attention to the role of female sexuality in women’s rights. But even apart from its feminist context, Saab’s film discusses the importance of sexuality for all people as a route to freedom; the inner life impacts the outer life and its struggles. When we are cut off from our sexuality, we cannot really know ourselves. And if we don’t know ourselves we are not really free.

In an interview in the bookEncyclopedia of Arab Women Filmakers by Rebecca Hillauer, Saab explains why this story met with such strong opposition at the Dubai international Film Festival in 2005 as well as in the public sphere in Egypt.

“For a young girl of 23, becoming a dancer is something normal everywhere in the world. It is an artistic job; it is Art. But this is not true in the Middle East where becoming a dancer means becoming a whore. As if this is not enough, Dunia has another problem, and this was the main dramatic aspect of my subject. We discover slowly through the course of the film that she has been excised. I had discovered that 97% of the women in Egypt were still excised. When I began to write the script, people all around said, “you are crazy to touch the subject. We are going to have trouble.” But I decided to go on.

The script for Dunia won great acclaim before the film was made. But still it was difficult for Saab to produce this film because of its content. “Two years ago, I had received a prize for the script in Paris. But afterward I couldn’t find a producer, because nobody wanted to deal with the subject of female sexuality – neither in Europe nor in the Middle East,” she explains. “Nobody imagined that I could shoot it. Even intellectuals and artists are afraid to talk about this subject, because Islamic fundamentalism is present all over the Middle East and the Arab region. I thought it was time to face the problems instead of going on hiding them like family secrets you shouldn’t talk about. I decided to produce the film on my own. That was when my troubles began.”

Her battles with censorship began right from the beginning. “The censorship board in Cairo took the scenario – and kept it for months. Then they gave their refusal and sent it – which is very unusual – to the press. That’s how I learned I had been rejected – when I read the newspapers one morning. They said my film was anti-Islamic, pornographic, and anti-Egyptian. All these accusations just because I was talking about sexuality? Some magazines however defended me. Amongst them Rose al-Yusuf, a very old and serious newspaper found it in the 1930s by a woman. The official press also sided with me. A fight set in between these papers and the Islamist press. Only after letters of support from artists and producers all over the world, for instance from the German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, and an audience with Pres. Hosni Mubarak, was I allowed to make an appeal – and it passed.”

But her troubles did not end there. She still had to find actors willing to take on such a controversial film. “The actors read the scenario, and got scared. They said, ‘you are a foreigner, you leave after the shooting, you will not have problems, but we will lose our career.’”

I selected Dunia as one of the first films shown in our Cape Cod Festival of Arab and Middle Eastern Cinema back in 2012. I am pleased to have the opportunity to show it again this Saturday, March 28 at 2 p.m. at the Chatham public library in Chatham, Mass. At this free screening we will not only watch the film and discuss it but I will give more details about the upcoming festival, which happens this year April 30 – May 3 in venues from Dennis to Provincetown.

On Albert Maysles

Brilliant documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles died this past Thursday at his home in Harlem. I was lucky enough to interview the groundbreaking direct cinema filmmakera-maysles-black-white when he was in town for the Provincetown International Film Festival a few years ago and I know he has been helpful to many an up and coming filmmaker. In his interview he was charming and friendly, more genuinely interesting and interested than most of the people I have interviewed over the years. Here is a link to the story I wrote for Provincetown Magazine based on that interview:

http://provincetownmagazine.com/2011/06/15/the-legend-of-albert-maysles/

Albert Maysles will be missed…

The Overlooked Cake

JenniferAnistonCake_article_story_largeSome stories take you on a journey toward a preconceived answer to one of life’s many perplexing problems. Daniel Barnz’s Cake, which stars Jennifer Aniston, is not one of those solution-oriented stories; the issues it tackles–grief, loss, and chronic pain–have no tidy solutions.

We begin with Claire (Aniston) attempting to deal with an accident that has left her with chronic pain and a subsequent addiction to pain medication. There are hints of the true horror of the accident, but it does not fully surface until later in the film. We begin with a sarcastic, nasty drug addict who has a strange compulsion to understand the suicide of a woman from her chronic pain support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick).

It is a difficult task to take such an unlikable character and make her the center of our compassion, and director Barnz is able to do that, eventually, but not without some work on our part. More importantly, Aniston bravely takes on this role and creates a complex portrait that never dips into sentimentality or melodrama, even when the depths of her character’s loss are ultimately revealed.

All I knew about Cake before I saw it was that it was about a woman in chronic pain. I had seen Aniston take risks before in the Miguel Arteta’s criminally underrated 2002 film The Good Girl, so I was not worried about her ability to shed her Friends image. Her take on Claire is so subdued (as you’d expect from a depressive) that when her anger arises after simmering beneath the surface for so long, we are relieved.

I didn’t know that the film is actually about emotional, rather than physical pain. In fact, Claire’s stubborn exterior, and her ability to make everything about her physical pain in order to hide the intensity of her inner pain, are perfectly mirrored by the structure of the film. We are always finding ourselves struggling to truly know her, only to be shut out just before we do.

Barnz’s approach is no-nonsense. There is a quirky, 1990s-indie-film feeling to Cake, with depictions of Claire’s various levels of consciousness, as she is in and out of drug-induced sleep. But Barnz always stops short of invoking pure surrealism, keeping it very approachable instead. The result is a quietly realistic film about depression that is carried by Aniston’s performance.

Talking About Selma

SELMA

Left to right, foreground: Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films

A film about Martin Luther King, Jr. has a few obstacles to overcome at the outset. For one thing, much of the audience already knows the story, and for another thing that story ends in the main character’s assassination. But perhaps a more difficult obstacle is the perception that the film is like a serving of plain, unbuttered, unsalted vegetables–something you won’t enjoy and don’t want, but which you know you should have because it’s “good for you.” It is this perception that kept some audiences away from movies like last year’s 12 Years a Slave, and no doubt it will keep some from seeing the movie Selma. But in both cases, missing the movie is more than just a lost opportunity to absorb something you “should” watch; it means missing an excellent film with a compelling story.

I was fairly neutral in my expectations when I went to see Selma at the Chatham Orpheum Theater last week. I don’t read much in advance about the films I see, but it would have been impossible not to know that Selma was a potential Oscar contender. With that in mind, I had the slightly jaded expectation that it would be “that kind of film” – one Hollywood could get behind because it was good for everyone’s image and because it was just nonthreatening enough to embrace. But as the film unfolded, I was quickly drawn into something much better than that; something that made a part of history I already  had strong feelings about become even more real to me.

Director Ava DuVernay does not shy away from the brutal realities, and her script, co-written with Paul Webb, does not tack on any false, feel-good moments to make us feel everything is okay. It’s not okay. In fact, in the current climate one cannot help but connect Dr. King’s words and methods with recent cases and Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere, despite the more complex circumstances of those devisive of cases.

More importantly as the film follows Dr. King from his Nobel Peace Prize win through the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, we meet a range of people who demonstrate moments of strength and often, moments of human weakness. No one really comes across as a pure hero in the comic book/Hollywood sense. This includes President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Even Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is revealed to be a human being with doubts, flaws, and weaknesses, particularly in his tense relationship with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who is shown to be torn apart both by his infidelities (just hinted at, never shown) and the terrifying spotlight he has shed upon their family.

At its core, this is a film about politics and the push and pull between living one’s beliefs, controlling ego, and playing the game that needs to be played. Peppered throughout this story of power and playing politics, there are horrifying, true incidents of racist violence that are portrayed unflinchingly. I was shaken–literally jumped in my seat, in fact–very early in the film by something I knew, from history, was going to happen. It’s hard to describe such moments without destroying their impact for those who have not yet seen the film, but anyone who has seen it knows what I am talking about. (If you’ve already seen the film, I recommend checking out this NPR interview with the director for more details: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375756377/the-sounds-space-and-spirit-of-selma-a-director-s-take). This is why for me, the Oscar nomination is confusing. The best things about this movie can be attributed directly to both the editing and the directing, so how can it be that Selma was nominated as Best Picture, and then have no other nominations other than for one song? What does the Academy think makes it the Best Picture?

Another point of contention out there is the criticism of how LBJ is portrayed. I was unaware of those criticisms when I went to see the film last Friday, so I wasn’t  looking specifically at whether or not they were valid complaints. But afterward, when I heard and read these criticisms, I was surprised. LBJ is not portrayed as a bad guy or as someone with no interest in helping the civil rights movement. If that were true, I’d call it a major flaw in the film, but when I watched Selma, I felt it was very clear that he was a politician – the president, in fact – and so he was pulled in a lot of directions. The weakness in the portrayal, which is what I think has given rise to this criticism, is in Wilkinson’s performance, which lacks conviction (not to mention the right LBJ accent and manner).

In contrast, Oyelowo does an excellent job becoming Dr. King in this film, as does Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace. In addition, I was taken by newcomer Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights marcher who was brutally beaten and shot to death by Alabama State Troopers, while trying to protect his mother and elderly grandfather in 1965. In fact, the scene in which he is murdered was one that still shakes me, a week later.

Selma has flaws, for sure, but overall it is so well put together and so meaningful in what it represents that those flaws recede into the background. About midway through the film, I was consumed with the desire for my 11-year-old son to see the film. My son is white and he lives in a place where there are not many people of other racial backgrounds. This doesn’t make him racist and it doesn’t predict anything about who he is or how he will interact with people of the world, but it does shelter him from having to think about things that a black 11-year-old boy would have to be aware of. I don’t have to have “the talk” with my son, as African-American mothers do. And even just acknowledging this one reality, makes me ill.

I realize now that I was consumed with wanting him to see Selma because I feel it is a story about us – it’s our history, too– and I want him to have some context for understanding the dynamics in the world that don’t necessarily touch him here on Cape Cod. I have taught him about these things; we have discussed Ferguson and the Holocaust and other atrocities as they come into his consciousness, but I don’t know a better way to show him the historical context for the Black Lives Matter movement than through the medium of film. My hope is that he will get it, viscerally, feel it in his bones. I hope he will see how movies can be important and bring things to light that are hard to really fully imagine. And I hope it will help drive home the point that Dr. King’s message mattered then and still matters now.

It’s possible that he will get none of this from Selma, but I am at least looking forward to talking with him about it. While it is a disturbing movie (rated PG-13), if you have children over 11, I hope you’ll think about taking them to Selma, as well, if only for the potential conversations it may provoke.