Essays

Film criticism, thoughts on the state of cinema, etc.

Closing Night: Yallah! Underground

This year the festival was diverse in its offerings, but with a common goal of offering different views of life in Arab and Middle Eastern countries.

So often I hear from people who say they think Muslims should be doing more to combat terrorism or people who have never heard of Arabs who are not anti-American fundamentalists. This is a fundamentally broken system of media at work, presenting only horrifying images to us, with no element of hope. This is why the Arab Spring was so surprising to us, in the U.S., at least. We didn’t know there were regular, normal people in the Arab world. We didn’t know there were courageous revolutionaries who want the same things we want: freedom of expression, tolerance, and the ability to pursue their lives without undue government interference.

The Closing Night Selection is Yallah! Underground, a film by Farid Eslam that shows us alternative, underground artists in Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. These are young musicians and artists with something to say who are not afraid to say it. It is so inspiring to see younger musicians expressing themselves joyfully on stages in front of other young people having a great time. There is always the need to share music, around the world, and always the need to come together and experience the arts, whether as a release from the tensions of life, or as a provocation to change our lives. I am so happy to be presenting this film tonight, co-sponsored by WOMR, at their studios in Provincetown.

The film will be preceded by I Am Palestine, a short film by Farid Kirreh and Kai Staats that profiles various Palestinians. You can watch a trailer for that film here. One of the directors, Kai Staats, will join us via Skype for Q&A (hopefully!). I look forward to seeing you all tonight in Provincetown

The Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema closes tonight, Sunday, May 7, at 7 p.m. with Yallah! Underground at WOMR Studios, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($15) can still be purchased online this afternoon, and then at the door.

From Iran to Egypt: Saturday Spotlight Screenings

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Homayoun Ershadi in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997). Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

So far it’s been a lovely rainy weekend on Cape Cod, perfect for going to the movies. Today that movie weather continues as we offer two programs at Wellfleet Preservation Hall.

One of the few Middle Eastern filmmakers I had been familiar with before I founded this festival was Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. The first film of his I saw was Through the Olive Trees, and I was struck by the quiet, reflective nature of his work. Since then, I have seen numerous Kiarostami films, and always I had the same feeling about them. In some ways, they reminded me of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, with their simple situations and everyday characters struggling with the human condition. When Kiarostami died suddenly this past July, I knew I wanted to include one of his films in the festival this year.

The film I chose is Taste of Cherry (1997), which we will screen today (Saturday, May 6) at 4 p.m. The film, about a man driving around northern Iran looking for someone to help him with his plans for suicide, is, again, a quiet film, but there is constant motion as Kiarostami liked to film in cars. After seeing the film on the Criterion Collection DVD, I watched the supplemental documentary, a rare interview with Kiarostami, conducted by Iranian film scholar, Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, a professor at William Paterson University. I tracked Dr. Akrami down, and he has agree to present the film this afternoon and lead a post-screening discussion as well. This is an amazing opportunity, and I am so grateful that we can learn from him, not only about Kiarostami, but also about where that work fits in both world cinema and Iranian cinema, in particular.

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Bassem Youssef, the subject of Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants. Photo: Ellen McDonald

This evening at 7 p.m., also at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, we will be screening a documentary about “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem Youssef. The film Tickling Giants was directed by Sara Taksler, a producer at The Daily Show, and it chronicles his career from its heights, reaching more than 40 percent of the population in Egypt, to his eventual arrest and exile. It is an excellent example of an Arab voice using comedy and satire, in particular, to combat injustice and intolerance. This is something we rarely hear about in the U.S. I hope you will join us tonight to learn about this courageous comedian.

Each screening will be preceded by a short film, as well. For the Kiarostami Tribute, we will screen a short film by Mohammad Mohammadian that is dedicated to Kiarostami, called Only Five Minutes. The film looks at life through the eyes of a blind woman, featuring a black screen and audio only.

Tickling Giants will be preceded by another Iranian short film, Light Sight by Seyed M. Tabatabaei, an animated student film that demonstrates the desire for freedom and the obstacles to finding that freedom. You can see the trailer for it here: https://vimeo.com/162086737

I look forward to seeing you tonight in Wellfleet!

The Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami featuring Taste of Cherry presented by Dr. Jamsheed Akrami screens this afternoon, Saturday, May 6, at 4 p.m. and Tickling Giants screens tonight at 7 p.m. Both shows are at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St., Wellfleet. For tickets ($15 per film) and information on this screening as well as the entire festival schedule, click here. Tickets will also be available at the door 30 minutes before screening time.

 

 

 

Programmer Notes: Opening Night Selections

HalalLove-stillI am so excited to bring to Cape Cod another edition of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. For a couple of years now I have wanted to add comedies to the program, but I was never able to get the ones I wanted until this year. Opening night at the Chatham Orpheum Theater (Thursday, May 4, 6 p.m.),, after a wonderful reception with Middle Eastern food and cash bar, I am proud to present to you the feature comedy from Lebanon, Halal Love (and Sex) by Assad Fouladkar.

Halal Love (and Sex) was chosen because it is funny, at times dramatic, well acted, and overall a wonderful film, but also because this is a comedy I feel you will relate to, even as different as our countries are. In the film, we meet three romantic couples at different stages in their relationships. Living in a Muslim country, and being Muslims themselves, the rules and codes of their religion and culture restrict how they can behave, but there are also certain “loopholes” that give the characters some hope that they can resolve their romantic issues. This is something I think people who follow other religious traditions will relate to, but also, all of us can find ourselves in the situation of being stuck between what our hearts desire and what our communities will allow.

Humor is an essential human coping mechanism, but from the images we see of Lebanon, the Middle East, and the Arab world, one would think there is no sense of humor in these places. We only hear about terrorism, refugees, anti-Americanism, and religious extremism. So, although this film is a comedy, I believe it is still a vitally important film to screen this year, and I hope you will join be there tomorrow night.

To read more about Halal Love (and Sex) and its director’s thoughts about making the film, check out this story in Variety from when the film was screened at Sundance  last year.

18119506_791511167678237_5634968043991553126_nIn addition to the reception and screening of Halal Love (and Sex), we will be showing E.A.S., a short film by Kays Al-Atrakchi, an Iraqi-Italian filmmaker living and working in the United States. The film takes place in the U.S. in the near future, at a time when Arab-Americans must hold special ID cards. It was a film Al-Atrakchi made before President Trump was in office. In his director’s statement, Al-Atrakchi says, “When I came up with the original idea that ended up becoming E.A.S., I imagined a fictional America where Arab immigrants were viewed as hostile and national ID databases and interment camps were quickly becoming the law of the land. I could never have imagined that my fictional vision of an increasingly paranoid America would be so close to becoming reality.”

We are hoping to discuss this short film with Al-Atrakchi via Skype right after it screens, so please join us for this.

Opening Night is Thursday, May 4, with a reception at 6 p.m. and the screenings starting at roughly 7 p.m. Tickets ($25 including the reception) are still available online or at the box office at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, 637 Main St., Chatham.

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.