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.

Special Screenings of Northern Borders

Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick and Genevieve Bujold in Jay Craven's "Northern Borders."

Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick and Genevieve Bujold in Jay Craven’s “Northern Borders.”

This week, there are a couple of screenings of the film Northern Borders by Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven. I had the opportunity to interview Jay when he brought the film to Wellfleet last month. At that time, I also watched the film, which stars Genevieve Bujold and Bruce Dern (he did this film before Nebraska, and I believe it was an influence on his portrayal in that film). It is beautifully shot, well-acted, complex, and moving.

There is a screening in Chatham at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Thursday, with a cocktail reception; and there is a screening with a workshop led by Jay Craven in Provincetown at the Waters Edge Cinema on Friday. Here is a link to the article on ProvincetownMagazine.com.

What’s Old is New at the Chatham Orpheum

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain (1952) numerous times; sometimes I watched pieces of the film on television on Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house, another time on video for a film course. It is one of just a handful of exceptions to my general anti-musical genre tastes. So when I saw that the Chatham Orpheum Theater was showing the film last week, I made sure I went. My only regret is that I didn’t bring my 10-year-old son to see it with me; what an introduction to film history it would have been.

The role of the repertory cinema is one that’s all but forgotten for most people. Once home video had saturated the American market, even urban cinephiles abandoned these noble institutions in favor of curating their own home libraries, complete with DVD sets including marvelous extras like behind-the-scenes documentaries and director’s commentaries. But as much as I value DVDs for their extra resources and as much as I understand the appeal of curling up on the couch to watch Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), there is no way to really feel the magic of these movies without going to see them in a dark theater with no reminders of your real life at home and only the occasional interruption from the sound of a neighboring filmgoer coughing in the dark. And for young people, it is truly the best way to appreciate films from the pre-video era, as they were meant to be seen.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is a great example because it’s a film made over 60 years ago about the conversion from silent to sound cinema, a time that is nearly 90 years ago now. I had always been drawn to this film and I always knew it was specifically because of Gene Kelly, but it was only looking up at the screen last week, focusing completely on the movie, that I truly understood Kelly’s choreography, the somewhat surreal “Gotta Dance”/”Broadway Melodies” section, and the way Kelly’s movements differ so strongly from those of his co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Of course, all three can dance, but if you just watch the “Good Morning” dance scene, Kelly’s connection to the music and the rhythm of the piece runs so deep that it appears completely effortless, as though the music and his body are physically connected in a way that Reynolds and O’Connor are just not capable of. On the small screen, it appears as silly but entertaining, but larger than life on the big screen, the fluid beauty is marvelous.

This is why I am so thrilled that finally someone on Cape Cod gets it! The Chatham Orpheum will be showing old movies in special screenings throughout the year. Singin’ in the Rain was this past week, but coming up is another one of my favorites, Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who have to perform in drag in order to get a gig with an all-girl traveling band that includes Marilyn Monroe as a sexy ukulele player. I’ve seen this movie easily 25 times, but you can bet I will be there to see it on the big screen next week. (It’s showing on March 13 and 15).

On March 27 and 29, the Orpheum moves ahead to something more recent, Howard’s End (1992). Like most Merchant-Ivory films, this one is sure to benefit from the focused atmosphere of the movie theater, allowing the atmosphere of the period (it takes place in England at the turn of the 20th century) to seamlessly take over our suspended notion of time and place. Then, on April 10 and 12, the Orpheum brings another film from the classic era, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), which I also can’t wait to revisit. This Academy Award winning film features Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a screwball comedy with fantastic, fast-paced dialogue and zany antics that made that genre so endearing.

Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s brilliant “North By Northwest” (1959)

The last revival on the schedule so far is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Cary Grant starrer, North By Northwest (1959). What a great film to take my son to as an introduction to the brilliance of Hitchcock. This is a film whose very design demands the large screen and the experience of watching something with others who care about great movies and don’t mind leaving their email inboxes, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updating until long after the lights come up and we all return to our “senses.”

For complete details on these special screenings, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater or give them a call at 508.945.0874.