foreign film

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.

Film for Art’s Sake

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

For the past nine years, Howard Karren has been programming a series of films on the outermost tip of Cape Cod. At first, the Film Art series was a program of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), but this year, PAAM has teamed up with the Provincetown Film Society to co-produce the series at the Waters Edge Cinema (237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown). The series kicks off this Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m. with a benefit reception followed by a screening of Six by Sondheim, a film Karren says perfectly suits the concept of the series, which has always been to show films about art as well as showing films as art themselves.

“I focus on trying to pick titles that are not that familiar… I like to choose stuff that there’s a good chance the audience will not have seen. So there’s a real sense of discovery in that regard,” Karren explains over lunch in Orleans.

The full series schedule is divided into three distinct but related sections, running through May 2015. Karren says while having a thematic arrangement is a useful tool in the curating process, it is also more than that. Each section speaks to the other and someone who attends the full season, or several films from each section at least, can see how the films reflect upon each other and how the vibrant post-screening discussions illuminate shared themes among all of them.

“These folks are not shy about expressing themselves,” Karren says smiling. “It’s a little like a book club in that way. I give my point of view, but that’s really only one voice among many. The thing that excites me is people’s enthusiasm because for me the whole series is a way fro film to be taken serious as an art form. So that’s very gratifying.”

Karren began the series because he says he was “feeling kind of isolated” in his passion for film on Cape Cod, after having lived in New York, a great cinema city. Karren’s background includes studying film theory and semiotics at Brown University, obtaining an MFA in film from Columbia University, and an accomplished career in film journalism, writing for and editing at Premiere Magazine, People, and New York Magazine. In addition to curating the series and working as a consultant to the Waters Edge Cinema, he also writes a column for the Provincetown Banner and co-owns Alden Gallery in Provincetown.


Hadras Yaron in Fill the Void, which screens on Wednesday, November 5 at 7 p.m.

The first part of the series, called “Part I: Women Transcendent,” includes films with great female leads, ranging from the quiet, graceful style of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer (1951) to the Israeli film Fill the Void (2012) by first-time filmmaker Rama Burshtein about a woman in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Speaking about Fill the Void, Karren says, “The performances [Burshtein] elicits do not feel like they’re in a first film. You would not know it’s a first film.” It was apparently a film that was hard to make for a whole host of reasons, but Karren says the results are extremely moving and explore “the torment of not fitting into the structures and the rules and boundaries for what women are supposed to do.”

The second section, “Part II: Outsiders,” is just as what it sounds like and includes Lindsay Anderson’s bizarre 1971 film O Lucky Man, starring Malcolm MacDowell, The Tin Drum (1979) by Volker Schondorff, and Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 thriller Cat People, among others. And the series finishes with “Part III: Art in the Mirror,” a group of films about art and artists that reflect back on themselves.

“These three parts speak to one another,” Karren emphasizes. “They are united in exploring what it means to be a movie that is a work of art and dealing with the subjects of that in one way or another.”

All screenings are listed here on Cape Cod Film Society’s regular calendar of upcoming film events. Full details about the series selections and ticketing information can be found here. Consider purchasing a a full season pass, which not only gets you into all of these great film presentations and discussions, but also supports the continuation of the Film Art Series. Tickets to this Sunday’s kickoff celebration are $35.

Provincetown Film Festival

Ale Abreus' film "Boy and the World" shows in this year's Provincetown Intl. Film Festival

Ale Abreus’ film “Boy and the World” shows in this year’s Provincetown Intl. Film Festival

Well, here it is. The Provincetown International Film Festival kicked off last night with a number of really good films, several of which I was able to see in advance. I have to say, I have seen a lot of good work so far this year. If you missed Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur or Brazilian filmmaker Ale Abreu’s Boy and the World, you can still catch them in the festival. These are two very different, but really wonderful films. The first (which screens again at 9:45 pm on Thursday, June 19) is another great Polanski film about a stage director casting for a play he’s written about the sado-masochistic book Venus in Furs. The film version is based on David Ives’s play, and it is primarily an ongoing dialogue between the director and the actress auditioning for the lead role. Embedded within that dialogue are provocative ideas about sex, gender, and power. The other film, Boy and the World, (showing again at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, June 20) is an animated featured with a nearly wordless script–almost the polar opposite of Polanski’s film. The visuals are imaginative and fluid and there is an attention to cinematic details in a similar vein to The Triplets of Belleville (2003), only with stronger emotional resonance as it explores a young boy’s journey to find the father he misses deeply.

For more about what not to miss, check out my preview in Provincetown Magazine.

For that issue of the magazine, I was also able to interview Canadian director David Cronenberg, who is receiving the Filmmaker on the Edge Award this year, and American director Jonathan Demme, who will be attending the North American premiere of his new film A Master Builder, right here in Provincetown this Sunday, June 22 at 7 p.m. That film is based on and adaptations of the Ibsen play The Master Builder by the brilliant Wallace Shawn, whom you might know from his numerous character acting roles in films such as The Princess Bride, or from TV’s Gossip Girl, or, if you’re a cinephile, from the 1983 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre, in which he starred with Andre Gregory. Both Shawn and Gregory are in A Master Builder, which Demme tells me was shot in one week. That might seem extraordinary, but Gregory (himself  a legendary avant garde theater director) had worked with Shawn and the cast for 10 years preparing the staged version, which was only slightly changed for the screen. You can read the full story on A Master Builder on the Provincetown Magazine website, as well as my interview with David Cronenberg.

Well I’m off to see some more movies today. I hope you are, too!

Film Festival Forays

I have spent the greater part of the past month preparing for and then going to two very different film festivals. I’ve been to a number of festivals, as a filmmaker with films in them, as an audience, and more frequently, as press covering festivals like the Provincetown International Film Festival and the Woods Hole Film Festival. As odd as it seems, some people like film festivals for everything but the films themselves. They want to go to the parties and hob-knob with celebrities. They want to be the first to see this or that new film by the hottest new director. For me, it is the opposite; I generally avoid all the parties and I make my itinerary based on what looks like it might be somehow special. More and more festivals are becoming the only place to see truly unique films in theatrical exhibition. In some cases, the films I’ve seen have never become available online–not through streaming, on video, or in theaters–even though they were exceptional.

I go to festivals to find hidden gems: films that go their own way and pull us along on cinematic adventures.

This year I attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City (April 16-27) as well as the much smaller Independent Film Festival Boston (IFF Boston) in Somerville, Mass. (April 23-30). Although it was literally impossible for me to see everything at either festival, there were several films that I did see that deserve to be highlighted here. The idea is that when they do open, as I hope they will, (whether theatrically or via some other means of exhibition), you’ll know something about them and check them out.



Below Dreams

Leann and Jayden Miller in "Below Dreams." Photographer: Milena Pastreich

Leann and Jayden Miller in “Below Dreams.” Photographer: Milena Pastreich

When you see a lot of movies, as I do, it is rare that a new film actually surprises you. I knew nothing abut anyone involved with the film Below Dreams and only saw it at Tribeca because the description was somewhat compelling and it fit neatly into my schedule. Writer/director Garrett Bradley gives us a portrait of New Orleans that centers on the struggles of twenty-somethings trying to move ahead with their lives, navigating around the obstacles of race and class, as well as the realities of having made poor choices. There is Leann, a single mother of four struggling to support her family while also pursuing dreams of becoming a model. There is Jamaine, a young ex-con trying to reintegrate himself into society and find legitimate work, a process which means making visible changes. And finally, there is Elliot, a young man who has come to New Orleans from New York City searching for a girl and perhaps something else. Each of the three characters feels real and in fact, Bradley found these actors by posting casting calls on Craigslist–not looking so much for trained actors but for people whose lives mirrored those of the characters she’d created. But while Below Dreams is more character study than action-based narrative, it is not only the characters that draw you in. Bradley’s approach to filmmaking blends  an evocative soundtrack and poetic imagery with the hard edge of reality. The result is a moving portrait of youth that runs in stark contrast to the usual picture of this age group as vacuous and technology-obsessed. It’s also a film that deserves a big screen experience, so hopefully we will see it in theaters soon. Below Dreams is yet another bold new film that, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin, reveals a cinematic revolution happening in New Orleans.