Where are the Actors?

Every year I ask this, and here I go again for the third time, “Know any enthusiastic student filmmakers living in the Middle East?”  If so, please let them know about the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival, which brings

ZUMEFF 2011 winners from Eygpt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine

together student films from across the Middle East to reveal an industry in rebirth, as well as a student population living in times that are  a changin’ for better and worse.

At the end of last year’s film festival, we did a ZUMEFF research project and survey of student filmmakers in the region.  We expected them to say the worst trials they face are self censorship, money, poor equipment, little technical expertise.  Some of that did indeed come up in the research.  But the number one obstacle they face–and this was from all the countries that participated–was that they couldn’t find good actors to work with, and the few they could find wanted ridiculous amounts of money just for a student film.  I’m not in Los Angeles anymore.

For more on ZUMEFF visit–submissions deadline is March 15:  www.zumeff.com

or check out this article from one of our constant sponsor and supporter, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival  http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/year-round/magazine/2012/01/26/zayed-university-s-middle-east-film-festival

 

A Good Library is Hard To Find

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, “The Premise of Meaning,” American Scholar, 5 June 1972

The other day in Jordan, my mother made the day of a young Spanish woman with whom we were chatting by telling her she could be Audrey Hepburn’s double.  This was true enough, but what struck me was how quickly the woman

Faten Hamama

blushed and said thank you,  banging on her tea cup to make sure her boyfriend had heard the compliment.  Audrey Hepburn was before my time, let alone this younger woman’s.  Yet the three of us shared a common language:  Hollywood films.  What we didn’t learn of this language on the big screen or at home, we were taught via the video store, TV, or iTunes.   Or for those of us who wanted to perfect the language, our knowledge grew through classes—and through access to a film library.

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission is in my favorite part of Amman, Rainbow Street, which fits because the street is named after the city’s first cinema, the Rainbow Theatre, now long gone. I love the film commission because it has given Jordan a genuine film fan and filmmaker community.

But perhaps more uniquely, it has a cozy film library over looking old Amman.  It’s not big or comprehensive, but if you’re looking for film that brought Syrian cinema to an international audience in 1972, you can scan the shelves and find it:  The Leopard.  Arabic films have a language of their own and very few people learn it because the Middle East has no significant film library and no effort has been made to educate students about Arab cinema.

While everyone laments the decline of reading in the world, particularly the Middle East it seems, one forgets that good libraries also house novels and films, perhaps both truer windows into who we are and who we were than any text or history book could ever be.

Before Kramer vs Kramer made divorce a topic to carry a movie or Broke Back Mountain told of the tortured deceits of closeted homosexuality, Egypt’s most famous actress Faten Hamama was dealing with them in the 1974 film Oridu Hillan  (I Need a Solution) . (Honestly, I haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t verify the gay issues that my cousin said were implied in the divorce.)  The movie in fact changed Egypt’s divorce laws.

When looking for the roots of today’s revolutions, much of it can be found even in the poorly produced and directed very broad comedies and melodramas of Egypt over the past decade—rife with farcical scenes about men not being able to afford marriage because jobs are always illusive, scenes government institutions and the absurd rules applied to the Everyman when he tries to feed his family or take care of their health needs, and scenes of the brutal consequences of speaking out against the corruption.

Arab cinema is not always at level of most Western cinema, but it has a long history that lays scattered—and damaged by time—because libraries don’t have the importance they should.   Arabs have a long film history that is their history.  Yet sadly, Arabs don’t have as much as they should a language in which they can say, “You remind me of Faten Hamama in….”

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for Letting Me Write

Since I was in college, the one thing that has been in my life nearly everyday—and for better or worse, nearly all day—has

Thank you, Steve Jobs

been my Apple. Along with one of those apples that grow on trees, turning on my Mac has been part of my morning ritual wherever I have been and in whatever state-of-mind I have been in, minus a couple of war zones that have made it impossible. But even in those times, I would sometimes move my hands like they were going over the keyboards writing my thoughts.

I have never been addicted to my Mac, but I’d say we’ve been pretty co-dependent—or let’s say the best of friends, a reliable friend I always cleaned up with only the finest soft cloth, a friend I could count on to help me stay bond to my other friends and family, a friend I never cheated on once, no matter how many times a PC tried to get my attention. A friend who would only abandon me when it was his time to go, like Steve Jobs today. But my Macs always left memories behind, a hard drive that recorded our history together and the history of my life for the time we were together. And I am glad none of them tried to erase me from their memory, at least until we were no longer together .

It hasn’t always been the same Mac, but it has always been the same genius bringing me my new model—as well as smaller ones, ones that were phones, ones that meant I didn’t have to endure the same 10 pop songs on the car radio, ones that are what I now use to read all the books I love, new and old. Some Macs have been better to me than others, but overall, I would be less of a person for not having had them all in my life—even the big, bulky ones that weighed me down, that refused to move with the times, that were serious baggage, but only in the best sense.

I’m old enough to remember life before the various Macs that have lived with me. I would be a different person without them, as we would have all be. The way I stay in touch with people, read, listen to music, watch films, study, figure out my bills—all the paper and machines that would be cluttering up my world if my Macs hadn’t helped me get it together. They have also been fun–playing with my Macs in all their forms is something my nephews and I have bonded over, unlike video games (their choice) or baking cookies (my choice).  Apples are our happy middle.

Most importantly, my Macs helped make me who I am today. I wouldn’t be a writer without my Macs, whether for fiction, nonfiction, for film or television or print. And if I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have discovered peace of mind. Whenever my Mac and I have been writing, truly hard as it is everyday, I have felt that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It couldn’t have done it without my Macs: I have weak hands and it is quite painful for me to write with pen or pencil and hard for anyone to read, including myself. It was only when I met my first Mac that I felt free to write.

So if you are wondering why this is posted on this blog dedicated to Middle East culture, it is because I would have never written anything about this part of the world if I hadn’t come here with my Mac. (And of course, because Steve Jobs was part Arab American.)

Zayed University Film Festival In San Francisco

There has been more than one time me in my life when the call to prayer has been a comfort to me, and that includes at 4:30 a.m. yesterday when I had to walk to my car in the dark to go get to school in time for “The Best the Zayed University Film Festival” showing at the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, followed by a live video conference with San Francisco State University and the student organizers and me over here.  Walking in the darkness, I was cursing myself for doing this, but when the call to prayer went off, I felt safe again and remembered that it was to celebrate the great job my students did.  Thanks to Bill Lex for making it happen.

http://www.arabfilmfestival.org/wp/topics/arab-film-news/

Horse Power and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Everyone says the UAE has only two seasons, hot and hotter.  But there is a far better season, the film

Sheikh Mohammed

festival season.  The Abu Dhabi Film Festival kicked off last week and is now going strong with 170 films from around the world.  Tops on my list to see are Miral, Carlos, Kingdom of Women, Homeland, Virgin Goat, and the Life of Fish.  The problem with film festivals is that they’re not national holidays so there are so many films we don’t get to see, and it is such a short season, kind of like winter around here.

The festival’s opening film was Disney’s Secretariat, sort of perfect for a country obsessed with horses.  And on that note, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one of my students, Iman Nawfal, who is interning at the festival this year.

Secretariat is a promising story that will reveal its greatness & beauty on the screen of Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Secretariat is a famous horse with a lousy history in the racing world, but that doesn’t stop Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) from having faith in this particular horse and choosing him to join her team to conquer the male-only-horse-racing world. This movie is not just for leisure watching in the Arab world.  We as Muslim Arabian Emirati relate to horse riding in many ways. As Muslims, it is in our religion to learn horse riding as our prophet Mohammed said that we need to teach our kids horse riding because it’s a symbol of bravery and leadership. As Arabians, being an equestrian is sign of nobility and authenticity as years ago, famous Arabian tribes used to own and bred horses. the passion for horses for ages and they flourished in this area remarkably.  In the UAE, horse racing is a famous sport that is celebrated annually in many emirates. Horse riding is not just a sport to us:,  It is a noble relationship that bonds between the horse and the equestrian. It is a symbol of beauty and greatness. It is as His Highness Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid said “Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse’s back. It is nobility and chivalry.”  In this American movie, we Emiratis can see our love of horse mirrored in the determined Penny Chenery.”

–by Iman Nawfal, Zayed University senior

The Abu Dhabi Zoo Effect VS. Sex and the City

  • They missed the real Abu Dhabi in Sex and the City II, and in the real Abu Dhabi, tourists and Arabs wouldn’t notice Carrie and her gang–there are plenty of scantily designer-dressed Western women seeking really rich men walking around here.  The women that get the head turns are the women you can’t really see.

They’re building a wildlife park in Al Ain, the small Emirati city that is the birthplace of the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.  In keeping with modern UAE tradition of over-the-topness, it’ll be the biggest wildlife park in the world when it’s completed in a few years.  

However, if gambling were legal here, I’d bet solid petrodollars that when it comes to Western tourists, not even the rarest tigers in the world will draw as much attention as another species here, the female Emirati homo sapiens.

High tourism season in Abu Dhabi is waning these days with the return of scorching temperatures, aside for certain subset of Europeans, the kind who go from a natural lighter shade of pink to red.  From the look of things, the more quickly and brighter red they turn in the sun the more likely they are to keep on coming with their beach towels.  And to maintain this crowd’s happiness off the beach, there has been a huge boom in tourism efforts in Abu Dhabi, of which Al Ain is part.

My colleague Sheena runs the tourism communication classes at our university, and part of the program is to take the students on official tours of Abu Dhabi, so they can see it through the eyes of tourists.  On our trip to Al Ain the other day, we discovered that the students were tourists, too. Many of them trace their heritage to Al Ain, but while they knew where their grandmothers’ houses and the mall were, they had never been to Al Jahili Fort or Sheikh Zayed’s home, the reasons busloads of lobster-shaded Europeans trek to Al Ain. The students’ interest in taking pictures of themselves rather than the museum displays initially came as a surprise to us, as they revere Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, so much that in school speeches they often refer to him as “our father.”

But Sheena and I quickly found their self-absorption a relief:  It was momentarily distracting them from realizing that they were providing the Western visitors with their best tourist sighting.

The cameras started flashing and the whispering and pointing began.  Our students, covered in their abayas and headscarves, were getting more head turns than the “Sex in the City II” ladies would have ever gotten from the local population if they had really shot the film here.

This always happens when we go out with our students.  Sheena taught me that in the tourism industry it’s called the zoo effect, i.e. when the native people are photographed like they are creatures on display.  It’s pretty inconsiderate behavior anywhere, but here you have to also factor in that these young women’s dress is designed so people don’t look at them. Most of them have been raised by their parents to stay out of photographs that could expose their faces to unknown men.

Yes, the locals want visitors to come and feel comfortable—for example, I’ve never seen any of them start taking photos of the tourists, so they could say something zoo-like as, “Here’s my shot of white people wearing short pants”—but there are also cultural limits hard to communicate politely. Which is why we miss our former assistant dean, who’d spent some time with the CIA, and used to do a quick “clean sweep” of tourist destinations anytime he saw a camera start to emerge, rather than face a student meltdown about having her picture taken by a stranger.

“Why do they always do that?’ one student asked the Austrian tour guide accompanying us once they noticed the cameras and hurriedly turned their backs to the tourists.

“Don’t you know you’re the number one question I get asked about on tours?” she replied.  “What are they wearing under the black is the most common question.”

The students blushed, somewhere between flattered at their star status and embarrassed by it.

On the way home, the Austrian tour guide offered them the mic.  “I have a fun job,” she promised.  “Just keep people entertained by commenting about things along the road they might find unique or special about Abu Dhabi.”

A girl took the mic, and kept saying, “Just as soon as something comes along, I’ll start talking.”  We passed a camel souq, a 4,000-year old archeological site, spectacular sand dunes and date palm groves, and she still said nothing.  Then she saw a man on the road.  “There is a man standing there,” she said.  “I think he’s hot and I think he’s waiting for a car to pick him up.”   Oh well, if she can’t see the camels for the palm trees, when the day comes that she is actually giving tours, she’ll probably have to answer so many questions about she’s wearing, she won’t have to worry too much about what’s out the window.

A Palestinian Filmmaker in Israel

For years, my friend Hala Gabriel has been working on documentary about the destruction in 1948 of Tantura, her family’s picturesque village in what was then Palestine.  For a Palestinian to even attempt such a project as hers is to face unfathomable odds, which she has.  Finally, she was able to get to Tantura in what is now Israel to film the remaining footage. Below with her permission is the letter she sent to her friends upon returning to the US.  It is unedited, including the photo.

Hello Friends and Family,

Believe it or not, I just returned from my trip to Israel.  I finally did it.  I filmed the remaining things I needed in Israel for my documentary.  I even met with several of the soldiers who invaded my dad’s village Tantoura, exactly as I intended to do.  I met the Israeli general who was on the front line.  One Israeli soldier actually sent “greetings” to my great-uncle.  He recalled him well.  They all very old men now and I am lucky to find them before they die… I was there only 6 days, but I have to say that was emotionally enough for me.  I got back this afternoon and I’ve been sleeping most of the day.  It will take me a while to process the experience.

The Palestinian situation is much, much worst than I ever imagined.  It’s much worse than the news can even describe.  It’s indescribable to be honest and I didn’t even see the worst of it – I didn’t see Gaza.  What I saw was a refined cross between concentration camps, prison camps and a form of modern day slavery.  The Palestinians I met wouldn’t dare to speak to me of their life in front of the camera.  Not even the distant relatives would.  They live in constant fear.  One of them told me that he spent 2 and a half years in prison when he was 12 years old  for throwing a stone.  That’s where he learned Hebrew.  He said he would prefer never to speak Hebrew, but since he’s not allowed to own his own business he has to speak Hebrew to his Jewish boss.

My amazing Israeli/Jewish cameraman Amir I hired, he gave us the grand tour as he videotaped and documented along the way.  As he explained and showed us – The majority of Palestinian villages throughout Israel are sealed off with prison style walls (in fact the same architect that designs the actual Israeli prisons designs these despicable walls!)  Most villages have only foot access entry and exit – usually only one and they are heavily monitored.  Palestinians in the occupied territory are given green license plates for their cars while Jews have yellow – this is to enforce the “Jew” only roads.  I met one Palestinian man at the Ramallah check point who was born in Jerusalem.  He told me on camera that although he was born in Jerusalem they will not give him “citizenship” of Jerusalem, not a Palestinian or Israeli “citizenship”  – he only has a “residency” green card even though he was born there and all his ancestors were born there.  If he leaves Israel for more than 3 years he will lose his residency.  Although he is in his 40’s, he is not a citizen of any country even though his entire family history was in Jerusalem.

I visited the ‘Atlit’ prison camp where my father, uncles and grandfather where held for one year in 1948 after Tantoura massacre.  Ironically that prison was built by the British to incarcerate the Jews.  A portion of it is now a museum.  We took the “tour” and were not surprised that the tour guide some how had no idea what the camp was used for between 1948 and 1951.  That part of its history was some how “missing” or “erased” from the records – as so much of the Palestinian history was.  I so wanted to tell our tour guide that my father too was held there, but I became afraid – so did the Jewish friend I was with.

I traveled to Israel with a Jewish friend from the US named Frederick.  He had never been to Israel before and had no interest in going.  But he was interested in helping me doing my project, the reason why he agreed to join me.  It was astonishing how differently the immigration officers handled him versus how they handled me.  His family were holocaust survivors from Germany and he understood firsthand the meaning of atrocities , racism and ethnic cleansing.  He told me at one point that he was ashamed to call himself Jewish. He also pointed out that the Israeli’s have successfully managed to recreate the Warsaw ghettos.  I was certain that had not asked him to travel with him the Israeli’s would not have let me in at all.  They questioned me for 7 hours at the airport.  They repeatedly called me a liar.  (Apparently a “tactic” as I learned from the “proud” retired Israeli soldiers that taken my family home.)  At the airport they took my belongings, my phone and they threatened me.  On the way out of Israel they strip searched me and dissected my suitcase.  They wouldn’t allow me to take it as carry on, although it was smaller then the carry-on that Frederick was permitted to take it in.  In fact, my suitcase never arrived to New York.  I’m not sure I will get it back or not.  Fortunately there was nothing of great value but it’s the principle.  They also seem to have destroyed my cell phone.  It no longer holds a charge.

Having said all of that… my family village Tantura is beyond beautiful.  It is paradise on earth.  I always wished to be from a beautiful place and indeed I am.  The remnants of my family home gives a clue as to the aesthetic, thoughtfulness, wealth and beauty of the village and the homes that once were.  One of the Israeli soldiers I interviewed who saw the village a few months after they had taken it told me that he can’t describe in words how gorgeous the homes were.  It was a very rich village.  My family was very wealthy.  I understand fully why the people of Tantura continue to cry over 60 years later and long to return to their homes.  The majority of the villagers still live in refugee camps today.  My family is perhaps one of the very few that currently does not live in a camp.

As I wandered around the ruins of my family home, a fisherman approached.  He was apprehensive to speak to me at first.  He thought I was an Israeli.  When he learned who I was he gave me a hug.  When we left Tantura to the neighboring village of ‘Fradis,’ I was met with a crowd of people who are blood relatives.  Each one introduced themselves and explained how I am related to them.  A half-aunt named all her children after her brothers and sisters who she never seen again since the invasion 1948.   Their warmth and hospitality was beyond description.  They made a feast for me and my filming crew.  Delicious fresh caught fish from Tantura.  Before I left, one cousin called to say good-bye and to let me know how much the family loved me.   They know that the chances of Israel ever allowing me to enter again is minuscule.

My heart is so broken.  I bleed in pain for the people living under the occupation and the Palestinian “Israeli’s” who live in a daily horror of fearing for their life and livelihood in the quest for simply being.  The Jewish Israeli’s who are aware of the horror also live in their own prison camp and ghetto – it just has better amenities then the Palestinian villages as they described it to me in their own words.  They told me that it’s easy to live in the Tel Aviv “bubble” which they also described as the “Disneyland” or “Miami Beach” that Israel sells to the world.  There is even a separate road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that avoids the horror of the walls, barbed wire, occupation and imprisoned villagers.

I met a lovely gal at the hotel who told me she had only heard about people like me, but never met any Palestinian whose family was expelled.  It was like an urban legend.  She is originally from Holland.  She gave me her contact information and asked to stay in touch, unfortunately it’s in my suitcase.  I may have to call the hotel later and see if I can get it again.  Even my sound technician , was n Iraqi Israeli Jew told me he had no awareness of the history of Palestinians like myself.  They don’t teach it in Israeli schools.  In fact they are working on creating a law that will make learning about the “Nakba” (the Palestinian disaster) an illegal act.  He told me he had trouble sleeping the last several nights after shooting.   He hugged me and said he hopes I will find peace after this.

I am not sure when I will find peace, but I pray that my film reaches the appropriate audience.  I pray that it is relevant.

I still need funds to complete post production.  If anyone has any idea’s or any access to fund resources, I will be deeply appreciative.  If anyone would like to contribute to my project, any amount is most welcome.

Each person I have emailed has listened to my story and my project and has offered support along the way.  I thank  each of you.

I feel that I must cry now…

Much love,
Hala