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

THE OTHER WINNERS OF THE ZAYED UNIVERSITY FILM FESTIVAL

With several local celebrities on hand as well as, due to remarkably good timing, the brilliant American writer and actor Anna Deveare Smith, trophies were handed out yesterday to student filmmakers from Lebanon, Jordan, and Qatar, in the closing ceremony marking the end of the first annual Zayed University Film Festival.

Twelve films from the 70 films the festival received from universities across the Middle East were selected as finalists and played during screenings attended by over 500 people over the course of three days, along with a selection of semi-finalist films.  Grand prize went to Lebanon’s Naji Bechara for “Talk to the Brain,” a satire on the repressiveness of secondary school education, Best Narrative Short went to Amjad Al Rashid “Bitter Days,” a heartbreaking story of a little girl’s life on the street as a shoe shiner, and Best Documentary went to Qatar’s  Sharoukh Al Shaheen for “Lady of the Rosary,” a multifaceted look at the building of Qatar’s first church.  Abdul Salam Al Haj received an Audience Favorite award for “Yousef,” the bittersweet tale of a young man whose only connection to his late mother is her radio.  There were also amongst the finalists films about marriage, Dubai-style; mistaken identities; complications of father and son relationships, the complications war –just to name a few of the topics.  An audience member asked after watching several of the films, “Why is everything except the marriage stories so intense and dark?” I wondered if she was actually living in the Middle East.  That these filmmakers were able to find the humor, sarcasm, and irony within telling stories of their realities is an attribute to their grace and creativity.

But the other real winners of this festival are my two students, Reema Majed and Al Yazyah Al Falasi, the two girls who came up with the idea as their senior project, and against formidable odds, several nay sayers and a ridiculously short window, pulled off a festival that offered a compelling series of films, a creative and engaging advertising campaign, and a well-produced show that ran flawlessly for three days.  In country where everyone is always claiming to be planning the “the first” or “the newest” something, they really did.  And if that isn’t achievement enough, there is also “Let the Show Begin,” a student film that screened from Baghdad about keeping the Iraqi Film Festival alive amidst destitution, daily tragedy and occupation.  I hope that all these students will be able to let the shows continues.

RED CARPET ADVENTURE: THE STUDENT OSCARS OF THE MIDDLE EAST

The Middle East Student Film Festival

Much as I love film and much as it has been such a big part of my life, I don’t often watch the Academy Awards, even when I’m invited to Oscar parties at friends’ houses.  Aside from crying along with the winners on the Miss USA pageant as a kid, I’m just not that interested in award shows—I’d rather see the movies.  And when I lived in LA, the Oscars were just such a great time to go out and run errands, as the streets were as empty as Christmas.

However, this year I watched them because of another film award show.  Two of my students, Reema Majed and Al Yazyah Al Falasi decided in March that their senior project would be create the first annual student film festival in the Middle East, with three awards to be given out for top documentary and narrative shorts.  Monumental as a task as this is, they were determined, and the result as been several nights of insomnia for me, as I’m sure it has for them.  One of those insomniac nights, I turned on the TV, a rather unprecedented event in of itself, and there were the Oscars just beginning.  What the heck, I thought, I’ll keep them on and mark papers.  The papers I had to read were for a class assignment in which I’d asked students to compare The Hurt Locker to Casablanca, as two movies set against war and the Arab world.  In a class of 30, I’m the only one who preferred Casablanca, although most of the papers seemed to reflect an uncomfortable feeling about how the Iraqis were portrayed as unsavory or stupid and the US soldiers as the saviors of the Iraqis, if not the saviors of themselves.  But in the midst of reading the papers, I considered it kismet (title of another movie with a Middle Eastern setting, albeit far more fantastical) when Steve Martin or someone mentioned that this was the first time 10 films had been nominated for the Oscars since Casablanca won in 1943.

Yes, perhaps if Jordan could manage to be the set for such a complicated shoot as The Hurt Locker, then perhaps it is the right time indeed for their to be a student film festival in the Middle East.  I’m so excited for what our students have accomplished—the Zayed University Film Festival, which received nearly 70 films from eight countries from Egypt to Lebanon and Palestine to Qatar, including Iraq and Jordan, rolls out the red carpet next week, literally, for a festival that will showcase more than 30 films, including the 12 finalists.  Many of the films seem to deal with the issue of identity amidst the turmoil of the filmmakers’ personal lives and the tumultuous and rapidly changing world they live in. Making a film as a student, particularly with limited means, is not an easy thing, nor is setting up a film festival to give them a chance to be viewed, so if you’re in town please come and enjoy the show.  It’s an armchair seat into the minds of today’s Middle Eastern youth.

Check out the films playing at http://www.zuff.ae

Stay tuned for the winners!

The Middle East Film Festival: And the Winners Are…

The closing night of the Middle East Film festival was the hot ticket of the week, for both goats and people.  The festival did a good job of building the hype Middle East Film Festivalall week, with rumors running all week that George Clooney would come for the evening, which included the first screening outside of North America of The Men Who Stare At Goats.  But he didn’t come.  In fact, none of the big stars of the film did, so the festival settled for the supporting cast, four very confused goats.  But before the goats took to the stage, the festival awards were given out by Hollywoodites flown out just to give them out, including Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, and Eva Menendez.  It was indeed a fun ride of serious and quirky films, and I shall probably go into film withdrawal now.  Here’s are some of the winners who took home the Black Pearl Award.  The jury was led by Abbas Kirostami (Black pearls were Abu Dhabi’s gold before oil)

Best Narrative Film (non-Middle East)  Hipsters (Russia)
Best Middle East Narrative Film  The Time that Remains (see my review on Oct. 14)
Best Documentary (non-Middle East) The Frontier Ghandi (Canada, Pakistan, India)
Best First Feature, Last Ride (Australia)
Best Middle East Documentary, Being Here, Tunisia
Best Actresses, Alicia Laguna & Sonia Couoh, Northless (Mexico)
Best Actor, Hamed Behdad, No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran)
Audience Favorite Film: No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran)

THE MIDDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL AND EGYPTIAN SCANDAL

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story caused quite a scandal in Egypt when it was released this summer, and given that it stars Egypt’s most popular actress, Mona

Middle East Film Festival

Middle East Film Festival

Zaki, it’s no surprise that its first Arab screening outside of Egypt was packed.  Egypt was apparently scandalized by the overt sexuality and consequent violence on screen.  Of course, I wanted to see it too, as I have spent so much time with Scheherazade in the last few years.  In Abu Dhabi last night, the director, Yusri Nasrallah, boasted that he was so proud of making a film that showed women as heroes over the men that try to control them, that he was making one of the few Arab films that didn’t relegate women to the roles of accommodating wife, mother, sister, or whore.  The audience went wild with applause, and I was left baffled.  The film revolves on Hebba (Mona Zaki), a talk show hostess whose husband asks her to lay off on the politics on her show so that she doesn’t hurt his chances with a top government editorial post (Mubarak’s government is so comfortable as an acknowledged corrupt tyrant that it doesn’t even bother to have censors deny it anymore) and so she begins to profile women who have been done mightily wrong by a man.  The editing is a little sophomoric and the post-fight make up defies logic but the stories are interesting—but could the women really be any more naïve and desperate then they are in this film, whether it is the shop girl or the well-established doctor from a wealthy family?  True, at some point, all women can admit to having been dumb and/or blind, but that doesn’t usually lead to insanity or murder, as it does in this film.  This is a man’s movie, reeking of benevolence towards women and their helplessness.  The director lamented the loss of powerful women on the Egyptian screen since its golden age, and it is still lamentable.