Yesterday, Variety named Palestinian Elia Suleiman this year’s top filmmaker in the Middle East, which coincided with the screening last night in Abu Dhabi of his award-winning film The Time That Remains, his eccentric look at his late father’s life after Palestine was turned into Israel and continuing on with his own life today. Suleiman is what I would describe as an absurdist, and his films, this one being no exception, manage to find the humor amidst the tragedy of the Palestinians—and within that humor, to highlight the societal consequences of occupation that go beyond bombs and bullets, including petty and violent crime, the collapse of families, and perhaps most distressing, the growing drug abuse, all set against the God given beauty of Palestine/Israel. There is some great acting in this film, too, including the pivotal role of the elderly mother, played by Suleiman’s own mother, who died before the film’s completion, and the elderly neighbor with the foul mouthed language that Arabs in the Gulf never use, and perhaps was the reason he got such big laughs, like when kids hear the word “boob.” The audience here in Abu Dhabi was probably 50-50 Western and Arab, and the film got quite an enthusiastic reception from the Western audience, whereas the Palestinians I talked with were more subdued. I sat next to my friend from Nazareth, where Suleiman shot the film, and he said that the dark humor was exactly Nazareth but he wondered what others understood of the film. People in Abu Dhabi are pretty worldly, so they probably did get a lot of it. Sometimes I worry about people who don’t know the history of the area seeing films like this and thinking, “Well, it’s not so bad.” Then again seeing that world through a lens that perhaps may not focus on the inhumane horrors of situation but rather its absurdities is a valid entry into a reality that many outside of it might not know anything about otherwise. And then as Suleiman told the audience yesterday, this isn’t the film on Palestine. It’s his film about his father.
After seeing an opening night film in which half the crowd walked out and in a year where my limited opportunities to see films has left me until last night
calling The Hangover my favorite film of the year, I’m delighted to now call Son of Babylon my favorite film of the festival and the year so far. The film made its international debut last night, with the director just having spent all the previous night in London getting it ready. Son of Babylon centers on a 12-year old boy and his grandmother as they travel from northern Iraq to Babylon in search of the boy’s father, a Kurdish soldier imprisoned since the boy was born. From Baghdad to a deserted and remote region of Iraq, the pair encounter the devastation of both the Saddam era and the U.S. invasion, but mostly they encounter the kindness of strangers suffering the same traumas, albeit from different sides of Iraq’s many fences. The Iraqi-born director, Mohamed Al-Daradji, filmed in his homeland, casting from real life: the grandmother is played by a woman who was imprisoned herself and continues to search for her husband, who is one of Iraq’s many missing. The boy is from a small Kurdish village and the Al-Daradji worked with him for several months to get his breathtaking performance. The principal crew is an international cast funded and/or trained by several international sources, including the Sundance Lab and deserved the standing ovation they received. Inshallah, it’ll come to a theater near you, and definitely go see it—the big screen will allow you the experience of the spectacular cinematography.
Last night, I sat down to watch Syrian television director Hatem Ali’s feature film, The Long Night, with some fear that the title might be all too prophetic. And yes, it was a slow film, but the characters hooked eveyone in the first scene: the usual morning for four lifelong friends stuck in a Syrian prison cell together for 20 years for their anti-government views and for refusing to apologize for them. The movie is about the night of the release of the three of the men as they journey back to their families. The film cuts between the men, as well as several of their now adult children as they confront each other and the hyprocisies and fears that have held them together and torn them apart over the years. Shot with great dependency on close ups and extreme close ups of the actors and food, perhaps a reflection of the director’s television background (although the sequencing of shots and the editing does not result in a television feel) the film, as the director told the audience, is political in its nature but definitely a compelling look at the after effects of taking care of yourself at the cost of your family and your self-respect.