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 all 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)
I’m reluctant to refer to Raja Amari’s film, “Buried Secrets,” as Tunisian film after the verbal brow beating she took from several Tunisians in the audience.
Middle East Film Festival
The film is about three woman living secretly in an old, abandoned family home, hiding from the world—and particularly the men in it–for years. Their isolation is disturbed by the arrival of a happy young couple, a distant relative of theirs before their universe fell apart. At first comic and then creepy and then plain tragic, this film deals with sexual repression, incest, consequent insanity. Not pleasant topics. And certainly not topics exclusive to Tunisia. However, several Tunisians present were quite vocal in saying that they didn’t approve of the filmmaker showing her country in such an ugly right. Amari was clearly upset by this, saying she had not made a film about Tunisia. But they kept on, saying that she had an obligation to represent her country positively. Now if this film had been done by an American, most Americans would have accused him of casting a negative light on problems in the U.S. For example, Precious is playing here, and that is no beauty shot of the U.S., but no one is blaming the filmmaker. That’s because the U.S. produces hundreds of films every year that see the light of day. But in smaller, poorer countries, with very small to non-existent film industries, filmmakers find themselves being celebrated by the press as “the Tunisian film” or “the Peruvian film,” and in that way are denied their freedom of expression as much as any government could deny them, as it is too much responsibility for a filmmaker to be the national film publicist for her country.
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.
The Middle East Film Festival
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
The Middle East Film Festival
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.