|Ten days in a desert town going bust
|Prize-winning film turns a lens on a nontouristic Jordan-Iraq border
Emptied of its residents, the Jordanian town of Ruwayshed could be a movie set for any derelict town along a desert highway to someplace else.
As it's Ruwayshed, it is the last stop on the road to the Iraqi border. For 10 days in April 2005 a small crew arrived with a digital video camera and filmed some of the town's residents going about their business. What emerged from this brief encounter was Nassim Amaouche's "A Few Crumbs for the Birds," a 28-minute documentary that has been quietly making the rounds of the 2005-6 festival circuit.
The film is a study in the filmmakers' determination to tell a story that's as unpopular as it is commonplace, despite the opposition of state authorities. Unable to censor the film outside Jordan, or to dissuade the crew to take their gear to a more photogenic locale, the state tried to stop filming by removing the subject.
In the run-up to America's invasion of Iraq, Ruwayshed played host to a few hundred members of the international press corps. Armed with cars and expense accounts, they rented flats for 1000 dinars a month and brought Ruwayshed a fleeting boomtown prosperity.
By the time Amaouche, director of photography-editor Annmarie Jacir and sound technician-photographer Dana Farzanehpour arrive on the scene, the hacks have departed. All that's left of the good old days are two pieces of A-4 paper taped above the door of an abandoned-looking building, the words "Press" and "Office" printed on them.
The trio document a town that has been left to eke out a living as a small-time oil smuggling entrep™t, with Ruwayshed's hotel bar furnishing an ancillary service sector.
"A Few Crumbs for the Birds" is the strongest of three short films to be awarded the Evens Foundation prize for visual arts in 2005. The Belgium-based foundation regularly awards prizes for intercultural education as well as visual arts.
In 2004-5 Evens wanted to strengthen intercultural dialogue between the West and the Middle East, so it invited a group of filmmakers to submit scripts focusing on Jordan. The three "laureates" - two short features and the documentary - are quite different from one another but they also have striking similarities.
All are spare productions with few characters and a minimalist story. All are of a poetic character - matching allusive plotlines with actual written poetry.
Ula Tabari's "Diaspora" (16 mins.) focuses on a single member of the Palestinian expat community in Paris. Though she seems to live a comfortable middle-class life with her French lover, the incessant news footage and phone calls from home make it impossible for her to live a normal life. Ultimately she decides to return.
Timon Koulmasis' "What Colour Are the Walls of Your Apartment" (17 mins.) is a nicely acted if opaque little film about a Greek woman who returns to Palestine after some period of absence to visit an old Palestinian fellow. They have a conversation in which she expresses a great deal of sorrow but it's left completely up to the audience to decide what has passed between the two characters to bring about this meeting.
Being a documentary, "A Few Crumbs for the Birds" offers a better-grounded strain of poetry. Though it's about Ruwayshed, the film speaks to the filmmakers' Uncertainty Principle - how sometimes bad things happen to your subjects when you start filming them.
The film's cast of characters is made up of five young women, employed at the town's hotel bar. There's also a Syrian fellow named Amer, who works at the hotel, and Sami, a diesel vendor of unknown origins. Later there's a cameo appearance by a trio of Jordanian mukhabarat agents.
The subjects are a taciturn lot. None of them reveal any more than the basics of their personal stories.
Two of the girls say they're Palestinians from Amman's Wahadat refugee camp. Amer says he's only been in Ruwayshed for a month, knows no one here, and will return to Syria in a month. He ended up here by chance, he says, coming only because there's always work along the border.
Sami, who briefly explains how the contraband trade works, says nothing about himself. Strangely, he does confide that he regularly dreams about his dead father - who comes in his own car bearing watches - whom he treats to a meal of wild pigeon.
Much of what Sami and Amer have to say arisies in response to a well-known song whose lyrics provide the film's metaphorical mortar. The vocalist cries out with longing for his neighbor, leading both men to say the poet's singing to his lover. Amer imagines the poet sitting alone, as if in a prison, and speculates the song might also be about exile.
"It's a very old song," says Amer. "Everybody likes it. For me it's the most beautiful song in the world."
The discussion of these lyrics, so redolent with meaning for the figures scratching a livelihood from the oil trickling through the desert border, stands in for the information the crew might have gathered had the film shoot not come to an unexpected halt.
The official end of the shoot comes with the arrival of the intelligence officers. First they cajole the filmmakers to take their camera to some of Jordan's more scenic locations.
"Have you been to Bourka," one of agents suggests while the camera eavesdrops. "There are wonderful things to see there. Beautiful monuments, the desert, camels and from there you head toward an archaeological and tourist area. There are camels. A very beautiful area. Take pictures. You can visit Jarash, Ajloun ... Petra."
When the crew decides to remain in Ruwayshed, the town's diesel vendors are ordered to close up shop. Three men wreck the hotel and the terrified women flee. The hotel is shut and the oil traffic is stopped.
Evidently frontier life in Ruwayshed isn't the image of the country that the Jordanian state wants to see represented to the outside world.
Amaouche is a French-educated sociologist, suggesting that if he'd had his way there would have been much more data in this film. Compensating for the dearth of hard elements such as testimony are elements that might otherwise have been more decorative - the camera work, soundscape and still photos of Ruwayshed and its environs.
It's to the credit of the skill of Amaouche, Jacir and Farzanehpour that they were able to assemble these components into an evocation of Ruwayshed life that's no less powerful for being impressionistic.
For more information on these films and the Evens Foundation, see www.evensfoundation.be
The Daily Star