|'Kiss me not on the eyes, a kiss on the eyes tears people apart'
|Five years in the making, Jocelyne Saab's controversial film 'Dunia' finally makes it to theaters in Lebanon
Jocelyne Saab's feature film "Dunia, Kiss Me Not on the Eyes" opened in Beirut this week after months and years of dogged controversy.
More an assemblage of evocative scenes, situations and set pieces than a straightforward story with beginning, middle or end, Saab's film took half a decade to complete.
The idea for "Dunia" sprung out of a study on sexuality among young people in Egypt, and when a set of rather perturbing findings came rushing in, one of Saab's researchers patently refused to type them up and walked out on the job. Then the censorship board in Cairo deemed her script to be pornographic. Then the actors balked at being asked to break every cinematic convention they knew. Then bureaucratic red-tape bungled the logistics of the shoot. Then the film's financial backers bailed just as "Dunia" headed off location and into post-production.
All this before the film even hit the screen. When that happened, all hell broke loose. "Dunia" premiered at the Cairo Film Festival late last year. At a news conference held to mark the occasion, discussion of the film degenerated into an all-out brawl between the director and a caustic film critic.
Loads of condemnation followed - most of it tiresome and off point (are we really still arguing about the difference between features and documentaries, fiction and reality and whether or not a filmmaker has the right - the right - to show Cairo as a city populated by poor people who deal with stultifying grit and grime yet still endeavor to seek pleasure in their lives?)
Of course, the critical mass of controversy surrounding "Dunia" does no more than bury the artistic merits of the film itself. It is quite liberating, then, to be able to simply go and see it, as one movie among 30 screening at local theaters, all thankful to be open and their stock replenished after a month of war and another few weeks of blockade.
At the core of the film is Dunia herself, whose name means "the world" in Arabic. A young woman in her early 20s who lives on her own, Dunia (Hanan Turk) is studying literature and dance in a society that seems to have become untethered from both. Her neighbors squawk about her honor and her single status; her luminous mane and tiny, curvy physique seem to threaten the stability of the streets themselves.
Still, with her literature professor, Beshir (Mohamed Mounir), she discovers the pleasure of words, through the verse of both classical Arab poets and modern pop cultural icons (the film's secondary title comes from the lyrics of an old Abdel-Halim Hafez song - "Kiss me not on the eyes / A kiss on the eyes tears people apart").
With her dance instructor, played with delicious camp by Walid Aouni, she discovers the pleasure of movement and the body. Other characters orbit around her, contributing the many different parts that should eventually come together to constitute Dunia as a fully formed woman - having learned humor from her bawdy aunt who drives a cab adorned with a cartoonish heart, seduction from the gaggle of girls her late mother used to dance with, fury from seeing her young female cousin cruelly circumcised, depth from Beshir, serenity from Aouni, and more.
The person with whom this should all add up is Mamdouh (Fathy Abdel-Wahab), her boyfriend of sorts who is, shall we say, sweating her hard. But it doesn't work. Even when they wed, she in a paper gown, their marriage goes unconsummated. Mamdouh has passed the point of sexual frustration and finds her a tease one minute, frigid the next. She pens her farewell notice on her bridal gear.
In terms of style, "Dunia" mixes up several things at once: the musical romp of standard-fare Egyptian cinema, Pedro Almodovar's canvas of outrageous colors and female characters, Michelangelo Antonioni's ability to convey a film's entire meaning in a single visual shot that unfurls wi-thout words, Wong Kar Wai's nimble touch for sensuality.
Saab - who got her first break in 1981 as a second-unit director on Volker Schlondorff's "Circle of Deceit" and went on to make numerous hard-hitting documentaries in Lebanon, Iran, Kurdistan, Vietnam, the Spanish Sahara and more - once said she initially found making feature films difficult because they are so "talkative," that she preferred to focus on the image, and on charging the image with challenging material.
All of which makes sense, as "Dunia" could almost do without its dialogue. It holds together less as a cohesive narrative than as a series of near-stills - Dunia on the bridge, Dunia on the train, Dunia watching old movies from her window, Dunia against the choking backdrop of urban Cairo. Saab's camera is justifiably in love with her subject. The film may be a let-down for those viewers expecting "Dunia" to live up to its scandal quotient. But it's something of a relief to grasp how experimental "Dunia" really is.
Jocelyne Saab's "Dunia, Kiss Me Not on the Eyes," is playing now in theaters throughout Lebanon
The Daily Star