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French Version

Mideast films make strong showing at Cannes

Region's politics in particular hit headlines with films like "Kilometer Zero" and "Free Zone"

Another year, another Cannes. Amidst the annual carnival of premieres, parties and pageants, there was also a film festival going on. Festival director Gilles Jacob opened proceedings with a stated desire to avoid the hysteria that greeted last year's Palme D'Or winning Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11."

"'Fahrenheit 9/11' was awarded a prize more for political than cinematographic reason," he commented. "It was an out of ordinary event that probably won't be repeated."

Nevertheless Middle East politics was again brought center-stage to the Croisette with the early screening of "Kilometer Zero," Iraqi Kurd Hiner Saleem's tragic-comic journey into the dark heart of Saddam Hussein's brutal repression of the Kurds, set in 1988 days before the horrific chemical attack against Halabja.

Initial hopes were high for the film vaunted as the first Iraqi film to feature in competition at Cannes. Sadly, many were left disappointed - the elliptical blend of surreal vignettes ultimately unsatisfying after a promising opening half hour that saw Kurdish everyman Ako reluctantly drafted into the Iraqi Army and sent to the front line in the war against the Iranians.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also represented with Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai's "Free Zone." It starred Natalie Portman, mercifully free of Jedis, Wookies and Darth Vader, in the central role as Rebecca, an American newly arrived in Jerusalem who embarks on a road journey with Israeli taxi driver Hanna - in a best actress winning turn from Hanna Laslo - and Palestinian woman Leila to Jordan's Free Zone.

Despite a bravura opening sequence - a near 10 minute close up on Portman crying while overlooking the Wailing Wall - and some haunting visuals the film was hampered by the director's tendency to stray into tiresome speechifying.

To paraphrase Abba Eban, Gitai never misses a chance to waste an opportunity - often setting up interesting scenarios only to see them scuppered by an insistence to turn his films into history lessons. One of the most interesting elements about the film was it was shot in cooperation with the Jordanian Royal Film Commission. Such cross ventures are to be applauded in these trying political times and a positive indication of celluloid dreams transcending political borders, a point further borne out with the first ever appearance this year of cinema tents from Lebanon and Iran in the International Film Pavilion.

Far better than "Free Zone," though screened out of competition, was Avi Mograbi's "Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes," another addition to the growing oeuvre of documentaries on the never-ending conflict. Cutting between Jewish settlers recounting biblical tales of Samson and the mass suicide of nearly 1,000 Jews at Masada with present-day footage of Palestinians desperately trying to bypass the security wall, the film was filled with memorable images.

One scene, of an elderly Palestinian woman sitting next to a stone, crying as she lamented, "We're sick and tired of living. It's all for nothing," heartbreakingly summed up the human cost of the occupation. It might not have been particularly original but it remained quietly devastating, a sobering reminder amidst the sun-soaked jamboree of proceedings outside the auditorium.

Also encouraging was the emergence of a host of new Middle Eastern filmmakers, particularly in the Un Certain Regard section where first-time female directors Laila Marrakchi's "Marock" and Iranian Niki Karimi's "One Night" played.

The two films couldn't have been more different, the former a sexy, deliciously adolescent escape into affluent 17-year-old Rita's world in a Casablanca filled with parties, drinking and making out with boys. Karimi's film, on the other hand, was a dread-fueled trawl through the midnight streets of Tehran, following 20-something Negar as she accepts lifts from three male strangers.

An indictment of Iranian patriarchal order, the film evoked the mood of Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, who actually served as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury. Sadly both films were left empty-handed when the prizes were handed out, but regardless the two directors offered interesting, if flawed, debuts.

More successful on the award front was Palestinian Sameh Zoabi with his short "Be Quiet." Picking up the third prize in the Cinefondation category, Zoabi, who is currently completing his studies at Columbia University, is most definitely one to watch.

Avoiding the melodrama or cliches that unfortunately categorise so much Arab cinema, Zoabi's lovely and simple tale of a Palestinian boy and father driving through a checkpoint managed to be funny and moving, allowing only child-like glimpses of the brutality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to peek through.

Most joyous of all though was Fatih Akin's "Crossing The Bridge," screened out of competition. A musical celebration of the sounds of Istanbul, it covered similar ground to the director's Berlin Golden Bear winning "Head On" with the cultural cross-fertilization between East and West.

Looking at everything from Turkish Hip Hop artists, drunken Romany performances and Kurdish singers, Akin's film was a vibrant exploration of Turkey's place as the gateway between two civilisations. "We're both ashamed and joyful," one street performer sings to camera, perfectly capturing the inherent dilemma of being caught between two worlds.

And so another Cannes ended with more questions than answers for Middle Eastern filmmakers. Yes, there were indubitable pluses - new, young filmmakers with exciting voices and a pan-geographic representation that saw the region covered on screen from the streets of Tehran to Istanbul. The importance of the Iranian and Lebanese pavilions can also not be over-estimated, the Fondation Cinema Liban, in particular, displaying a cogent business plan and ambition that suggests filmmaking in the country may well finally achieve some sustainability.

Yet significant doubts remain. "Kilometer Zero," so eagerly anticipated to begin with, ultimately emerged to indifference, despite the fact it contained as much good as bad. The complete absence of Egypt is another worry. Long the film production center of the Arab world, its consistent failure to challenge the international festival circuit betrays the lack of ambition on the part of producers and financiers.

With Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, the Maghreb and now Iraq all boasting awards in recent years, the former Hollywood on the Nile is in serious danger of being left behind, seemingly obsessed with inane farces and romantic comedies. New blood is imperative. Youssef Chahine, at the end of the day, cannot be expected to keep making films forever.

Beirut,06June2005
Ali Jaafar
The Daily Star


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