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French Version

After-images from a year on film

Some fine films came out of the Middle East this year. Some of them may eventually screen here, too

The best place to begin pontificating about a year of Middle East cinema is, of course, America.

This region continued to be implicated in American film production in 2005, with some of last year's themes still reverberating, albeit somewhat altered.

This was the year of Sir Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," a "blacksmith done good" road movie, featuring a host of character actors and Scott's characteristically well-choreographed effects.

Emotionally tepid, "Kingdom" was nevertheless less sectarian than 2004's holy blockbuster, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and the local media obediently gave Scott's work lots of attention because the villains weren't Muslims for a change.

That said, its depiction of Kurdish Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi (played with gravitas by Ghassan Massoud) had all the complexity of a shadow puppet. Massoud did get a few good lines, though, which is better than nothing.

Last year, the Middle East was grist for the mill of "Fahrenheit 9-11," by that propagandist of America's militant center, Michael Moore. This year militant Islam - in the form of terrorists from the fictional "Durkadurkastan" - was fodder for the vulgar wit of "Team America: World Police," by "South Park" veterans Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

This marionette melodrama a la "Thunderbirds" lampoons both ignorant militarists and presumptuous entertainers - aka the American Screen Actors' Guild and Michael Moore.

"Team America" will never darken the cinemas in this region, of course, but rumor has it that copies have leaked into select DVD-rental outlets and you can always download it off the net.

So much for Hollywood. As far as the region's cinematic production was concerned, 2005 was an ambivalent year.

The two new Middle East film festivals launched in 2004 grew in inverse relation to one another. While Dubai's festival swelled in both froth and substance, the Ramallah festival vaporized under a cloud of political controversy - stay tuned to this page in early 2006.

It was a scheduled off-year for Beirut's two most high-profile little festivals, just as well given the year's political ferment, but "Lebanese" filmmakers attracted considerable international attention.

The feature film of the year, however, is "Paradise Now," by Palestinian-Dutch writer-director Hany Abu-Assad.

Carrying the distinction of being the first feature to be shot on location in the West Bank during this intifada, Abu-Assad's film follows the final hours in the lives of Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two average guys about to detonate themselves in Tel Aviv.

Sympathetic without being maudlin, Abu-Assad's film aroused animosity among audiences who object to human portrayals of suicide bombers. "Paradise Now" got the critical nod at the Berlin Film Festival, though, where it won the Blue Angel for best European Film - it being a French-German-Dutch-Palestinian co-production. It will be interesting indeed to see if any of this region's distributors have the courage to give "Paradise Now" a general release in 2006.

Another film that made an impression in Europe in 2005 (and likely to remain invisible hereabouts) was Hiner Saleem's "Kilometer Zero," a dark comedy about a Kurdish-Iraqi conscripted into Saddam Hussein's army to fight Iran in 1988. This much-anticipated follow-up to Saleem's masterful 2003 comedy "Vodka Lemon" was the first Iraqi film to be selected for Cannes' official competition.

Not a murmur has arisen about "Kilometer Zero" from the region's festival circuit, though. No doubt this is because, unlike the dark but gentle humor of "Vodka Lemon," Saleem's acerbic wit here targets Arab Iraqis.

One feature that it seems will have a commercial release in 2006 is "A Perfect Day," by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas. A big winner at the 2005 Locarno Film Festival, the feature took the FIPRESCI (Critics') Prize and the Don Quixote Award - from the International Federation of Film Societies (FICC) and non-profit cinemas.

The film follows a day in the life of Malek (Ziad Saad) and his mother Claudia (Julia Kassar). It's not just any day, mind you, but the day mother and son commence legal proceedings to formalize the death of Claudia's disappeared husband. A dispassionate vignette of a passionate city, "A Perfect Day" captures the cosmopolitan skin stretched over Beirut's neo-feudal skeleton.

While on the subject of Lebanese filmmakers, 2005 saw the debut of "Zozo," a new feature by helmer Josef Fares. An indie-film star in his adopted Sweden - thanks to his hits "Jalla! Jalla!" (2000) and "Kopps" (2003) - Fares shot the first half of this autobiographical road movie in Beirut.

Set in 1987, the film follows the flight of 10-year-old Zozo (Imad Creidi) from Beirut and his emigration to Sweden. "Zozo" departs from Fares' trademark humor and wades into serious (potentially maudlin) themes. With a surprisingly assured performance from Creidi and a strong supporting cast led by Carmen Leboss, though, the film has proven popular among Lebanese ex-pats and Europeans alike.

Last among Lebanon's 2005 features is Philippe Aractingi's dabkeh-driven musical-romantic comedy "Bosta." Marketed locally under the virtual brand "100% Lebanese" and earning box office receipts unheard of for Lebanese movies since Chadi Hanna's "SLFilm," "Bosta" has got an obliging boost from local media.

The argument's simple enough: Any feature that manages the unheard of feat of winning Lebanese financial backing to project the Lebanese condition on film screens deserves support, because its success will encourage future financiers to invest in film, rather than more empty office blocks.

All true. Filmmakers emulating Aractingi in the future, though, should distinguish between his prowess as a producer and his less-distinguished turn as the film's writer-director. Lebanese capital should know that it can make a return from film. Lebanese audiences should know that the raw material of their lives can be shaped into forms that are entertaining, without condescension, and of lasting worth.

On the other side of the spectrum is "Massaker." Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin, this German-Lebanese documentary looks at the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Rather than examining the matter from the perspective of the survivors, though, Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim interviewed six of the perpetrators, making it one of the most contentious documentaries to come out of this region in some time.

The film is controversial among those leery of providing a venue for unrepentant murderers to trumpet past atrocities and some question its utility in documenting the truth, since there's no way of knowing if the men are telling the truth. Others argue that, whether the informants are telling the truth or not, their testimonies provide data to dissect political mass murder.

Another documentary that should be sought out is Saeed Taji Farouky's portrait of illegal migration from North Africa to Europe "I See the Stars at Noon."

In Tangiers, Farouky meets a young Moroccan man named Abdalfattah who intends to make the "Hijra Siriyya," as the human traffic is called, to Spain. He trains his camera on Abdalfattah from mid-January to mid-February 2004, the month it takes him to formulate and execute his plan.

In the process, Farouky generates an intimate and nuanced portrait of an intelligent but increasingly desperate young man with a firm grasp on the opportunities and obstacles in his life - including those afforded by the filmmaker himself. The film thus brushes against the ethics of the documentary process as well as that of the migration.

There's always a film that should be missed and in 2005 it's Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story." This 35-minute musical short, centering on rival Israeli-Palestinian fast food restaurants, recasts "West Side Story" in the Palestinian territories. It depicts "Juliet" as a doe-eyed Palestinian babe and "Romeo" as a ruggedly handsome Israeli soldier manning a checkpoint.

Many would question whether Palestine's persistent agonies are the appropriate point of departure for a form as flimsy and jejune as the musical comedy. The screening of "West Bank Story," though, late in the schedule of a recent film festival, afforded a much-appreciated opportunity to catch a nap between films.

Beirut,02January2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star


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