Middle-Eastern film: Sleepers awake!

Danni Zuvela

Kaeem, Alizadeh, Delbaran

Kaeem, Alizadeh, Delbaran

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.
Rumi

Brisbane International Film Festival 2002 was characterised by the bold and timely 1001 Voices: Cinema of the Middle East and Islamic worlds. The program extends Brisbane’s renowned Asian film programming, giving voice to stories from a region at the forefront of global consciousness.

There’s no better time than now to try to understand the cultures of the Middle Eastern and Islamic worlds when we’ve been saturated with select, managed images of the region. Images, some information, but very few stories. The newsmedia have propagated images of extremists grappling with modernity, but generally we’ve been denied access to detailed accounts of everyday life.

Stories from the Middle East can go some way towards filling this vacuum. For all its social relevance, though, the BIFF program largely resists the temptations of propaganda. Artistic Director Anne Demy-Geroe’s choices tend toward broad humanism and away from highly politicised expression. This task is more difficult than it sounds, naturally, given the intensity of the conflict in so much of the region. It would be hard to imagine, for example, a documentary such as Palestinian Rashid Mashharawi’s latest, Live‚ From Palestine, about the lives of people at the Voice of Palestine radio station achieving ‘apolitical neutrality.’ In that film’s chilling postscript, occupying forces raze the station. A bomb placed in every room, every studio, and everything—lives, careers, hopes, dreams— is destroyed.

Mashharawi’s previous fictional works, Curfew (1993) and Haifa (1995) dealt with the hugely topical issue of refugee camps, as does Asmin Aslani’s tragic The Mourning Book for the Land of the Meridian, set in Afghanistan and popular at this year’s festival. Though the content is inherently political, the real power derives from the level of engagement with the stories of the people—bewildered refugees, traumatised children, shattered journalists whose lives we momentarily enter.

Iranian Abolfazls Jalil’s well-known concern for orphaned children is beautifully realised in Delbaran, the story of Kaim, a refugee boy nurtured by an old couple at a truckstop. With its sudden, poetic moments of kindness, cruelty, beauty, humour and the bizarre, Delbaran, is infinitely stronger for the director’s rewriting of his original script to incorporate the Afghan nationality of the outstanding child actor he had discovered, Kaeem Alizadeh. His films eschew advocacy or stridency, yet depict the complex and heartrending social reality of the region in powerful ways. They raise questions about representation and the extent to which a culture’s stories can be separated from its politics. Considering the fusion of church and state, it would seem futile, if not artificial, to expect most films from the Middle East to be empty of political content.

Despite this, most of the films in 1001 Voices are more contemplative. Indeed, rigid ideologies are often problematised, such as in the superb Under the Moonlight, Iranian Reza Mir-Karimi’s story of a young mullah awakening to the different and difficult world away from the seminary. The film argues for the acknowledgment of the difficulty and necessity of somehow reconciling fundamentalist and reformist elements.

Though the films of Kiarostami were noticeably absenct (perhaps to give others a chance to shine), Iranian cinema featured strongly, ranging from the lush lyricism of Farhad Mehenfar’s mystical The Legend of Love and Alizreza Ghanie’s The Wind Game, a tribute to the works of Rumi, to the deliberate innocence of Hamid Jebelli’s White Dream, to Mazar Bahari’s surprising and touching documentary, Football, Iranian Style, about the nation’s unifying passion.

Babak Payami’s democratic farce, Secret Ballot (also translated as “Void Votes”), set on the remote island of Kish, is an absurdist treat. The determination of the plucky female electoral agent (Nassim Abdi) to collect every single vote on election day, regardless of the soldier’s (Cyrus) petulance, is endearing. The film’s seriocomic narrative is at its best in the scene where the young girl complains of the irony of being “old enough to marry, but not old enough to vote.” Payami leavens the didacticism with just the right amount of absurdity—the stoplight in the middle of nowhere is a prime example). Characters represent the themes: he, patriarchal tradition, incompetence and the law of the gun; she, progress, modernity and, ultimately, hope for a better future. Visually mesmerising, Secret Ballot’s tenderly-delivered message, about the need to resolve ideological differences for the sake of progress is all the more powerful for its comedic embodiment in two memorable leads.

In addition to the outstanding Iranian program, other masters from the region were also represented in the BIFF program: Youssef Chahine with the exhuberant, irresistible Silence! We’re Rolling, a loving tribute to the MGM musical, and Amos Gitai, with his accomplished Wadi Grand Canyon, made in the style of Michael Apted’s 7-Up series but with deeper political resonance. Gitai, whose oeuvre is characterised by explorations of relationships between ethnic groups, returned to the canyon of the title (a disused quarry on the margins of Haifa) at 10-year intervals from 1981 on. The result is a cumulative portrait of a group of individuals of mixed ethnicity across time. The depiction of the effects of time on the relationship between Miriam, a Jew, and her Arab husband Scander, is particularly moving.

The stories of the Middle East experienced in the boldly programmed 1001 Voices provide a unique and valuable access to an under-explored and generally misunderstood world. The program’s range of voices—poignant, tragic, funny, bizarre, beautiful—entice us to open our eyes and ears; to throw off our mediatised somnolence and apathy, and to awaken.

2002 Brisbane International Film Festival, Artistic Director Ann Demy-Geroe, Greater Union Hoyts Regent, Myer Centre Cinemas & State Library of Queensland, July 9-21.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 34

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002