the power of arab film

danni zuvela & daniel spencer on biff’s arab cinema focus

The Road Beneath the Skies

The Road Beneath the Skies

THE 2007 BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WAS A CONDENSED AFFAIR OWING TO SWEEPING INSTITUTIONAL CHANGES. DESPITE THE PARTICULARLY BRUTE ILLOGIC WITH WHICH THE NEOLIBERALIST AXE SWUNG THIS TIME AROUND, THE 16TH FESTIVAL NONETHELESS DELIVERED SOME VITALLY SIGNIFICANT FILM EXPERIENCES TO A CITY UNDERGOING AN UNPRECEDENTED FLOURISHING OF FILM CULTURE. OF PARTICULAR NOTE AT THIS YEAR’S BIFF WAS A COMPACT BUT EXCEPTIONAL SUITE OF FILMS FROM THE BROADER ARAB WORLD, WHICH SERVED TO NUANCE AND COMPLICATE OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE PLURALITY OF TRADITIONS IN THIS ‘OTHER’ CINEMA.

mainline

The emergent female sensibility among the thrilling discoveries in these films was particularly evident in the searing Iranian feature Mainline (Khoon Bazi). This harrowing account of a mother’s desperate attempt to get her heroin-addicted daughter clean in time for the young woman’s impending wedding deliberately raises thorny and highly relevant questions of bondage, dependency and fulfillment in a national cinema known more for, as Frances Bonner has put it, “lushness and poetic ellipses” than the investigation of social problems. Co-directed by Rakhstan Bani-Estemad, whose daughter Baran Kosari plays the main character, Sara, it is a powerful addition to the canon of films largely by and about women and a unique glimpse of middle-class life in Tehran, which is revealed to share the same agonies as any urban centre. Shot in mainly black and white, bar occasional flares of orange for counterpoint, Mainline’s formal beauty never aestheticises its subject, serving instead as an elegant frame for the central grimness of its theme.

barakat

!
Female solidarity, or more precisely, its challenges, is the theme of the Algerian film Barakat! (Enough!, Djamila Sahraoui). This bold film turns on the unlikely alliance forged by two women doctors, Amel and Khadija, when Amel’s husband is captured by militants. Amel, young and idealistic, is contrasted with the battle-hardened Khadija, a veteran of the independence war against the French. As played by Fettouma Bouamari, Khadija, whose gender now separates her from the male guerillas she once fought with shoulder to shoulder, is a magnetic personality. A carefully-calibrated mix of roguish irreverence and coruscating cynicism, her contempt for all dogmas reminds us of the plurality of positions and experiences in Arab cultures. As an Arab film, directed by a woman, whose narrative hinges on the intergenerational tensions between these two formidable, professional women, Barakat! survives the slightly heavy-handed treatment of its ending to offer a potent take on the challenges for post-colonial peoples in neo-fundamentalist times.

truth and beyond

Revising Islam to reflect local culture is the theme of several ‘outsider’ films at the festival, including the thought-provoking documentary, Truth and Beyond (Ahmed Muztaba Zamal), which highlights the centrality of music in Bangladeshi spiritual practice. The film’s prologue explains that Bangladesh is home to two distinct branches of Islam, textual Islam and the little-discussed ‘indigenous Islam.’ The latter predates textual Islam in Bangladesh, and involves practices unique to the region that diverge significantly from those of orthodox Islam. Truth and Beyond explores the ecstatic musical celebrations and community gatherings that characterise this indigenous faith and constitute its otherness from the anti-musical piety of the orthodox tradition. Memorable scenes include improvised musical debates in remote villages; a visit to the followers of the prophet Lalon who embrace Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam equally; and a glimpse into the moving ceremony known as the Urs of Saidur Rahman Bayati of Waecia Tarika, where worshippers reduced to tears embrace each other.
Rumi: the Poetry of Islam

Rumi: the Poetry of Islam

rumi: the poetry of islam

Truth and Beyond formed part of a charming body of films celebrating the legacy of the mystical Persian poet Rumi, among which the remarkable Dervish feature film, Takva: a Man’s Fear of God (Özer Kiziltan), stood out for its gripping examination of the clash of economics, conscience and spirituality (see Megan Carrigy’s response, RT80, p30). Rumi: the Poetry of Islam is a low-key enquiry into the life of this most enduring and well-loved Persian poet. This docu-drama announces its ‘otherness’ from the codified forms of non-fiction film via an almost absurdly dramatic English voiceover and proceeds to ‘cast’ two very different Muslims, a Bosnian pilgrim and an Iranian musician, to portray key scenes from Rumi’s life. These re-enactments are rather awkward and jarring at first, but become increasingly endearing as the film progresses. The friction caused by these atypical, seemingly untutored techniques serves to refresh our conception of the documentary’s scope, and activates our understanding of the lived practices of both spirituality and poetry. By the end, the interviews with scholars, Imams and Rumi acolytes build a compelling argument that Rumi’s work (among the best-selling poetry in the US) can act as a bridge between Islam and the West.

the road beneath the skies

In the folklore mode, the most exhilarating experience, however, was delivered by the extraordinary Uzbekistani film The Road Beneath the Skies (Kamara Kamalova). The film purges the dour realist style of its Soviet heritage for a stubbornly specific local expression which resonates with the poetic work of fellow Central Asian auteur Sergei Paradjanov. The narrative about love and loss, told in dance-allegorical form, is striking in its lush colour—particularly gold, lavender, red, and green—which enhances the profoundly surrealistic sequences threaded through the film. For audiences unschooled in the folkloric traditions of Uzbekistan, it is difficult to know when the material drawn from traditional tales ends and when the filmmaker’s own fabulist inventions begin, such is the alchemy of this fusion of folklore and the filmmaker’s recollected dreams. The quiet poise of the film’s venerable female director and her warm responses to a rapt audience after the screening mirrored the creative assurance of this unforgettable film.

…and some mexican bunuel

Another rare opportunity was presented by the festival’s superb retrospective of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican films. Los Olvidados, Bunuel’s first film in ‘exile,’ is a tragedy that follows a group of street kids surviving the slums of Mexico City. Bunuel’s subversion of neo-realist conventions with the insertion of surrealist interjections serves not to decentre but rather illuminate the characters’ troubled inner lives. Simon of the Desert discards realism altogether, using the story of the saint to explore some favourite themes. As the anchorite maintains a desert vigil atop his pillar, he is met with increasingly ludicrous temptations until an overspent Bunuel “suddenly uses the Devil’s frequent flyer points to joyride his protagonist into a 1960s beat bar” (in Quentin Turnour’s memorable words), abruptly truncating this dizzying parable and concluding Bunuel’s Mexican career.

Despite the brutality of the funding cuts, BIFF managed to triumph on the basis of inspired, sometimes audacious selections. The enthusiastic responses of the large audiences—to so many of the films that weren’t new releases from David Lynch—provided what is to be, hopefully, a satisfying confirmation of the old adage about the best form of vengeance being success.

16th Brisbane International Film Festival; Regent Cinema; Palace Centro Cinemas; Australian Cinematheque, GoMA, Brisbane, August 2-12, www.biff.com.au

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 20

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

1 October 2007