through the screen into others’ worlds

farid farid: arab film festival 2010

The Time That Remains

The Time That Remains

DECREPIT WHEELS ON A RUSTY BICYCLE CARRYING FOLDED CARTONS CRISSCROSS THE GROTESQUELY PEOPLED STREETS OF THE ‘DESERT KINGDOM’ OF DUBAI—A FAR CRY FROM THE OPULENT ARTIFICIAL LUSTRE THAT ENVELOPS ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS OF THE OIL RICH EMIRATE. TO THE SUBDUED BACKGROUND MUSIC OF MANDOLINS, THIS IS THE OPENING SCENE OF THE FIRST FEATURE LENGTH FILM PRODUCED BY AN EMIRATI, ALI MOSTAFA, TITLED CITY OF LIFE. IT OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED THE NATIONAL 2010 ARAB FILM FESTIVAL (AFF) IN SYDNEY.

Through a series of intersecting plotlines and stunning visual hyperbole reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, Ali manages to recount a postmodern narrative about a cosmopolitan Dubai that houses the fragile dreams of its itinerant populace.

With the same overarching artistic zeal of the past few years, the festivals’ co-directors, Mouna Zaylah and Fadia Abood, endeavoured to present a multifaceted selection of films that in their words “showcase stories from diverse Arabic-speaking cultures to broad Australian audiences that reflect the complexity and diversity of Arab communities and experiences.”

Touring nationally to five major cities, the AFF has generated its own scene, making its presence known by collaborating with local communities and reaching out to newer audiences with record attendances throughout. In a sense, AFF offered a cultural antidote to the increasingly virulent Islamophobia gripping the current state of western political discourse—be it over items of clothing or over building permits near sacrosanct, politicised sites. As the directors point out, AFF provides a sovereign domain of imagination that “addresses the (mis)representations of Arab culture through film…by presenting alternative representations of Arab cultures, subjects and narratives; and by supporting the development and presentation of new screen-based work by Arab-Australians.” Films screened this year transgressed the traditional political boundaries of the Arab world and also spoke with the diasporic intonations and regional polyphonies of a vibrant language that were wonderfully exhibited in the homemade Arab-Australian archival footage sent in by local participants.

scheherazade, tell me a story

In Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story, audiences were confronted with a brutal admixture of gender and class in modern Egypt and how women in their various social positionings are caught within the entangling webs of cultural modernity and religious piety. Yousry Nasrallah, a protégé of the masterful director Youssef Chahine, skillfully continues the avant-garde revival of current Egyptian cinema with mass appeal by conflating social taboos regarding sexuality and domestic violence. The deliberately subversive strain indicated by the title uses the narrative device of a late night Oprah-esque talk show host who exposes the moral decay of her own society by broadcasting testimonies of Egyptian women navigating the perilous paths of misogyny in their search for love in their personal relationships. At times comedic and in other parts kitschy in its forced acting style, Nasrallah’s film manages to reveal the sensuous aspects of corruption in the private and public spheres of Egyptian life. Perhaps the most gruesome scene—a forced abortion for an educated middle class woman seduced by a professional con artist—underscores how violence manifests itself within contemporary Arab societies in the most mundane yet graphic ways.

kickoff

Other films such as Kickoff or 12 Angry Lebanese are slower paced with their more palpable narratives, wrenching in their intimate depictions and intense in their visual qualities. Kickoff is a well crafted film that uses the cinematographic hues of sepia tones strategically to convey the bleak realities of internally displaced Kurdish Iraqi refugees in a soccer stadium in the city of Kirkuk. The fortified complex of the stadium with its worn out pitch, houses goats, nets, mattresses, burning rubbish drums and humans. These people co-exist within a tense serenity where lives are conducted in a circularity mimicking the Olympic track that engulfs their everyday transactions, economic or otherwise.

The main character, Asu, is tragically killed when leaving the insular space of the stadium to enter the genocidal geography of the city in order to buy a fake trophy for a soccer competition he stages with support from the competing ethnic groups of Arabs, Kurds and Turks. The stadium in Giorgio Agamben’s term is classed a “state of exception”, standing as a microcosmic edifice of juridico-temporal confusion in the midst of the anarchy of occupation or a larger “state of exception” that is now Iraq. Safety and sovereignty ironically reside in the disfigured zone of a no man’s land. The director, Shawkat Korki, brings an aesthetic sensibility tempered by slow moving shots and close ups to reveal the scarring effects of an occupation through the aridity and barrenness of the stadium and the authentic feelings of his characters.

12 Angry Lebanese

12 Angry Lebanese

12 angry lebanese

12 Angry Lebanese, a documentary by comic actor and drama therapy teacher Zeina Daccache, moves into similar territory by leaving the viewer in a suspended state of irreconcilability. On the one hand, the film tracks the transformational psychological journeys of men trapped in Beirut’s most notorious prison, Roumieh, through their staging of an elaborate adaptation of the famous American play 12 Angry Men. Yet, the men still remain physically entrapped.

The autobiographical testimonies of the prisoners to the camera interspersed throughout are painfully moving in their exploration of what Lebanese Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage terms a “de-phallicised masculinity.” They are disparagingly honest, ironic and extremely self-reflexive in their laying bare of narratives not tainted by juries or judges. It is interesting to juxtapose 12 Angry Lebanese with Scheherazade, Tell me a Story as both films use the confessional mode of storytelling to convey the complex reality of being a man or a woman in the contemporary Arab world with the literary quality of the first person narrative.

Over 15 months, the prison doors were opened to a committed director and the enthusiasm of those incarcerated to liberate themselves from the internecine, intergenerational violence and conflict manifest in their melancholic recounting of filial memories. Their narratives, and bodies, sit uncomfortably before cameramen following their every move. The prisoners are subjected to another panoptic gaze but eventually become accustomed to the cameras, performing not just for shows where an audience is let into prison for the first time but also for the camera. They invite it to share in their honest journeys of self-discovery where shame can have an ethical energy not to be found in the quotidian spaces of metropolitan Beirut.

the time that remains

The closing film of the Sydney screening, The Time That Remains, captures the absurdist brilliance of Elia Suleiman and his mesmerising screen aura as director and actor. Inspired by the diaries of his father and private letters of his mother, Suleiman’s film is essentially a palimpsest voyage through the lost memories and forgotten landscapes of Palestine from 1948 to the stalled intractability of this conflict today. The searing tragicomic thread is hauntingly meditative, an almost elegiac Mahmoud Darwish poem that becomes transposed onto the screen with its meandering plots and its incongruous hilarities. Suleiman’s repetition of certain scenes in a Groundhog Day fashion alludes to the draining affects of occupation. This repetition reads like an introspective love letter that does not have a recipient and is almost guaranteed never to be read. As with all the films screened this year, The Time That Remains allowed the audience to experience a landscape overlaid with cultural and individual narratives of loss and love on multiple levels and to ultimately enter the emotional and physical subjectivities of a world immediately beyond their own.

Arab Film Festival, July 1-31; http://arabfilmfestival.com.au/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 21

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

12 October 2010