Bright Lights Film Journal

The View from Here: Middle Eastern Cinema at the 49th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

“What happens when the gaze is returned?”

There is today perhaps no region more misunderstood, and demonized, than the Middle East — the West’s uber-Other. Overwhelmed by its preconceived and distorted perceptions, so many false constructs encouraged by a news cycle depicting mainly bloodshed and fanaticism, the Western world is blinded by its own gaze. What happens, then, when the gaze is returned, challenging the status quo? That is the premise behind the lineup of films from the Middle East screened at the 49th Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November 2008.

Under the banner “Division and Unity: Cinema in the Middle East,” festival curators brought together ten films from nine countries, reflecting the cultural, historical, and political complexities of the region. The filmmakers, whose identities are as fluid and resistant to reductive classification as their works, present a different vision of their worlds than the West is accustomed to; we now have a chance to see through their eyes.

Questions of perspective are at the heart of Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of the Sea (2008). Soraya (Suheir Hammad), a Brooklyn-born Palestinian, is determined to go “home” to Palestine, a country she has never visited, and reclaim money left in a bank account in Jaffa by her grandfather in 1948 — the year of the Nakba.1 After arriving at an Israeli airport and undergoing a humiliating strip-search in customs, she makes her way to Ramallah, where reality plunges headlong into fancy.

Defiant and naive, Soraya is intent on making a place for herself in the Palestine of her grandfather’s memories, which no longer exists. It is not until she meets Emad (Saleh Bakri), a frustrated young man who wants nothing more than to leave Palestine, that she begins to wake up to the harsh world around her. A bank heist, a road trip to Jaffa disguised as Jewish settlers, and the village of al-Dawayima, destroyed in the war of 1948 and hundreds of its inhabitants murdered, all factor into the plot and the film’s bitter denouement.

Salt of the Sea opens with black-and-white documentary footage of Israeli bulldozers destroying Arab homes, setting the tone of loss that permeates the film. It then switches back to color and the present-day calamities that are the daily stuff of life in the West Bank. Images of the streets, from boys congregating at a graffiti-covered fountain and the ubiquitous military checkpoints to a couple passing their baby over a barbed wire border fence, are contrasted with travelogue photos of the sea, the countryside, and the port of Jaffa (Jacir was forced to shoot some footage in Marseilles and on sets because Israeli officials denied her access to about 80 percent of her locations). This keenly felt sense of place and longing, however, doesn’t quite rise to the drama it promises. Instead, Jacir eschews the emotional and depicts the tragedy of the Palestinians in solely political terms. The love story between Soraya and Emad is obstinate in its flatness. What may have been a window into the deeper, individual effects of the Israeli occupation is never fully explored. The end result is a visually compelling political tract; true to life, but only one part of the story.

Darker and more melancholy in its imagery and sensibility is Ahlaam (Dreams, 2005), directed and shot by Iraqi-born Mohamed Al-Daradji. Constructed as a series of flashbacks, Ahlaam opens in Baghdad, in 2003, two days before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, amid the bombed ruins of a psychiatric hospital. Terrified and bewildered patients escape into the streets as the American military lays siege to the city. Cut to 1998 and we are introduced to the film’s three protagonists: Ali, a mild-mannered soldier completing his national service on the Syrian border; Ahlaam, a university student happily planning her wedding; and Dr. Mehdi, a hard-working medical student studying for his final exams.

Shifting between past and present, the film depicts how the characters’ lives are profoundly altered by political events. Entangled in war and the brutality of the Baathist party, Dr. Mehdi is blacklisted and forced to work at the asylum because his father was a noted communist put to death by the regime. Traumatized by the American bombing in1998, which kills his best friend Hasan, Ali wanders mistakenly across the Syrian border and is later charged with desertion. The military court delivers a hideous punishment: imprisonment in the asylum and the severing of his ear. Ahlaam’s wedding party is violently interrupted by the Baathist police, who arrest her fiancé and drag him off to a certain death. She goes insane with grief.

Working around violence, curfews, and power outages, Al-Daradji deftly captures the hallucinatory reality of a ruined Baghdad. Visuals of deserted streets, smoldering buildings, and documents fluttering in the gutter are punctuated by the sharp click of sniper shots. Dead bodies pile up. As Ahlaam roams the streets in her torn wedding dress, Ali, who is somewhat aware of what is happening, tries to help Dr. Mehdi round up the escaped patients. In the end, we see Ahlaam alone on a rooftop as her desperate parents and Dr. Mehdi try to convince American soldiers, who speak no Arabic, that they need to enter the building to get her. The brutality of the soldiers’ response foreshadows what in reality has come to pass.

Ahlaam’s production history is as harrowing as the film itself. Al-Daradji returned to Iraq from Europe in 2003, after an eight-year absence. Determined to shoot on the streets of Baghdad, he and his crew worked with only three hours of electricity a day, had their equipment and footage stolen, were shot at several times and wounded, and were kidnapped twice, once by the Iraqi police and once by American soldiers, each of whom thought the film was a propaganda piece for the insurgents. It took the Dutch embassy five days to secure Al-Daradji’s release from American custody. He is a Dutch-Iraqi national.

Despite the merciless conditions, Al-Daradji is at work on a second feature that he intends to shoot in Iraq. “The reality today,” he explains, “is that my friends, family, and countrymen are portrayed by the news as numbers and statistics, without faces or feelings. I hope to open the world’s eyes to what is really going on in a country destroyed by wars, politics, and oil.”

Two other films — French-Lebanese Philippe Aractingi’s Under the Bombs (2007) and British-Yemeni Bader Ben Hirsi’s A New Day in Old Sana’a (2005) — were shot under very difficult circumstances.

Under the Bombs was filmed guerrilla-style in the summer of 2006 during and after the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Aractingi shot for a few days at the beginning of the war in July and then left for France to take care of his family. He edited the footage he had, secured financing from French television, and returned to Lebanon to film again, arriving four days after the cease-fire was declared. He and his two actors — Nada Abou Farhat, who plays a wealthy Shiite woman, Zeina, searching for her son and sister; and Georges Khabbaz, who plays Tony, a Christian taxi driver who befriends her — began improvising scenes as the crew traveled to the devastated southern region of the country.

True to his documentary roots, Aractingi decided to “react to what was going on rather than have a preconceived idea of what to do.” The result is a visual odyssey of destroyed homes, bridges, and roads, a Hezbollah rally, the arrival of UN forces and journalists, as well as real-life victims interacting with the performers. The work’s emotional authenticity comes in part from Aractingi’s ability to quietly observe what is unfolding, often using long-distance shots, rather than attempting to shock with gratuitous images of death.

Unfortunately, the few scripted fictional scenes, which were later imposed, don’t measure up to the rest of the film. In particular, a love scene between Tony and a hotel receptionist is stagy and makes no narrative sense. But these are niggling complaints, and, in the end, the scenes don’t interfere with the overall power of the work.

“In my film,” Aractingi says in a text he wrote for the festival catalogue, “I avoided showing the bodies of the dead. We saw too many of them, lifeless cadavers discovered as the stones and rubble covering them were removed. Under the bombs, most of the people around us died crushed. It is for these people that I made this film: to bear witness to the suffering of those innocents.”

Although A New Day in Old Sana’a is a sweet tale about the unrequited love of a poor girl, a munagasher (henna artist), for an aristocratic boy, Ben Hirsi had an extraordinarily hard time getting first the script and then the footage approved by Yemini government ministers and religious clerics. On several occasions, religious extremists accused the director of making pornography and interrupted shooting. Eventually filming came to a halt until more than a dozen members of parliament screened the footage and gave the go ahead. That the crew was at least half female, including the director of photography, only made matters worse. The entire crew was forced to live in an armed compound surrounded by security for the duration of the shoot. Luckily Ben Hirsi persevered, and the result is a lyrical peek into the culture and traditions that constrain the young lovers.

The ancient city of Old Sana’a is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and as such is filled with beautiful sandstone towers and buildings, cobblestone streets, and gardens. Ben Hirsi makes good use of his locations, employing lots of wide shots that take in the city’s picture-postcard skyline. The saturated colors of the women’s clothing and veils add to the overall dulcet effect. And the sad yet romantic ending takes the edge off the deeper issues the film raises regarding class and hidebound ideas of familial duty and honor.

The antithesis of romance is Israeli director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), an animated documentary feature about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Much ink has been spilled over this work, mostly positive, commenting on Folman’s earnest attempt to grapple with the tricky and often elusive subjects of truth and memory. Folman’s interrogation of the events of that summer, when he was a 19-year-old conscript in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) then occupying southern Lebanon and Beirut, is, however, less about truth-seeking than it is about justification.

Driving the story is Folman’s sudden desire to recover his memory of events he participated in during the war, which he claims to have blotted out for twenty-five years. “I had the basic storyline,” he says, “but there were large holes.”

The film opens with a feverish scene: a pack of vicious dogs with frightening yellow eyes tearing through the streets of Tel Aviv. The next shot is inside a bar; it’s the winter of 2006. Folman is listening to his friend and comrade–in-arms, Boaz, discussing his recurring nightmare about wild dogs, 26 to be exact. It turns out that during the 1982 invasion Boaz was ordered to shoot any dogs on sight when the IDF entered a Lebanese town, so that the animals’ barking wouldn’t alert the residents. He had killed 26. When Boaz asks Folman if he had flashbacks from Beirut, he responds, “No, I never think of Lebanon. It’s not in my system.” It is at this point that Folman awakens and decides he must fill in the “large holes” in his memory.

Folman sets off to find the men he served with and to question them about their experiences. Along the way, he also speaks to a therapist friend, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, and a well-known Israeli journalist who covered the war. The images resemble those in a graphic novel, simultaneously lifelike and otherworldly. Although animation gives Folman room to maneuver visually, the ability to imaginatively heighten the surreal aspects of real events, it is also emotionally distancing. Misery when rendered in a cartoon format is misery lite — enough to make one uncomfortable but not enough to make one feel responsible, or guilty.

The interviewees’ memories are a collage of fear, hallucinations (one soldier talks of passing out on the deck of a military transport ship and dreaming of a giant naked woman rising out of the sea foam like Aphrodite to save him), and destruction. No one seems to ask, however, what they were doing in Lebanon in the first place or what happened to the victims of their bloody assault. They were young and inexperienced and trying to survive. Apparently, nothing more need be said.

The heart of the film, and of Folman’s repressed memories, is the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. Christian Phalangists, one of multiple militias that emerged during the Lebanese civil war, rampaged through the camps for three days, killing up to 3,000 men, women, and children with the tacit approval of their IDF allies who controlled the area. The alleged reason for the killings was to avenge the death of Bashir Gemayel, the president of Lebanon who had earlier been assassinated. Folman’s long-awaited epiphany finally arrives: he remembers that he was among the IDF soldiers who launched flares over the camps at night to aid the Phalangists in their obscene deed. They were only following orders; they “had no clue what was going on.”

This grisly slaughter that occurred practically under Folman’s nose, “merely hundreds of meters from my own post” he later acknowledged, the screams that surely must have rang out into the night, the stench of death emanating from the camps — none of this Folman recalled, or even speculated about? Oddly enough, he had vivid memories of furloughs home during the war and of being thrown over by his then girlfriend, Yaeli. Such is the capricious bitch called memory.

Needing to soothe his pricked conscience, Folman discusses the massacre with his therapist friend, who bizarrely assures him that the confusion and fear he is feeling is because Sabra and Shatila puts him in mind of another camp: Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where his parents were sent. So Folman is off the hook again; he and his fellow soldiers are not complicit in the tragedy because they can’t be Nazis. The facile analogy cancels any further introspection on Folman’s part.

In the final minute of the film, animation gives way to real footage of the massacre. The horror of the death and destruction on screen is unspeakable. These are the real victims. And they cannot go back to their lives as they were before the war. No therapist, no friends, no film can ease their suffering. This is Folman’s only brave, true moment in the entire work.

  1. From the website alnakba.org: Nakba (cataclysm): “The mass deportation of a million Palestinians from their cities and villages, massacres of civilians, and the razing to the ground of hundreds of Palestinian villages.” []