“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.