More relevant now than ever, this solid fest brings some of the complexity of the Arab world to often uncomprehending western eyes
In San Francisco’s cornucopia of film festivals, Cinemayaat’s Arab Film Festival deserves special attention. Western images of the Arab world remain rooted in either the nineteenth-century racism of “Orientalism” or clichés of tribalism and terrorism. The allegedly liberal mass media, far from being helpful in countering such notions, has been the major perpetrator of negative imagery, a situation that can only get worse with the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
This makes it more important than ever to counter violent, racist images of the Arab world with more realistic ones from Arabs themselves, a feat this festival accomplishes with panache. An annual event for the past five years, this showcase surveys recent independent and mainstream cinema from a wide variety of Arab countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Iraq – and from Arab filmmakers scattered throughout the diaspora, most notably France. This year’s selection of 32 programs, 70 films, and 20 visiting artists is the largest yet. A small sampling of these – three features and one documentary – shows that these are vital cinema traditions, despite the massive forces both internal and external working against them.
One of this year’s highlights is a tribute to New Moroccan Cinema, comprised of seven features and three shorts programs. One of these is Ali Zaoua, a Moroccan-French-Belgian coproduction in its Bay Area premiere. Director Nabil Ayouch draws on such earlier models as Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and Hector Babenco’s Pixote for this portrait of the lives of street kids living in Casablanca’s abandoned lots. The story follows the attempts by three of his friends to give a proper burial to their friend Ali, killed by a rival gang’s rock during the film’s brutal opening sequence. This simple plot allows for a detailed survey of a complex subculture that exists outside the “normal” world run by adults. These kids, dismissed by society as “sniffers!” (for their glue-sniffing habit), have an ever-changing pecking order and shifting allegiances as they try to navigate poverty, abuse, and for Ali’s friends, the absurd but dogged dream to bury their buddy “like a prince.” Ayouch uses magic realist touches to delineate the dream when a billboard suddenly becomes a stick-figure fantasy of sailing off to Ali’s imagined “land with two suns” far from the wreckage of real life. There’s also plenty of rough humor, as the kids’ education in life makes them tough before their time. They admire the late Ali for being “too tough to get fucked” and revile Kwita for getting “fucked so much he could get pregnant.” Ali Zaoua won’t erase anybody’s memory of Los Olvidados, but it’s an effective picture of what constitutes daily life for dispossessed children in much of the world.
Poetical Refugee (aka La Faute a Voltaire) was shot in France by Tunisian-born Abdel Kechiche. Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion last year, the film, like Ali Zaoua and much of this year’s fest, deals powerfully with themes of displacement and dispossession. Jallel is a North African immigrant who illegally enters France to make money to send back to his family. He follows the classic poor-immigrant trajectory, living communally and working at subsistence level. But the film deviates from the blueprint by filling in the contours of his life, making him and his new friends seem real, their problems palpable. Some of the credit for this belongs to fine performances by Sami Bouajila as Jallel and Elodie Bouchez as his slightly off-kilter girlfriend Lucie, but director Kechiche deftly juggles subplots and keeps the action lively. Kechiche’s clear engagement with the material may be attributed in part to the fact that he, like Jallel, was born in Tunisia and worked for years in France (as an actor).
In a more experimental mode is Yousry Nasrallah’s The City, a 1999 Egyptian feature in its Bay Area premiere. The City, like Poetical Refugee, locates the dreams of a culture in an ambitious young man. Ali. Like Jallel, he emigrates to Paris, and he too finds a world very different from what he expected. While life in Cairo would have dashed his hopes of being an actor and consigned him to selling produce at a market stall, Paris offers an equally unsatisfying fate when hunky Ali becomes a boxer in rigged fights, compromising all his principles. Director Nasrallah captures the sights and sounds of the Cairo marketplace with a realist’s eye but also cleverly manipulates the narrative as a film-within-a-film. Cowritten by Claire Denis, The City was critically lauded but removed from an Egyptian film festival. One reason may have been the homoerotic elements that pop up throughout, not only in Ali’s smoldering presence but in his intimate scenes with a loving group of friends.
It’s poetic justice that an American, Rachel Leah Jones, directed the fascinating documentary 500 Dunam on the Moon. Jones uses historical footage, contemporary interviews, and location shooting to survey a small but telling corner of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ayn Hawd was one of many Palestinian villages seized for Israeli use in the 1948 takeover. Unlike some villages, this one was reinvented, its beautiful cobblestone streets and historical houses transformed into the “picturesque” Israeli artist’s colony Ein Hod. Generations of displaced Palestinians exist on its fringes without water or electricity, occasionally working to build houses for Israelis who’ve moved in, in a situation that neither the exiled natives nor the guilt-drenched occupiers interviewed in the film find satisfying.
If 500 Dunam on the Moon shows little hope for unity or even resolution, the festival itself does. Throughout the year Cinemayaat does co-presentations with other festivals, among them the estimable San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.