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Mar 25, 2015
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Arab Fest Does Well
by Joanne Butcher
Razi Shawahdeh, the man without a cell phone, from the eponymous opening night film, becomes politicized when a damaged cell tower interferes with his coverage. photo: courtesy S. Zoab
What Is a Festival?
Originally a holy day, a celebration providing a sense of belonging and tradition, a festival is a time for the elders to share their wisdom, for the community's culture to be enacted and studied. In addition to rituals, there is usually feasting, drinking and joy.
A film festival, especially one focusing on a specific culture, provides the festival-go-er with an entrée into an entirely new world. Most often, however, such film festivals attract mostly members of affinity groups—Italians attend the Italian Film Festival, gays and lesbians attend the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, etc.
For the members of the culture being celebrated, a film festival provides exactly those ancient feelings of belonging and opportunity to learn from elders. And at the opening and closing night events, there is much feasting and celebration. In the case of cultures of the oppressed and minorities, the mere screening of films containing images of what is usually hidden, ignored or denigrated is cause enough for celebration.
But what about a cultural film festival from the perspective of a complete outsider? This was what I wanted to understand when I attended this year’s Arab Film Festival which held its 16th iteration October 11th through the 21st.
What would I find? What would I learn? Would I feel alienated or confused?
The Arab Film Festival repeats many of its offerings at quadruple locations, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, and Los Angeles, a programming method that seems like an inclusive way to create community.
So many film festivals become unwieldy, unmanageable and frankly exhausting unless you are attending as a professional and have a hotel room with all expenses paid or are a film-festival tourist on a full-time vacation specifically for the event (as is encouraged at out-of-the-way locations like Telluride and Sundance).
For me, a festival should offer the widest possible range of experiences. If the festival-goer is really experiencing a wide cross-section of films, some of the films should be enjoyable, some challenging, some dull, others enlightening. This is what I experienced at the Arab Film Festival—with an emphasis on the enjoyable and enlightening, thankfully.
Sameh Zoab, director of the opening night 'Man Without a Cell Phone', interviewed at the recent Castro-hosted Arab Film Festival. photo: D. Blair
Man Without a Cell Phone
This feature, directed by Sameh Zoabi, kicked off the Festival. Often opening night films are comedic, entertaining and lighthearted and “Man Without a Cell Phone” fit that bill well.
What was a far more difficult and subtle achievement, however, was the extraordinary tenderness with which the artist treated his subject matter. On a micro level, he addressed familial relationships and those of a village community, but on a macro level it was the power dynamics existing between Palestine and Israel.
The opening voiceover goes straight to the heart of the matter: “They tried to make us forget we were Palestinian and called us Arab-Israelis.” This is how the olive-farmer Salem (Basem Loulou), who can only be described as a curmudgeon, begins his diatribe against the cell phone tower placed next to his land. More importantly, he fears its radiation is poisoning his village.
Is he as full of wind as his son, the womanizing Jawdat—played by the absolutely stunning Razi Shawahdeh—thinks, or could he have a point?
What astounded me is that, after a lifetime of news stories and documentaries about the Middle East all the way over there SOMEWHERE, suddenly, here I was in the middle of a story about ordinary people who were just the SAME AS ME, with the same silliness, pettiness, prejudices (in Jawdat’s case varieties of after-shave) paramour problems and, above all, cell phone reception problems.
The family dynamics, the career goals, ambitions for romance, anxieties over college exams, and the all-important issue of where-do-I-get-the-best-reception-on-my-cell-phone, all constitute the simple irritations, aches and pains of everyday life for all 21st century human beings—EVERYWHERE. And yet here they were taking place in a landscape that I am supposed to be familiar through decades of news addiction, and Palestine was being made familiar to me for the VERY FIRST TIME!
Emotional distance is the result of the apparent objectivity of news reporting and even of most documentaries. Even when a documentarian takes a sympathetic stance and explores an intimate story of individuals or families involved in a conflict or war, there is still the separation caused by that attempt at objectivity not to mention the thousands of miles between viewer and subject.
But Sameh Zoabi’s delightful film foregrounds contemporary anxieties of great universal appeal, and backgrounds the conflict itself to such an extent that the story could almost be taking place in any rural setting in the world that is being encroached upon by new technology.
It’s not so much that the village is oppressed by a foreign invader as Salem believes, but that the powers that be are modernity, technology, and progress. And what young man caught between the desire to be sexually successful and to get ahead without trying too hard isn’t pulled by the lure of a fully-operational cell phone?
At first, Salem, convincingly and heart-warmingly portrayed by newcomer, Basem Loulou, seems like little more than a griping old stick-in-the-mud. But once Jawdat is fired up by the prospect of true love and the loss of reception on his cell phone, he starts to see that maybe his uncle has a point. Maybe the village will suffer as a result of the cell tower. Who is actually benefitting from its being placed amongst the olive groves? Does that constitute the last straw that will motivate the least likely person to revolutionary action?
Between prying neighbors, Israeli surveillance planes and an angry sister-in-law, seeking privacy in Palestine is not easy in "Private Sun.". photo: courtesy AFF
In the background, accepted as part of daily life, is that characters cannot visit each other due to the “wall” blocking off the West Bank to in-Israel Arabs. Protests against the cell tower result in armed soldiers arriving as security guards and university attendance is revealed to be highly unlikely for our new village friends. Little by little, the background of the Palestinian/Israeli power inequities come into focus, filled in like the slow and careful shading in of a coloring book until the whole picture becomes clear.
Yet the picture is presented without rancor, without shouting, without hard edges and without the emotional distance that has turned both Palestinians and Israelis into flat two-dimensional images on a news report. Every character in the story is treated with the utmost love that truly great artists are able to offer regardless of on which side of a debate they stand.
“These are the people I grew up with. My family. People for whom, despite the oppression, every other sentence is a joke,” notes director Zoabi who holds degrees in English and film from Tel Aviv University and whose previous work was just the short "Be Quiet" screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Zoabi searched everywhere for a suitable location for his film until his Line Producer suggested the idea of simply shooting at his own village, a large town in the Northern Israel. To avoid questions from old friends and neighbors, when they scouted locations, others looked around and shot photos while Zoabi sat in the car.
The film includes his mother, neighbors and friends, the vast majority of whom are new to the screen. Basem Loulou plays the Uncle Salem part with so much passion and heart that he transcends any sense that he hasn’t been treading the boards for an entire lifetime. Zoabi’s deft direction is also delivered with the steady hand of a more experienced, older artist.
Zoabi also explained that the Palestinian film industry is only about 10 years old, which makes this the youngest production industry I have yet encountered. But already there is an “older” generation is available for the “younger” generation to learn from, as it should be at festivals.
Nowadays, he says, the majority of the crew are from Palestine, although the most senior positions—D.P., First A.D.—still come from outside the country. In addition, most of the funding comes from outside the country, Europe and Israel, which of course is Zoabi's country.
“Israelis love the film,” he says, “Because they know what they are. It’s not a secret.” And they support free expression.
Some Outstanding Documentaries
“Sacred Stones” fulfilled for me the role of a film that did not speak to me, which every festival has, although it did profoundly address many of the difficult issues touched on in “Man without a Cell Phone”.
It had an excellent script and was extremely well made. It is a technically perfect documentary that tells the extraordinarily painful story of the international industry of the most beautiful stones and marble in the world all being produced in Palestine. This is truly an expose, a story of exploitation, negation of humanity, and the cold and calculating ability of man to use and abuse his fellows. And yet, dispite the technical perfection of the filmmaking, this was just not my cup of tea.
By contrast, "Fallujah: A Lost Generation", at first look appeared to be somewhat weak technically. The images were somewhat overexposed and stark. But after only a few moments it was apparent that the message was in the medium, as the filmmaker and the subjects pleaded with the audience to believe that what we were witnessing were actually the cold, bare facts.
The story we discover is about the US bombing of the city of Fallujah. We hear the story from a wide variety of vantage points: locals showing the cemetery which now stands on the old soccer field and includes the graves of some of the Fallujah soccer team, families who have been affected by what we start to learn is some kind of post-bombing radiation, members of the U.S. military who deny the existence of this radiation, U.S. soldiers whose bodies are riddled with cancer and who blame it on that same-denied radiation, and many, many Iraqi families with either the extraordinarily high mortality rate or of effects of radiation causing birth defects.
One interview with a British expert who was an investigator into another war, the one in Bosnia, travels to Fallujah to conduct experiments and inquiries. He discovers a place with radiation many times that of Hiroshima. Another interview with a U.S. family introduces us to a soldier who was stationed in Fallujah for only six months, has cancer, and whose daughter has the same birth defects as those thousands and thousands of Iraqi children.
This film is unbelievably difficult to watch. First, I had no idea about this disaster and so the unfolding of the story was seriously shocking as it continues to get worse and worse. The viewer is left in the agony of discovering an atrocity of unaccountable proportion that has been undertaken in our name. And difficult as it is to see adults dying, or children killed as a result of war, I defy anyone to see the evidence in this film of countless babies and children—let alone their families and communities—living today with the horror of what we have done to them.
Although “Fallujah: A Lost Generation” has found distribution in Europe and elsewhere, it has yet to find a buyer in the U.S., perhaps not surprisingly.
Peaceful protesters in Yemen before the violence that takes place in 'Karama Has No Walls'. photo: courtesy AFF
Outstanding Short on the Yemeni Uprising
“Karama Has No Walls” is a hard news documentary piece with—although I hate to say it because the director, Sara Ishaq, is a woman—with a distinctly feminine aesthetic. The majority of the 26-minute piece includes footage of a peaceful demonstration—one of many—in the Yemeni city of Karama. We are told that due to its martial traditions, a vast number of the the 24 million Yemenis are armed. Nevertheless, all the munitions were left at home when the Arab Spring inspired ordinary citizens to speak up and sit-in against their dictatorship.
The authorities had built a wall across a street to separate the sit-in protesters from the rest of the community but the daily peaceful gatherings continued. People sitting around and talking with a somewhat celebratory feel to everything. Then one particular day, someone shouts that people are pouring gasoline on to the wall and other voices tell the 17-year old cameraman we have met in on-camera interviews to keep shooting.
Suddenly the action begins, and once again, I experience that same culture shock of no longer being thousands of miles and several cultures away watching a one-minute news segment. Suddenly I am running along just like any other one of the Yemeni protesters, holding a camera and trying to watch what is going on while trying to get away from the increasing number of bullets, people hit and wounds flowing with blood.
People pick up the wounded in coats and pieces of cloth and run past showing the blood and horror to the camera. “Shame on them for shooting on their own people!” “There is no God but Allah” people shout from all directions as they run.
A young man stands still in the street, strips off his shirt and exposes his chest towards the snipers as if to say, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” As the running continues, it is clear that these ordinary citizens have, in an instant, transformed from peaceful protesters into people willing to die rather than put up any longer with the outrage of their domination.
In the meantime, the young camera man’s footage is interspersed with beautiful, softly lit interviews with family members of four people who were at the protest that day, including a 16 year-old who died and whose family viewed on Al-Jazeera as he was carried away, and a young child who went out to buy eggs and lost his eyesight to a bullet in the face. The news footage cuts away to shots of an elderly woman sitting in a corner and to a man’s hands wringing with anxiety.
Outstanding Narrative Short
"Private Sun", written and directed by Rami Alayan, is a short film, also from Palestine, which explores the quest for privacy in a world that denies those rights to the individual. It tells the story of Mariam, who is trying to find a quiet place to sunbathe on doctor’s orders to help with the Vitamin D deficiency that has caused her bone degeneration.
It also explores her relationships with her husband and bullying sister-in-law. Just as in “Man without a Cell Phone,” the Israeli presence is constantly in the background, but the loud buzzing of surveillance planes are of consequence not because of a focus on issues of occupation and intrusion, but simply because of Mariam’s quest for a private place to sunbathe. In fact the entire story turns on the issue of privacy.
Winner of several awards, "Private Sun" draws a complex narrative of the intricate relationships between a sister, brother, and his wife living together in the same apartment. While the acting, dialog, and direction are all perfectly balanced to create an extraordinary level of tension between the characters, it was the most “foreign” of the films at the Arab Festival for this newbie.
It would be next to impossible to imagine a situation in today’s America or UK in which a sister could have so much power as to be able to lock her sister-in-law in her bedroom without the authorities being called in to intervene! And yet, I imagined that there were forces of tradition at work here that were completely beyond my scope of experience.
While the other films revealed their worlds to the viewer and asked them to see, understand and believe what was being presented, "Private Sun" chose to show but not tell. The images told the story. The characters said what they had to say, and nothing more. “Private Sun” offered the appealing dignity of not revealing everything to just any ignorant outsider stopping by to watch, ultimately proving the appeal of the foreign film festival and its limitations.
is a teacher, film festival organizer and writer of English and Trinidadian descent who now lives in the Bay Area.
Posted on Dec 04, 2012 - 03:55 PM