Tuesday, October 16, 2007

2007 AFF—Michael Hawley's Preview

The Arab Film Festival ("AFF") is one of the essential reasons why film-going in the Bay Area is so rich. But please don't call it the Bay Area Arab Film Festival or even the San Francisco Arab Film Festival—it's simply THE Arab Film Festival, the largest of its kind in the nation. This year's edition (the festival's 11th) features an impressive selection of 44 narrative and documentary features, a like number of shorts, and will take place from October 18-28 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Then in a festival first, the whole show will travel south to Los Angeles for a five-day run starting October 31.

Another first for this year's festival is the creation of an annual, juried cash-prize award which will be presented in Feature, Documentary and Short film categories. The prize is called the Noor Award (named after the Arab word for light, not the queen of Jordan) and will be presented at a special Awards Night Reception & Ceremony at the Castro Theater on Thursday, October 25th. Following the ceremony, the festival will screen its Centerpiece Film, director Hala Khalil's Egyptian comedy Kas Wa Lazk (Cut and Paste).

I've attended the festival for most of its first decade and watched it grow from a handful of weekend screenings to its present grand expanse (a development which seems directly related to our increased awareness of the Arab world in general). Every year I come away from the festival feeling like I've seen the best cinema the region and its diaspora has to offer. And sometimes I see films that, when I look back at year's end, rank among my favorites of the year (Yousry Nasrallah's The City in 2001 comes immediately to mind). The only year I specifically remember not attending was in 2005, when I blew what was probably the only chance I'll ever have to see Nasrallah's five-hour epic, Gate of the Sun.

For this year, artistic director Sonia El Feki has put together a program that is half comprised of her favorites from recent festivals in Carthage and Cairo, and half from submissions made directly to the festival itself. I've had an opportunity to preview a half-dozen selections, and can attest that another fine assemblage of movies awaits this year's festival go-ers.

Things get off to a great start with the opening night screening of Nouri Bouzid's making-of-a-suicide-bomber film, titled appropriately enough, Making Of. This is the first Bouzid film I've seen since his notable 1986 debut, Man of Ashes, but a quick on-line check reveals that he has written or co-written most of the Tunisian films I've seen in the past 20 years, including Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces, A Summer in La Goulette, and Moufida Tlatli's The Silences of the Palace and The Season of Men. His new film is a compelling, if perhaps occasionally overwrought tale of how a hotheaded, charismatic young breakdancer named Bahta is manipulated by fundamentalists into committing the ultimate in self-sacrifice.

The film's title, as it turns out, has a double meaning. Well into the movie we find ourselves being taken outside the narrative, in the first of several scenes where lead actor Lotfi Abdelli bitterly argues with director Bouzid about the direction the film's story is taking. My initial reaction to this film-within-a-film device was a wary one. But as an outsider to the culture being depicted, I soon came to appreciate the added context these fiery actor/director exchanges provided. Abdelli's incredible performance, by the way, is what makes Making Of a must-see (he's won several Best Actor prizes at various festivals, including Tribeca). If you can't attend opening night, the film will be screened two more times during the run of the festival.

I can also strongly recommend two interesting documentaries I previewed, Leila Khaled: Hijacker and I Love HipHop in Morocco. The former is a thoughtful profile of the strikingly beautiful Palestinian woman who would become notoriously known as the world’s first female hijacker. In 1969, 25-year-old Khaled commandeered a Rome-Athens TWA flight in order to force the world's attention upon the plight of Palestinians. A year later, after the first of six plastic surgeries undertaken to disguise her appearance, she would unsuccessfully attempt to hijack an Amsterdam-New York El Al flight. (For what it's worth, no one was killed or injured in either of these incidents). Khaled was a teen idol to the film's director Lina Makboul, who was raised in Sweden by Palestinian parents. As an adult, she found herself less certain about Khaled's goals and methodology, and sought to find out whether Khaled herself remained unrepentant.

After a brief history of the Palestinian cause, the film's first half focuses in detail on the two hijackings, and includes present day interviews with the flight crews and passengers. In the second half we travel to Jordan and meet Khaled, where she lives a fairly ordinary life as a housewife and member of the Palestinian National Council. It's a bit strange reconciling the chain-smoking older woman we see vacuuming the house in her pajamas, with the popular image of Khaled as "terrorist." We learn that she has few regrets about her past, and on the issue of terrorism, she declares, "Who decides and defines what terrorism is? As far as I'm concerned, occupation is terrorism." Of all the questions she's asked in the film, however, I was most fascinated by her ambivalent response to the query of whether she believes in God. "Sort of," she replies. "We must say so, I guess." Those are pretty brave words to speak in a culture that places belief in God above all else.

Reconciling one's religion with one's lifestyle is a dilemma faced by nearly all the subjects of Joshua Asen and Jennifer Needleman's fascinating I Love Hip Hop in Morocco. Asen received a Fulbright grant to study the effects of hip hop on Moroccan youth culture, and the resulting film effectively captures a movement in the making. The film's narrative arc is found in the anticipation of Morocco's first hip hop music festival. We're given a nuts-and-bolts look at what goes into making the festival happen—from the securing of artists, venues and technicians—to the all-important procurement of sponsorships. Interestingly, half the money for the festival ends up coming from the U.S. Cultural Attaché (a use of my tax dollars which I heartily approve) and the other half from Coca-Cola (because “Sprite is for freshness and liberty.”)

The balance of the film features intimate portraits of the artists who will perform in the festival. We meet DJ Key (Morocco's #1 turntableist), top-rated Meknes-based crew H-Kayne, Fnaïre (who combine vocal harmonics, beatboxing and traditional Arab rhythms), English-rapping Brownfingaz, and Fati, the film's (and perhaps the entire country's) lone female MC. As one might expect, the film's exhilarating highlight is the festival itself, wherein 36,000 fist-pumping Moroccan youths appear to be having the time of their lives.

Two narrative features in the festival share a similar story structure—that is—one in which we follow the exploits of a young man over the course of one night in a capital city. Michel Kammoun's Falafel is perhaps the more solid of the two, and has been rightly compared to Martin Scorsese's After Hours. The film's good-natured protagonist Tou, sets off for a night of partying with friends in Beirut. Before long, however, an incident involving a thug, a gun and a scratched car sends him recklessly wandering through the night seeking revenge. He experiences several vaguely, and not-so-vaguely threatening encounters during his nocturnal odyssey, which together serve as a metaphor for the psychological aftermath of the city's 15-year civil war. I had a bit of trouble accepting the rashness of Tou's dangerous pursuit of justice, based on the personality we've become acquainted with in the film's first section. But Kammoun's astute ending, literally and figuratively, manages to bring it all home for us quite nicely.

There's hardly anything "nice" about Jilani Saadi's nihilistic, Tunis-set Ors El Dhib (Tender is the Wolf). Our nighttime protagonist on this outing is Stoufa, an immature, unemployed 30-ish layabout who loiters on street corners with his like-minded buddies, drinking and smoking dope. When neighborhood prostitute Saloua ticks them off with her sharp tongue, they all gang-rape her except for Stoufa. He ends up taking the blame, however, and is beaten into unconsciousness. He'll spend the rest of the night confronting his friends and trying to extract revenge on Saloua and her protectors.

I admired this film for the consistency of its dark tone, but thought the director made several missteps. He tries to conjure up empathy for Stoufa's friends, an absurd impossibility after the brutal gang-rape scene, and then presents us with an equally absurd romantic encounter between Stoufa and Saloua. Even worse is his repeated use of a ticking digital clock, a la TV's 24. Saadi does comes up with some nice visual flourishes, such as a recurring God's-eye-view of the action done with black and white digital video. There's also a lyrical tracking shot that follows Stoufa's trip to the hospital, his naked and unconscious body riding atop a garbage cart. Actor Mohamed Hassine Graya has a commanding screen presence as Stoufa, and the other actors turn in generally fine performances as well. All of which makes Tender is the Wolf worth a look, especially if you take an interest in the grimier side of humanity.

Set in the 1930's and 1940's, Selma Baccar's Koshkhash (Flower of Oblivion) is a Tunisian pot-boiler about one woman's descent into drug addiction and insanity. When we first meet Zakia she's being dragged into the nut house, in a scene that's so over-the-top the only thing missing is a guy who thinks he's Napoleon. Once she's in her cell and comfortably straight-jacketed, we learn in a series of flashbacks what it was that put her there. Married into a well-to-do family complete with a gay husband and horrible mother-in-law, Zakia miraculously manages to give birth to a baby girl. To soothe her postpartum pains, she's given an infusion of poppies which over the years grows into a monster-sized addiction (she even marries her daughter off to a guy who owns acres of poppy fields). The movie cuts back and forth between this tale of ruination and her stint in the asylum, where a budding romance with a fellow patient might help her regain her marbles.

Although this a film I would probably classify as a guilty pleasure, there were some things about it that genuinely impressed me. First, it provides a fascinating look at the social mores and rituals of upper class Tunisian society at a certain period of time, with top notch sets and costumes. The other aspect that caught my attention was a rather sympathetic portrayal of Zakia's gay husband. He's not depicted as a villain, but simply as a man who's trapped in a life not of his choosing. And when his mother banishes the male servant with whom he's been happily sharing a bed, it's touching to watch the look of empathetic sadness on Zakia's face for this man she's long considered her rival. It's a point of quiet elegance in a film that's largely painted with broad strokes.

Because nothing beats seeing a movie with an audience on a big screen, I've saved a number of films to watch during the festival proper. I'm most looking forward to VHS Kahloucha, which I understand is a hilarious documentary about an amateur Tunisian filmmaker helming no-budget big-scale epics. As a fan of Arab films, I'm also anxious to see Arab Cinema: The State of Things, a documentary which includes interviews with some of my favorite filmmakers such as Moufida Tlatli and Yousry Nasrallah. I'm very curious about What a Wonderful World, a neo-film noir set in Casablanca, and A Perfect Day, a Lebanese film that explores the lives of youth in contemporary Beirut. And finally on a lighter note, I'm anticipating this year's breakout hit film from Egypt, Awqat Faragh (Leisure Time), the aforementioned Centerpiece Film, Cut and Paste, and a nostalgic look at a young boy's love for cinema in 1950's Tangiers, A Muslim Childhood.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Sachin G. said...

I am curious -- how many film festivals does the Bay Area have per year? I am amazed at the quality of films that get shown in your area. WOW :)

A few years ago I had found out about the Asian American film festival held there and was quite impressed with the selections they had. And over the last year, seeing all the film festivals via this website has left me in awe.

I know a few friends who have lived (and still live) around the Bay Area and they have always mentioned the great food selection, cafes & other sites that are there. But unfortunately, they are not big on films. I think I will have to hit them on the head seeing they get all these movies in their backyard and ignore them. Ofcourse, I am sure I will get a lecture in return from them. Seeing as I live right next to the mountains and don't go snow-boarding, I might be equally guilty.

Ofcourse, I am can safely say that when it comes to cinema, the grass truly is greener on your side :)

Maya said...

Hey Sachin, thanks for stopping by to comment. Guessing how many film festivals there are in the Bay Area is like guessing marbles in a jar. I'm sure somebody knows but I don't. Brian?

Without question, though, we are indeed grass-fed cinephiles. Heh.

Whereabouts do you hail from, Sachin?

Sachin G. said...

Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

We are one hour away from the beautiful mountains :)

Brian said...

Here's a list, but even it is incomplete. It leaves out the Four Star's Asian Film Festival and the Film Society's Animation Festival, for starters.

Maya said...

Is that all San Francisco has to show for itself?!! No wonder I have to keep going out of town to catch film. Heh. Joking of course. And very grateful for that link, Brian. I, too, note some glaring absences.

Sachin G. said...

Thanks for the list Brian. So no matter what month I plan to visit, there will always be a film festival to catch.

Michael, I just noticed the line-up for the South Asian film festival in November. It is playing two films I love a lot -- Pyaasa and Dosar. Both are finely tuned black and white features. But that festival overlaps with the Latino film festival. Too many choices.

I once read that New York had something like 51-53 film festivals a year. But I think the Bay Area might easily challenge that number or even surpass it. The number from that link + the two additional ones that Brian mentioned gives 51.

I know it is not about the number but the quality. Ofcourse, if there are so many different options, then surely one is bound to find multiple gems hidden somewhere.

Sachin G. said...

Hey Michael, I dug up the following comment I left on Girish's website (a year ago) and the response you had:
In the end, each person enjoys their own brand of cinema. I have found it best to leave others to their preference while trying to enjoy mine.

November 17, 2006 12:40 PM

Maya said...
I know a couple of film critics who would be outraged by that statement. But, of course, I'm not naming any names.

Don't . tempt . me .

November 17, 2006 10:19 PM
My views above were influenced by working on film festivals in my city. In a city of about a million people, we have less than 5% that attend film festival movies. And that number goes down ever further for specific film festivals, like the Asian film festival.

When Calgary got more than 10 film festivals in a year, people complained that too many film festivals are bad, wrong, etc.

Yet our city apparently has the highest per capita total of people who head to the multiplexs. And there is a multiplex that makes the most money in Canada because people only choose to watch Hollywood films.

So when I was working for the Asian and International film festival, even free tickets could not get a lot of people to see these international movies. Yet a lot of these people (some friends) chose to see the big Hollywood movies.

But seeing the number of film festivals in your area tells me that there is proof that with time, a city can sustain such film festivals. In my case, I was exhausted at trying to spread the word of the other cinema.

Ok. I have said a lot now.

Maya said...

Your insightful comments are always welcome, Sachin. In what capacity did you work for the festivals?

Despite the length of the list of festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area, that's no guarantee they are well-supported. Though attendance did appear to be up for the SF International and Docfest. I'm sure more variables are involved than I'm aware of.

Sachin G. said...

Hi Michael,

In both the International and Asian film festival, the primary role was programming films and doing write-ups for the films. But I ended up doing a lot more for both festivals like getting sponsors & promoting the festival. The Asian festival was on a small scale so I was involved with every aspect -- setting up an avenue for a gala, printing tickets & festival guides, building up a website & even handing out festival guides from cafe to cafe, etc, whatever was required.

Essentially the Asian festival was a really good experience on how to start a film festival from ground up. It gave me a better appreciation for other film festivals. And when things go wrong at other film festivals, I can actually understand what happenned :)

Maya said...

Interesting, Sachin. Although I'm sure there's a whole headache factor involved, I envy you your experience in putting a film festival together from a grass roots level. Before all is said and done, I hope to add that experience to my overflowing satchel of life experience.