North America's oldest and largest celebration of cinema from the Arab world embarks upon its 14th edition this week, with a typically eclectic mix of 45 documentaries, shorts and narrative features. Following the opening night festivities at the Castro Theater on Thursday, October 14, the 14th Arab Film Festival (AFF) shifts to Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema (a new venue for the fest) for three days (Oct. 15 to 17). That same weekend, AFF appears at San Jose's Camera 12 Cinemas (Oct. 16 and 17), before returning to Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas the following weekend (Oct. 22 to 24). For those who live in southern California, AFF presents three days worth of films at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills (Oct. 22 to 24).
There were two particular films I'd hoped to find in this year's AFF line-up. One made the cut and one did not. The missing one is Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains, which premiered to glowing reviews at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Suleiman is considered Palestine's most accomplished filmmaker and I remember when his breakthrough film, Chronicle of a Disappearance screened at the very first AFF in 1998. Eighteen months after its Cannes premiere, The Time That Remains slips in to that netherworld of internationally acclaimed films that—for whatever reason—have been bypassed by Bay Area programmers.
The film I'm dying to see which is in the festival is Yousry Nasrallah's Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story, which had its international premiere one year ago at the Venice Film Festival. Known essentially as an art-film director, Nasrallah served as assistant to Egyptian master Youssef Chahine and has inherited the mantle of being that country's most recognized director abroad. For Scheherazade, he's teamed up with popular screenwriter Wahid Hamid (The Yacoubian Building) and the result is that rare animal—a critical success on the festival circuit and a rousing box office success in Egypt due largely to its controversial subject matter. Mona Zaki stars as a TV talk show host who is encouraged by her politically ambitious husband to forego hot-button topics like government corruption. After switching her show's focus to women's issues, she becomes the Oprah of Egypt, with her guests spinning tales, à la Scheherazade, of women's oppression in Egypt. In his rave review in Variety, Jay Weissberg calls the film "bold and brave," presenting "women's sexuality as an expression of self-determination, making clear the parallels with an ever-degenerating political system." Here in the Bay Area we've been fortunate to follow the complete arc of Nasrallah's career—all five of his previous narrative features have screened locally (Summersaults (1988), Mercedes (1993) and The Aquarium (2009) at the SF International Film Festival, and The City (1999) and Gate of the Sun (2004) at AFF). It's reassuring to have that tradition continue.
Within this year's AFF line-up are some films that have screened at other Bay Area festivals. Mehdi Ben Attia's The String won the audience award at this year's Frameline and stars Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale as a Tunisian matriarch whose gay son is having an affair with her handyman. (My capsule review is here). Another film set in Tunisia, Karin Albou's The Wedding Song, was the closing night film of the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival. Set in 1942 Nazi-occupied Tunis, an Arab girl and Jewish girl of marriageable age must navigate their increasingly desperate circumstances. (My capsule review is here). One of the best films at the SF Film Society's 2009 French Cinema Now was Philippe Lioret's Welcome. Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) portrays a swimming instructor who wrestles with helping a 17-year-old Kurdish Iraqi refugee—one determined to swim across the English Channel from Calais to Great Britain.
At this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival, I caught two more films in the AFF line-up. The more appealing was Ahmed Abdallah's low-budget indie Heliopolis, a melancholy ode to personal frustration set in Cairo's once glorious titular suburb. Its cast of characters includes a university student making a documentary about the neighborhood, a hotel receptionist who envies the foreign guests and longingly watches TV5 Monde, a hashish dealer, an upwardly mobile couple battling traffic jams on the their way to see an apartment, and the seller of that apartment who wants nothing more than to emigrate to Canada. Each is searching for an alternate life and the film's delicate narrative has them brushing against each other—but not in an obnoxious, Crash-y kind of way. The other film I saw was Hatem Ali's The Long Night from Syria, an allegory about the release of three political prisoners and its effect on family members who've grown accustomed to their absence. It's a bit leaden and culturally inscrutable, but nonetheless deals with some important issues.
This year's opening night AFF film is Lyès Salem's Mascarades, a comedy that was Algeria's submission for last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. A box office success at home and in France, the film stars director Salem as a ridiculed villager who invents a drunken story about his narcoleptic sister's engagement to a wealthy European. The impending faux-marriage gains him the respect of the village, but the enmity of his sister who's secretly in love with his best friend. Director/star Lyès Salem is scheduled to attend the screening, which will be preceded by the presentation of AFF's annual Noor Awards for Outstanding Feature, Short and Documentary. In last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle, there was an interesting interview with Lyès conducted by writer Jonathan Curiel.
With its selection of narrative features, AFF always strikes a nice balance between art films and more commercial fare. Fitting squarely in the former category is The Man Who Sold the World, the second film from fraternal Moroccan directing team Imad and Swel Noury (their first film Heaven's Doors screened at the 2007 SF International Film Festival). While the title may come from a David Bowie song, the story is a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky's "A Weak Heart." Set in a totalitarian dystopia, a young man named X falls in love with a beautiful cabaret singer, then descends into madness over his inability to accept happiness. In her positive review for Variety, Alissa Simon claims "the general public may find it pretentious and baffling, but cinephiles will swoon," and goes on to say that "although the plot may not yield many satisfactions, the stunning production and sound design offer numerous pleasures." Another art film in the line-up is Dima El Horr's Every Day is a Holiday, a Lebanese film in which three women travel through the desert by bus, en route to a men's prison where their men are incarcerated. Variety's Dennis Harvey hated it, writing that "As ponderous as its heavy-handedly ironic title, this tedious road trip belabors its metaphorical significance as thoroughly as it buries human interest, resulting in an arid journey." Yikes! I'll go unquestioningly to see any film that stars Hiam Abbass.
Elsewhere amongst the AFF narrative features is Ali Mostafa's City of Life, which claims to be "the first multi-lingual feature film to be written, produced and directed by an Emirati with United Arab Emirates funding." Set in Dubai, the film's structure intercuts between three stories—a young, privileged Emirati lout, an Indian taxi driver with Bollywood dreams and a Romanian flight attendant in love with a British playboy. Again writing in Variety, Alissa Simon labels the film a "lurid melodrama" that's "shamelessly packed with product placement" and "feels as soulless as the city in which it unfolds." Since I never expect to visit the UAE, the armchair traveler in me might still take a chance on it. In addition to The String and The Wedding Song, there's a third Tunisia-set film in the festival. Ibrahim Letaief's Cinecitta [official site] concerns a young director who robs a bank in order to finance his new film. Rounding out the 2010 AFF narrative feature selection are three more films from Syria (Gate of Heaven, Half MG Nicotine, Once Again), for which I was unable to obtain information apart from the brief descriptions which appear on the AFF website.
AFF consistently spotlights some worthwhile feature documentaries. There are eight in this year's festival and heading up the list is Julia Bacha's critically acclaimed Budrus [official site]. The film screened at this year's SF International and Jewish Film Festivals, but I'm probably not the only person to have missed those earlier opportunities. Budrus is the story of Palestinians and Israelis uniting in non-violent confrontations to stop construction of Israel's Separation Barrier in a West Bank village. There are five other feature-length docs in the fest dealing with Palestinian issues: Fragments of a Lost Palestine, GazaStrophe, the Day After, Little Town of Bethlehem, SAZand Shooting Muhammad. Those who saw last year's remarkable doc Garbage Dreams, which concerned the Cairo community of Coptic Christians responsible for recycling 80% of that city's waste, may want to check out this year's Marina of the Zabbaleen. Finally, 12 Angry Lebanese looks at a production of "Twelve Angry Men" staged in a Lebanese prison.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.