Tuesday, October 14, 2008

2008 AFF—Michael Hawley's Preview

New York, Seattle, Toronto and even Minneapolis have all started their own Arab Film Festivals in recent years. But the fact remains that the first, the biggest and—dare I say—the best North American festival of films from the Arab-speaking world and its Diaspora remains right here in the Bay Area. Now in its 12th year, the 2008 Arab Film Festival ("AFF") begins this Thursday, October 16 and continues at various venues in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose through October 28. More than 70 features and shorts from 15 countries will be screened, including works from such rarely heard from countries as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen.

This year's opening night festivities will once again take place at San Francisco's Castro Theater. The evening begins with the presentation of the 2nd annual Noor Awards (Noor being the Arab word for light), with cash prizes being given to directors of the fest's Best Feature, Documentary, Documentary Short and Fiction Short. As part of the Noor Awards Ceremony, a posthumous lifetime achievement award will be presented to acclaimed Egyptian auteur Youssef Chahine, arguably the best known Arab director in the history of cinema. Chahine passed away this summer at the age of 82.

Following the Noor Awards, which will be hosted by Egyptian-born, American TV sit-com director Asaad Kelada, AFF presents its opening night feature, Daoud Aoulad-Syad's Waiting For Pasolini. This movie from Morocco won the Best Arabic Film prize at the 2007 Cairo Film Festival, and is set entirely in the picturesque desert town of Ouarzazate. When an Italian film company arrives to shoot a biblical epic, the entire town goes crazy. Everyone wants to get into the act because their economic well-being depends on it. I recently watched the film on screener, and found it to be an entertaining social comedy about cross-cultural misunderstanding and exploitation. Ouarzazate has been used as a location for numerous film productions, and Waiting For Pasolini really shows the place off. This will look glorious on the Castro's big screen.

Of all the films I previewed, my favorite was Jackie Salloum's Sling Shot Hip Hop, which premiered at this year's Sundance. This vibrant and urgent film documents the Palestinian rap music scene, and how it expresses the frustrations, discrimination, poverty and harassment experienced by Palestinians living in Israel. The movement began in 1999 with the formation of DAM, whose 2001 single "Meen Erhabe? (Who's the Terrorist?)" was downloaded over a million times despite the band not having a recording contract. (The film begins with DAM's three members—brothers Tamar and Suhell Nafar and friend Mahmood Jreri—meeting their idol, Chuck D of Public Enemy). The three are extremely articulate and personable, and Salloum was wise to fill nearly half her film with them. Other profiled artists include PR (Palestinian Rappers), Mahmoud Shalabi, female duo Arapeyat and female solo artist Abeer. A highlight of the film is two very clever animation sequences by Waleed Zaiter—one explaining the (d)evolvement of the Israeli/Palestinian political map since 1947 and the other a guide to navigating Israel's maze of checkpoints and apartheid walls. You can watch's the film's trailer here.

I was very excited to see a narrative feature from Saudi Arabia in this year's line-up—cinema from the land without cinemas. Although 2006's Keif al-hal? is generally considered to be the first Saudi feature (despite being directed by a Canadian-Palestinian, written by an Egyptian and a Lebanese, and filmed in Dubai and the UAE), AFF's The Shadow of Silence is at least written and directed by a bonafide Saudi, Abdullah Al-Muheisen. Unfortunately, this was not to be the portrait of contemporary Saudi life and culture I'd hoped for. But once my initial disappointment wore off, I found myself engrossed in a dystopian allegory about a totalitarian government's scheme to reign in artists and intellectuals.

In a secularized Arab country, sometime in the near future, a leftist writer is promised a government position as Minister of Culture. The catch? He must spend several weeks having his mind "rid of impurities" at an "institute for absolute peace and rest." He arrives at the remote, heavily guarded desert institute and finds his room bugged with surveillance cameras. And clearly, experiments are being performed on the "guests." Meanwhile, his beautiful wife is on his trail, aided by some noble desert tribesmen and a young man searching for his missing father. It's all a bit silly, but nonetheless engaging, and the political message is universal without slipping into didacticism. Production values resemble a slightly cheesy, high-end TV movie—the "institute" is obviously a luxury resort hotel and the music score feels lifted from a '70s Quinn Martin production. End credits reveal this was filmed in Syria, and the sound mixed at Cinecitta. It looks like we may have to wait a while longer for the first truly homegrown Saudi Arabian narrative feature, but for now, this one isn't bad at all.

I expected to hate the Jordanian film Captain Abu Raed because, generally, movies about kids and/or codgers give me hives. Another bad omen—the film won the Audience Award for World Cinema at this year's Sundance. I watched the first half hour and found my prophecy being fulfilled. While at his job as an airport janitor, kindly old Abu Raed finds a tattered pilot's cap in the trash. He wears it home and soon the neighborhood moppets, convinced he's a real pilot, are gathered at his feet begging for adventure stories. Cue the treacly music and slow motion shots of moppets reveling in laughter. So far, so awful. Then slowly the story evolves into a sturdy social drama in which two of the moppets, an older and younger brother, are suffering at the hands of an abusive, alcoholic father. The film never completely redeems itself, but it does become very watchable. I was particularly fascinated by a plausible, platonic friendship that develops between Abu Raed and a female pilot for Royal Jordanian Airlines (yes, there is such a thing … I googled it). The armchair traveler in me also loved the chance to experience the city of Amman, a place I'm unlikely to visit in this lifetime. Captain Abu Raed, by first time director Amin Matalqa, is Jordan's first time submission for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Don't be surprised when it's among the five final nominees. You can watch the trailer here.

Amor Hakkar's The Yellow House is a simple, but deeply felt film about overcoming grief. The protagonist Mouloud is an Algerian potato farmer whose son is killed in a car accident while serving in the army. In the film's first half, he travels to a distant town by motor-cart to retrieve the body, repeatedly encountering the kindness of strangers en route. One can't help but be reminded of David Lynch's The Straight Story. The remainder concerns Mouloud's efforts to assuage his wife's inconsolable grief. Neither buying her a dog nor painting their house a cheerful yellow does the trick. Remembering a video cassette that was among his son's effects, he learns that it contains a message to the family. Soon he's off to buy the TV and VCR from the café in a nearby town, not realizing they require electricity to work. It's here that the story begins to strain believability. Mouloud and his wife wage a campaign to bring electricity to their village, and this section feels like it belongs to another film altogether. Wouldn't it have been a thousand times easier to just bring his wife to the café to watch their son's 30-second video? Oh well, in the end it's still a lovely film, and the stunning cinematography of eastern Algeria's Aures Mountain range is unforgettable. The trailer is here.

There are three films in the AFF line-up which I saw at other Bay Area festivals earlier in the year. The best of them by far is Ahmed el Maanouni's Burned Hearts from Algeria, which recently played the Mill Valley Film Festival (as did Captain Abu Raed). Beautifully photographed in B&W, it's about a French-Arab architect who returns to his native Fez, Morocco. I wrote about it in greater detail here. Mahmoud Al-Massad's worthwhile documentary Recycle was part of this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, and is about a disillusioned, ex-mujahideen struggling to rebuild his life in Jordan. Finally, Maher Sabry's prurient but earnest, no-budget All My Life, which world-premiered at Frameline, merits a look by virtue of it being the only existing, outwardly gay feature from Egypt.

Finally, I'll mention five films I haven't seen, but look very much forward to catching during the festival. Paloma Delight is about a sexy con-woman and purports to be "an utterly juicy portrait of Algiers' scheming underbelly." In Samira's Garden, a disillusioned newlywed bride falls for the young man next door. The Syrian film Out of Coverage tells of a conflicted married man who agrees to take care of his best friend's wife while he's in prison. In Seventh Heaven, an Egyptian woman with a past falls in love with a Sufi dancer. And Bahrani Tale recalls the trials of a family during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Show times and venues for these and many, many more films can be found at the 2008 Arab Film Festival website. Of related interest is Michael Fox's SF360 interview with AFF Executive Director Michel Shehadeh.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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