Thursday, October 15, 2009

AFF09—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

The 13th Arab Film Festival (AFF) kicks off tonight, October 15 and continues through Sunday, October 25 in San Francisco (Castro, Opera Plaza), San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas) and Berkeley (Shattuck Cinemas). This year's line-up of films from the Arabic-speaking world seems typically strong, with an emphasis on gritty street tales from Cairo, films relating to the Palestinian issue and women's rights—and surprisingly (or perhaps not), four narrative features and docs of LGBT interest.

It's unfortunate that AFF has to compete against the Mill Valley Film Festival and SF Docfest in what's become an overstuffed fall festival jam-up—there looks to be some promising films here. AFF outreach to on-line press didn't appear to happen this year, so unlike years past, I wasn't able to preview anything. In the informational capsules below, I apologize in advance for errors, and for a heavy reliance on Variety. As often as not, it's the only available English language resource for news and opinion on these films.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Palestine, dir. Najwa Najjar)—This year's Opening Night film is a Ramallah-set drama about a Palestinian-Christian folk dancer who marries an olive farmer. When the Israeli government confiscates his land and he goes to jail on trumped-up charges, his new bride is left to deal with the olives, a prickly mother-in-law and a tempting Lebanese choreographer (Ali Suliman, who starred in Paradise Now and was Hiam Abbas' seductive lawyer in The Lemon Tree). And speaking of Abbas (The Visitor), she's said to have a movie-stealing supporting role here as a no-nonsense café owner. Check out John Anderson's rave review in Variety.

Help (Lebanon, dir. Marc Abi Rached)—Also on board for Opening Night at the Castro is a late night (10:30PM) screening of this controversial film about a homeless teenage boy who befriends a prostitute—one who's being threatened by mobsters and lives with a gay man. In an unprecedented move, the film was banned in Lebanon after initially being approved by censors. The official reason was nudity and tough subject matter, but more plausibly it's because the film's star, Joanna Andraos, is the daughter of a prominent Lebanese parliament member who is up for re-election. Lebanese films have been among the most vital and challenging works at recent AFFs. Perhaps this is another one.

Basra (Egypt, dir. Ahmed Rashwan)—In Yousry Nasrallah's astounding 1999 film The City (AFF01), actor Bassem Samra (The Yacoubian Building's straight trade) played a Cairo accountant who moved to France to become an actor. Ten years later in Basra, Samra stars as a photojournalist departing France for Egypt at the start of the Iraq War, going through an existential life crisis that intensifies as Baghdad is captured and an Al Jazeera reporter is killed by US bombs. In addition to being the name of Iraq's second largest city, basra means "snap" in Egyptian Arabic; employed in card games when two players have the same card, or when two people think the same thing or say the same word.

Demons of Cairo (Egypt, dir. Ahmed Atef)—Bassem Samra also stars in this grim Cairo tale in which a gang of street urchins are overlorded by a pregnant drug dealer. Samra plays a former kingpin whose release from jail sets off a turf war. In his very mixed Variety review, Jay Weissberg criticizes the film's "over-the-top gore" and "over ambitious narrative." The film's Arabic title, Al Ghaba translates as The Jungle.

Casanegra (Morocco, dir. Nour-Eddine Lakhmari)—Casanegra is the pejorative nickname given to Casablanca by its underclasses. It's also the name of this neo-film noir that's become a smash hit on home turf and has been selected as Morocco's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Fed up with their dead-end lives, two smalltime crooks/childhood friends take on the classic "one last job" for a big gangster in order to earn money to immigrate to Sweden. According the Jay Weissberg's rave review in Variety, the film is brimming with social critique and its dialogue has become the country's latest street lingo. He goes on to make comparisons with Martin Scorcese and Anthony Mann, and calls the performances by its two non-professional lead actors, "career-making." I'll be disappointed to miss this at the AFF, but will keep my fingers crossed it shows up at Palm Springs in January.

Laila's Birthday (Palestine, dir. Rachid Mashrawi)—This wry satire about the daily frustrations of life in Ramallah is the one AFF film I've already seen, having caught a screening at this year's SF International Film Festival. It's one I recommend, particularly for the lead performance of veteran actor Mohammed Bakri as a former judge turned taxi driver who's just trying to get through the day (and make it home with a cake and present for his daughter Laila). The film is structured as a series of vignettes, each involving a different taxi passenger with their own particular issue. At the SFIFF, Laila's Birthday was shown as a digital projection, which did the film no favors. I'd be curious to learn if AFF screens a 35mm print. Alissa Simon's positive Variety review is worth a read.

The Beirut Apartment (Lebanon/Italy, dir. Daniele Salaris) / Not Quite the Taliban (Belgium/Jordan, dir. Fadi Hindash)—In the first part of this LGBT-themed docu-double bill, Italian filmmaker Salaris rents a tucked away Beirut apartment in which to film. Lebanese Queers from all walks of life come there to safely and confidently share their stories and feelings on subjects like sexuality, religion, endless war and politics. The second film takes a look at the hypocritical, hidden nature of contemporary homosexuality in the Arab world, with the director promising to "explode some of our own myths from the inside."

Garbage Dreams (Egypt, dir. Mai Iskandar)—Zaballeens (Arabic for "garbage people") are a 60,000 strong Coptic Christian community which collects and recycles 80 percent of Cairo's garbage—13,000 tons a day in a city of 18 million people with no municipal garbage collection system. Now Cairo is starting to hire foreign multi-national waste-hauling firms to handle the problem, and the Zaballeen's means of existence is threatened. This documentary was shot over four years and follows three Zaballeen boys as they come to terms with the transition. World-premiering at this year's SXSW, Garbage Dreams drew acclaim for its cinematography and even-handed portrait of a complicated issue.

Heat Harara (Morocco/Netherlands, dir. Lodewijk Crijns)—Two 20-year-old women, one Dutch and one Dutch/Moroccan, take their car to Morocco to buy furnishings for their new henna/nail salon. After a suspiciously calculated car crash, a series of events will lead them to consider smuggling a gay Moroccan back to Holland to rejoin his boyfriend. I couldn't find any English language reviews of this made-for-Dutch TV movie, but it sounds intriguing.

Fawzeya's Secret Recipe (Egypt, dir. Magdy Ahmed Ali)—Egyptian star Ilham Shaheen won a Best Actress prize at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival for this populist melodrama set in the slums of Cairo. Her titular character is bawdy, self-reliant, optimistic, on her fifth husband and a rock of tenacity for her family and neighbors. In his generally favorable Variety review, Jay Weissberg praises Ali as a director who "embraces sensitive pro-feminist topics in a mainstream way" and "celebrates female independence while slyly condemning government corruption." On the award-winning lead performance he states that Shaheen "gives Fawzeya her all in a grandstanding perf that's in keeping with the pic's generally high-pitched style."

Salt of This Sea (Palestine, dir. Annemarie Jacir)—The AFF sponsored a sold-out benefit screening of this in Berkeley last spring, which is probably why it's only being shown in San Jose during the festival. In this feature directorial debut, a young Brooklyn-born Palestinian woman (spoken word artist Suheir Hammad) travels to Israel to reclaim an uncle's money left in a frozen bank account since the 1948 Nakba. After being rebuffed by the bank, she hooks up with a waiter (Saleh Bakri, the handsome lothario from The Band's Visit), with whom she stages a bank robbery. They hit the road, stopping along the way to visit her uncle's now Israeli-occupied home in Jaffa, and the ruins of his ancestral village (the best part of the film, according to all the reviews I've read). Unfortunately, those same reviews described the movie with words like reductive, didactic, agenda-driven, un-nuanced and full of credibility-straining plot turns. Bakri, however, is repeatedly singled out for his fine performance.

Henna (UAE, dir. Saleh Karama)—In this rare narrative feature from the United Arab Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the theme of rapidly encroaching development is explored through the eyes of an eight-year-old fishing village girl whose parents have divorced. In his decidedly mixed review in Variety, Jay Weissberg says that while the film "just about works as a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture … the execution lacks any vitality, subsuming the message under stolid filmmaking," and the "mediocre digital quality and flat lighting, coupled with uninspired dialogue, hinder involvement."

Niloofar (France/Iran/Lebanon, dir. Sabine El Gemayel)—The AFF traditionally does not show films from Iran. This year, however, there's one set in an Iranian community within the borders of Iraq (although it was filmed in Iran in the Persian language). In this first feature from film editor El Gemayel (The Olive Harvest, SFIFF 2003), a 13-year-old girl is promised in marriage the day she becomes a woman. Managing to hide her menstruations for two years while being clandestinely home-schooled, she executes an escape with the help of an uncle. A step-brother is sent to track her down and save the family's honor. In his mixed Variety review, Robert Koehler finds the material "intrinsically fascinating," but "the determinedly paint-by-numbers filmmaking style and dramatization make for dull stuff on screen."

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.


Adam Hartzell said...

Thanks for the write-up Michael H. Two degrees of association - A good friend of mine went to high school with the director of GARBAGE DREAMS and I've met her a few times. So I'm really excited about catching that doc if I can catch the screening after the re-opening of the Castro library!

Michael Hawley said...

Hi, Adam. In doing my research for this post, GARBAGE DREAMS was one of the higher profile films, probably because of the SXSW connection. That's why I'm kind of surprised it's only showing once during the festival -- next Saturday at 5pm in Berkeley.