Hany Abu Assad’s ‘Omar’ – Deconstructing Two States

Hany Abu Assad’s new film Omar won the best film award at the Dubai International Film Festival last week, cementing his reputation as one of the foremost Arab directors of the moment. His Paradise Now (2006) won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign language film, and it received an Oscar nomination in the same category. Omar won a jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year. So Abu Assad’s work comes with a lot of expectations. Continue reading Hany Abu Assad’s ‘Omar’ – Deconstructing Two States

Iranian Director Kiarostami Discusses His Work in Doha

Speaking in Doha during a special retrospective of his films last week, celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami talked a little bit about his work. He prefers not to say much by way of interpretation of his work, leaving it to the individual viewer to come to his own conclusions, but he was coaxed to say some words about his first ‘breakthrough’ film, Where Is The Friend’s House? from 1987. Continue reading Iranian Director Kiarostami Discusses His Work in Doha

Moroccan road film subverts Hollywood stereotypes

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri Dec 21, 2012 8:50am EST

(Reuters) – When director John Slattery first visited Morocco, the familiarity was jarring – and as removed from the images of an exotic Orient conjured up by Hollywood as possible.

That dichotomy between the representation and the reality of Morocco drives Slattery’s charming paean to a country he clearly loves and makes “Casablanca, Mon Amour” a thoughtful rejoinder to U.S. popular culture. Continue reading Moroccan road film subverts Hollywood stereotypes

Israeli Arab wrestles with grief, guilt in suicide bomb film

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Thu Dec 20, 2012 9:50am EST

(Reuters) – When Universal Studios took a disliking to the script for Ziad Doueiri’s Israeli-Palestinian suicide bombing drama, the Lebanese director thought his career was over.

Six years later “The Attack” is garnering interest on the festival circuit, winning praise in Toronto, an award in Marrakech, and wowing audiences at the Dubai international film festival in the United Arab Emirates this week. Continue reading Israeli Arab wrestles with grief, guilt in suicide bomb film

Film shows spread of conservative Islam in secular Syria

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:36pm EST

(Reuters) – A film about one of thousands of Koranic schools for girls in Syria has shocked some Syrians but impressed others with the implication that one of the bastions of Arab secularism has become a deeply religious society.

In “The Light In Her Eyes,” Houda al-Habash opens up the mosque and school she runs where hundreds of teenage girls, sent there by their parents, spend the summer learning to memorize the Koran and take religious study classes that conclude with most of them taking to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.

The documentary’s directors, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, said they wanted to show that the conservatism depicted in the film reflects the mainstream in Syria today and should be seen as progressive in many respects.

“My experience was Syria and there is this religious population that’s growing and that’s a story that needs to be told about moderate Islam and it’s a story we don’t see, especially in the West,” said Meltzer, who taught journalism at Damascus University in 2005 and 2006.

Speaking to Reuters at the Dubai International Film Festival which ended this weekend, she said that this Islamist community is more organized in many respects than state institutions.

“What I saw in that educational environment (university) was that people did not arrive on time, teachers didn’t really seem to take things seriously,” Meltzer said. “In contrast to that world, going to Houda’s mosque was a really eye-opening, and complex, experience for me where girls were encouraged to read.”

Houda lectures the girls that the veil is an Islamic duty — a view that many Muslims would dispute — that God intended as protection and which for Houda is part of a process of empowering girls to play an active role in society as Muslims.

“The flag is the symbol of the state, but the hijab is the symbol of Islam … you have not been faithful to the symbol,” she tells the girls in one of her group pep talks. “God made the hijab an obligation to protect women from inappropriate looks and preserve her for her husband.”

However, she also tells them in another talk: “Does a woman have a right to be the president of the republic? Yes. Don’t let go your mind, or your choice” — an opinion that is the subject of dispute among Islamist political movements today.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has equivocated on whether women could rise the top positions in the state, while the leader of the Ennahda movement that won elections this year in Tunisia — another bastion of Arab secularism in the post-colonial era — says even non-Muslims could occupy such posts.

MODERATION VS. STRICT FUNDAMENTALISM

The directors splice the documentary with short segments from conservative preachers who argue on television that Muslim women should stay at home, avoid education and not work at all.

This debate between different visions of correct Islamic conduct is far more significant in Syria today than the polemic between secularists and Islamists over the religious values, women and politics, Meltzer said.

“That is the bigger question. Those people who are Salafi-influenced, more conservative, they don’t engage in dialogue,” she said. “The secular community in Syria has definitely been getting smaller.”

Syria has been gripped by unrest since activists began protesting for democratic changes in one of the most tightly run police states in the region.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad argues that it is facing an armed insurrection by Islamists dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood whose rise to power would destroy the balance that Assad’s secular state has maintained. Assad’s Baath party has relied heavily on his Alawite sect to run the security, military and other key arms of the state.

Meltzer said it was not clear to her while living in Syria and filming, the extent of any Brotherhood role in the moderate Islamic conservativism she witnessed and documents in the film.

She said there were only a handful of such girls’ schools in 1982, the year Assad’s father Hafez crushed a Brotherhood revolt, but now there are thousands.

The film includes scenes of girls whose families have sent them to the school deciding to take the veil after gentle persuasion in Houda’s lectures and one-on-one discussion.

Some Syrian expatriates during one screening were shocked at these scenes, but Meltzer said she wanted to leave the viewers to make their own decisions about the Islamic education and lifestyle depicted.

“I’m not convinced yet, but I’ll get used to it,” one girl tells Houda before her veiling ceremony. “It protects women, it shows you’re a Muslim person,” Houda says, adding: “No one can force anyone.”

The camera brings out many of the contradictions facing the young women.

The girls discuss the hair styles of television presenters and visit fashion shops which they leave after concluding they could never wear the fancy dresses on display.

Satellite channels subject them to a barrage of entertainment programming which Houda says is hindering their ability to focus on learning the Koran. The overwhelming impression is of happy growing teenagers, however.

Houda’s daughter Enas, a forthright 20-year-old studying at the American University in Sharjah, one of the more conservative cities of the United Arab Emirates, says she sees education as affording a chance to engage in Islamic missionary work that people of her mother’s generation did not have.

“I can see I can serve Islam by studying politics or economy. My mum didn’t have that,” she says in fluent American-accented English.

The film’s finale involves a celebration with the girls who have succeeded in memorizing the entire Muslim holy book dressed as if for a wedding in white dresses and tiaras.

They sing a song from which the title is derived: “Now we are veiled, there is light in our eyes.”

Film reveals Paris crackdown of 1961 Algeria protest

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri Dec 16, 2011 8:24pm EST

(Reuters) – When Yasmina Adi got access to archives documenting the 1961 repression of Algerian protesters in Paris, she was shocked to uncover a trove of material relating to gaps in the story of one of the most contested events in recent French history.

As Algeria’s battle for independence spilled into France, Paris police chief Maurice Papon ordered police to crack down on thousands of Algerian protesters who defied a curfew on October 17 1961. Dozens of bodies were later pulled from the River Seine.

Papon, who died in 2007, was the only French Nazi official to be convicted for his role in the deportation of Jews during World War Two. France has acknowledged the deaths of 40 people in the 1961 incident, but Adi says her research suggests it was much worse.

“This period remains a blank page. France doesn’t recognize October 17 in school history books, it is not mentioned. Nothing you saw is in textbooks,” Adi, who is of Algerian origin, said after “Here We Drown Algerians – October 17, 1961” aired at the Dubai International Film Festival this week.

“The people you saw are getting old, so this is an attempt to maintain the historical memory.”

The documentary is narrated through the testimony of Algerians dragged off the streets by police and uses archive footage showing haunting images of thousands held in detention centers, transported in buses and sitting in planes during deportation.

A media campaign branded the protesters as Muslim terrorists, Adi’s film says.

Some, such as Hadda Khalfi, one of the main interviewees who explains how her husband disappeared never to return, have never received an apology or compensation from the state.

“I managed to (access) the archives of the police department and state archives, which even some historians have not got permission to see. Then I asked myself what security bodies were there, and I found they all had their own archives,” Adi said.

“It was the same for the filmed material… sometimes I noticed there were two people taking photos, so I said I have to go find them,” she added.

“So I pieced together each part, when they put the Algerians on buses, when they detained them at the police department, the unseen photos from the Palais du Sport, the expulsions, the women’s protest. At a certain point I said to myself ‘wow’.”

The true number of those who died may never be known.

“It’s difficult to establish a figure. Some say 100, some say 200, some say 400, it’s complicated. The police prefecture has a list of dead but these lists are not trustworthy,” Adi said. “We could say around more than 1,500 were expelled.”

GRAFFITI

Adi took the title for the film from graffiti daubed on a bridge over the Seine on October 28 1961 and caught on camera before the authorities could remove it. The words and the image she says dropped out of France’s collective consciousness for decades.

She says France’s unwillingness to offer more public recognition of what happened in those days contrasts with France’s championing of Arab Spring causes such as Libya, which was taken up by President Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Henri-Levy, a prominent public intellectual in France.

“Sarkozy has said a few weeks ago why should Turkey be in Europe? If you Turks want to be in Europe you have to recognize the Armenian genocide. Before giving lessons to others, France ought to look at itself in history,” she said.

“As citizens we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by methods, images, language, because they cross time and governments take up the same methods and language.”

France has had a complex relationship with Algeria since it was forced to give up a colony it ruled for 132 years in 1962 after a bitter war. Sarkozy has refused to apologize for Algerian dead.

France considered Algeria an integral part of the French state and more than 1 million French fled the country in the months before Algeria finally became independent.

Adi said she was surprised to see large audiences of young French people attending the screenings of her film in France when it was released in October.

“There were few Algerians but many French at the screenings, because many young people in particular are rediscovering the past and realizing it’s not an Algerian problem but a Franco-Algerian problem,” she said.

Arab Spring films revive days of Egypt, Tunisia revolt

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:23pm EST

(Reuters) – The first cinematic output covering protests in Egypt and Tunisia this year recreates the euphoria of revolutions that many thought would never happen, but reveals signs of the conflicts that lay ahead over Islamist groups.

The last stage of the revolt that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and then the entire three weeks of upheaval that led to Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt took place before the eyes of the world with media and other documenters on the ground observing events day by day — unlike uprisings such as Iran witnessed in 1979 or Sudan in 1985.

In “Tahrir – Liberation Square,” Italian documentary maker Stefano Savona uses stunning camerawork in the midst of the lively crowds who spent three weeks in central Cairo in January and February in dreamlike sequences which capture the hypnotic chants and rhythms of Egyptian protesters.

Drummers and lead chanters who come up with an innovative array of rhymes party into the night in a record of events that emphasizes the hope of protesters whose spirits never flag and whose means of entertaining themselves is endless.

Young people also have animated discussions about the future, which given the lead Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood have established in Egypt’s first free elections, seem eerily prescient.

“I don’t know what to think of them (the Muslim Brotherhood) because everything we heard about them came from the state,” says a young woman called Noha. “Whether the future state is religious or not doesn’t matter, the important thing is that we get rid of the regime.”

After news of Mubarak’s resignation comes through, the camera focuses on another young Egyptian, Ahmed, who declares in English: “We will have now a civilian (secular) state, we won’t have a religious state.”

FIRST-HAND RECORD OF VIOLENCE

In “1/2 Revolution,” film-makers Omar Shargawi and Karim El-Hakim record their experiences of the revolt while staying in a flat in central Cairo. A raw personal account, it captures the violence of the security forces and thugs who controlled much of downtown Cairo outside Tahrir Square.

Shargawi is beaten up at one point, and fearing for his young child, Karim decides to leave. “It’s just gonna get worse, this place is gonna be unliveable,” he predicts.

Seven days later Mubarak stepped down, but the street is still an arena of political protest and confrontation several months after the Egyptian president’s February departure. More than 50 people died in November alone during clashes with police over the military’s continued grip on power.

“Things have settled down now a bit but on November 19 the violence really exploded,” Hakim said after a showing. “The police and army have blended into some kind of armed force, I’m not sure who they’re protecting.”

The documentaries, being shown at the Dubai International Film Festival, undercut the claim, oft-cited by supporters of U.S. power in the Middle East, that the revolts were not anti-American or driven by foreign policy concerns.

In “1/2 Revolution” Egyptians chant anti-U.S. slogans and angrily display bullet cartridges and teargas canisters made in the United States. Egypt is a major U.S. ally in the region.

“USA, it’s our decision not yours!” a placard held up by one protester to camera says in a third Egyptian revolution film, “Born on the 25th of January,” the day the protests began.

Rashwan, a feature film maker among an artistic community worried about an Islamist future, said the fear was overstated.

“I think the revolution is continuing. When people are disillusioned, all they have to do is go to YouTube and see all the footage there from before,” he told an audience.

DOCUMENTING TUNISIA

Tunisian director Mourad Ben Cheikh’s “No More Fear” documents the reactions of a blogger, a rights lawyer and a journalist during the latter stages of the Tunisian revolution after security forces had lost control of the streets.

It offers a reminder that although Egypt is famous for its street sloganeering, Tunisia is the origin of the signature Arabic chant of the Arab uprisings, “the people want to bring down the regime,” as well as “Get out!.”

“If you haven’t got it yet, here it is in Japanese,” says a placard held up by one protester in Tunis.

A smaller country than Egypt and easier for Ben Ali to control, Tunisia brooked far less dissent than Mubarak’s Egypt did, smothering civil society almost completely.

Lawyer Radhia Nasraoui discusses the ongoing events over a meal in a restaurant with colleagues.

“We couldn’t even meet like this before, they would have word in advance where we intended to dine,” she says.

Nasraoui recalls colleagues whose lives were ruined by police surveillance and harassment.

“We had a revolt in 1984 that was about bread, but this one is different, it’s about freedom, rights, duties,” she says.

Ben Cheikh said he felt he was witnessing the reawakening of a nation.

“In these two weeks while the world was watching, Tunisians view of themselves changed. I felt it was important to document this moment,” he told Reuters. “For the first time, a director could have the ability to deal with real-time events, we didn’t have this before.”

Documentary looks at life of Palestinian leader Arafat

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Dec 12, 2011 9:32am EST

Dec 12 (Reuters) – Associates of Yasser Arafat offer personal recollections in a documentary screened in Dubai this week on his search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that descended into violence and failed to lead to a Palestinian state.

Figures from Arafat’s circle who entered into a historic peace process with Israel in 1993, including his wife Suha, as well as Israelis such as President Shimon Peres and activist Uri Avnery who knew him well, discuss controversial moments of a career that ended with Arafat’s unexplained death in 2004.

Arafat was depicted by his Israeli and U.S. detractors as an obstacle to bringing the peace talks to a resolution and who sought to take advantage of the violence of the Palestinian uprising which followed the breakdown of critical talks in 2000.

Peres sticks to that view in the “The Price of Kings – Yasser Arafat”, a sympathetic portrayal of Arafat by British director Richard Symons shown at the Dubai International Film Festival in which friends recall private moments.

“Without him we couldn’t start, with him we couldn’t finish,” Peres says of the Oslo peace process that created self-rule for Palestinians in territories Israel occupied in 1967. “At the last moment he didn’t take the tough decision.”

Other confidantes of Arafat, however, question those views, describing a man who took an enormous risk with a doomed bet on a peace process led by Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli in 1995.

Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew who is now Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, recounts Arafat’s gloom after Rabin’s death. Kidwa found a quiet, dejected figure when he visited Arafat in his office several days later.

“Before leaving I said something to the effect of ‘why are you so upset? Okay Rabin was an important leader, but Peres is coming and Peres has an even better position than Rabin’,” he remembers in one of the film’s most poignant sections.

“He didn’t answer me, but he gave me that look that obviously meant that I didn’t understand anything. And I didn’t, he was right, clearly.”

Shimon Peres lost the subsequent 1996 election to Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu, signaling a shift to the right in Israeli politics and a stagnation in the peace process that has lasted to this day.

PEACE TALKS STALLED

Shunned by Washington and besieged by Israel in his Ramallah compound, Arafat died as the uprising was winding down. His widow is in tears as she recalls those final days.

Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has been no more successful in moving talks forward with Netanyahu, in power once more, and Palestinians in the territories remain stateless.

Nabil Shaath, another veteran of the self-rule administrations set up through Oslo, says Arafat feared entering the final status peace talks in 2000.

He was not prepared to make the concessions Israel and the U.S. administration hoped could be secured from him quickly, Shaath says. Those talks stumbled over the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

“He was viewed by his enemies on our side as being too lenient, for giving up. Also, he created expectations that were quite opposite from the truth when it came to permanent settlement negotiations,” Shaath said.

“When he came to Camp David, and the permanent settlement, he was as tough as nails and Mr. (U.S. President Bill) Clinton did not expect that.”

The Israeli and Palestinian acquaintances interviewed acknowledge Arafat’s charisma and achievement in uniting Palestinians across political and geographical divides. But say his desire to avoid making enemies led to overlooking corruption in his administration, helping provoke the 2000 uprising.

Arafat’s many bitter opponents among Palestinian and Arab politicians and intellectuals are notably absent from the documentary, which also includes some rare footage. It is the first of 12 on world leaders from Symon’s Spirit Level Film.

Symons said this was due to the film’s focus on those close to Arafat with personal stories and a willingness to talk. He also said the work had no agenda but that it had changed some of the views he grew up with in London’s Jewish community .

“I have a better understanding of the distortion and how important it is to question that from time to time,” he said. “He lived through the most difficult, extraordinary circumstances through 60 years.”