Like most budding world cinemas, Arab cinema continues to suffer from a severe state of inconsistency. The excitement induced by a strong, diverse selection of films screened across the region in 2009 signaled a new direction for a stronger, more focused Arab cinema. Alas, prophecies turned to be false as the last batch of Arabic productions, screened at the end of last year in several Arab film fests, failed to impress, leaving supporters of Arab cinema bewildered.
After Abu Dhabi and Cairo failed to offer any films of great value, all eyes turned to Dubai, currently the biggest showcase for Arab films in the world, for significant works that could save face for Arab cinema.
Despite its distinct, cohesive selection, Dubai didn’t fare better than the rest. The overall quality of Arab films ranged from the average to the downright awful. What separates some of the Dubai movies from the rest though is their new-found sense of experimentation, a rare quality for a cinema long sunk in traditionalism.
The best of these films are incomplete, deeply flawed experiments whose parts are better than the whole. This, and this alone, is a cause for celebration, but the road for greatness, for a real Arab cinema, appears to be long and coarse. A schism between substance and style is still the biggest ill plaguing Arab films.
The definitive highlight of Dubai’s Arab selection was veteran Syrian filmmaker Abdullatif Abdelhamid’s new picture “September Rain” starring Ayman Zidan. A beautiful, bittersweet philosophical meditation on love, disappearing cultures and fear in modern-day Syria, Abdelhamid’s comic drama was easily the most enigmatic, original and moving Arabic film I saw in Dubai.
Zidan plays a widower and an elderly father of six boys residing in the remains of a simpler, more innocent past. Four of his children are members of an oriental Takht performing at an old, upscale restaurant and are engaged to the four daughters of their father’s closest friend. The fifth is infatuated with a mysterious stranger with a red car he cleans every morning in a long venture to win her heart. The youngest takes charge of the fruit-selling family business and is also in love with a mysterious girl living at the outskirts of the city.
The father is secretly in love with the maid whom he takes on quiet picnics while dreaming of summer rain. Their happiness is constantly threatened by the figure of a notorious policeman whom the father frantically slaps at the beginning of the film. The policeman denies the event has taken place, pushing the father in a constant state of anxiety.
With virtually no tangible plot and a reliance on recurring comic motifs and imagery, “Rain” bears some resemblance to the works of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman and, incidentally, French comedy director Jacques Tati.
Comparison aside, Abdelhamid’s socially-conscious film remains a highly inventive piece of cinema distinguished for its naive, gullible romanticism. Abdelhamid refuses to reveal his intentions, treating his audience to a postmodern journey with an unforeseen payoff.
The political and social subtext of the film is so subtle it could easily be missed. There are no grand statements in here about the reality of modern Syria, no blatant attack on another repressive Arab regime. “Rain” is a work of deep intellect subject to multiple interpretations; a prior knowledge of Syrian history and politics is not required to savor its high aesthetics.
In many ways though, “Rain” could be seen as absurd requiem for a bygone era; a fond tribute to a breed of people occupying a different place that is no longer there. The culture of bureaucracy and fear, personified in the figure of the policeman, will eventually thwart any residues of happiness left from that age. In this day and age, love is a tender flower growing in a hostile, carnivorous land, bound to be crushed sooner or later.
The film takes a tragic turn at the end that feels too jarring. The finale aside, “September Rain” is a truly remarkable, intelligent work and Abdelhamid’s best film since 2003’s “Listener’s Choice.”
Less successful, if equally intriguing, was Iraqi documentary filmmaker Koutaiba Al-Janabi’s first feature “Leaving Baghdad.” Set in the late 90s, “Baghdad” is a road movie charting the struggle of Saddam Hussein’s paranoid former cameraman to locate his missing son and reach his indifferent wife in London.
Stranded in the freezing, soulless avenues of Budapest, Sadik, the cameraman, continues to search for a way out while carrying perilous recorded footage of the atrocities committed by the former Iraqi leader.
Employing non-professional actors and combining documentary with fiction, Al-Janabi deliberately blurs the line between fiction and truth, adopting the same approach made popular by maverick Chinese filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia (“Platform”).
The rare documentary footage featured in the film is shocking to say the least. Scenes showing Hussein in private celebrations, essentially him being human, are juxtaposed with profoundly disturbing torture recordings, presenting snapshots of a long nightmare the morally befuddled protagonist can’t escape.
The film has an interesting premise and the beginning is quite intriguing. But then it drifts into aimlessness, growing increasingly tedious and monotonous. All actions are continuously repeated in an unintentionally Sisyphean cycle: Sadik meeting up with his fixer, calling up his unhelpful wife, writing unsent letters to his son.
The evocative use of scenery provides a chillingly desolate setting for what could’ve transpired into a Melville-like existential thriller. Yet strangely, the film lacks any tension to sustain attention, especially at the second half of the film.
Nothing offered in the middle-part of the film prepares the viewer for the surprising ending which blew me out of the water. Haunting, distressing and utterly unforgettable, the grand conclusion is an indication of the great film “Leaving Baghdad” could’ve been.
Another debut feature premiering at the seventh edition of the Dubai Film Festival was Mohamed Mouftakir’s genre piece “Pegasus.” Deserved winner of the best cinematography award, Mouftakir’s psychological horror centers on Rihana, a battered peasant girl admitted to a psychiatric hospital after being raped by a mystifying country spirit known as ‘Lord of the Horse.’ The clashing, contradictory stories Rihana chronicles about the incident confounds her psychiatrist, Zineb, who struggles to find the truth about what really happened in that fateful night.
The horror genre has rarely been tackled in Arab cinema, an advantage that frees Mouftakir to take several unheeded directions, enlivening his psychological tale with a gothic feel amplified by the foreboding folk setting.
The result is a superbly crafted, well-written entertainment with twists and turns lurking in every corner. The knockout ending recalls Robert Wiene’s silent classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). Unlike Wiene’s slice of German expressionism, Mouftakir’s lacks substance. An allegory about the sexual subjugation of Moroccan women “Pegasus” is not.
Mouftakir is simply too busy in weaving the story’s numerous plot threads to offer a new insight into the human condition. Nevertheless, “Pegasus” is a respectable debut feature that announces Mouftakir as a major, ambitious new talent in Arab cinema.
“This Is My Picture When I Was Dead”
An equally ambitious work that debuted at the fest was Jordan-born Mahmoud Al-Massad’s Dutch/American/Emirati production “This Is My Picture When I Was Dead,” winner of the best Arab documentary award.
The film commences with the murder of four-year old Bashir Meraish and his father, a top PLO lieutenant, in 1983. Al-Massad then re-imagines the life Meraish could’ve led, attempting to work out who his father really was and expounding on the fading ideals of resistance and the dissolving dream of a Palestinian state.
Like “Leaving Baghdad,” “Picture” boasts a captivating premise that, sadly, goes nowhere. Al-Massad defies documentary conventions (initially at least), injecting his classical narrative with sci-fi/supernatural elements that breathe new life into this tired formula.
Problem is, “Picture” ultimately emerges as a conventional film, bearing the hallmarks of artistically conservative documentaries: talking heads, archival footage, lengthy intervals detailing personal and national histories…etc.
Two factors works against Al-Massad’s vision though: a) there’s an acute dissonance between style and content. The whole thing simply doesn’t mesh together. b) The central lead is frankly dull, difficult to sympathize with.
Above all though, the film doesn’t say anything remotely new about the Palestinian cause and concept of armed resistance, taking a safe, insipid route it fails to elude.
Despite their flaws, all three aforementioned films showed great potential. The same cannot be said about the rest of the Arabic selection.
Mohammed Al-Hushki’s first feature “Transit Cities” from Jordan was probably the most derided film in competition despite its inexplicable win of the Special Jury Prize and the Fiprisci award for best feature film.
When the 14-year-old marriage ends, Laila (Saba Mubarak from “Egyptian Maidens”) returns home to Amman from the US to find herself forced to confront the drastic social changes that hit Jordan over the past two decades.
Increasing religiosity, red tape, social hypocrisy, Americanization of the Arab world…all imaginable social predicaments are squeezed into the tired narrative that doesn’t possess an ounce of subtlety or tact.
“Transit Cities” is a blunt, condescending seemingly-liberal lecture conceived as a middlebrow TV movie by a ‘filmmaker’ with no vision, no imagination and little talent.
Equally blunt was Jillali Ferhati’s “At Dawn,” winner of the best Arabic screenplay award. A multi-character, “Crash”-like drama set in one day, Ferhati’s blatant social commentary is no different than Al-Hushki’s. The only difference is that “At Dawn” thinks it’s smarter than it actually is.
In an earlier report, I erroneously called Hesham Issawi’s “Cairo Exit” the worst film I saw in Dubai. I’d like to correct that wrong by admitting I was sadly mistaken. That honor belongs to Kassem Hawal’s Iraqi/French production “The Singer.”
Set in the late 50s, “The Singer” is a parable of sorts about dictatorship, moral bankruptcy and a bunch of other ‘big’ ideas. The custom drama centers on a singer fighting fate and a series of unfortunate incidents to make it to the lavish celebration of the country’s merciless, blood-thirsty ruler.
Featuring possibly the worst acting I’ve seen in quite some time, “The Singer” is equally surreal and hilarious in its dreadfulness, boasting every conceivable cliché, archetype and platitude there is.
To sum it up, I borrow the words of a dear colleague who aptly described “The Singer” as “a cheap TV special, a distorted piece of theater, a vague video production….anything but a film.”
Bashir Meraish in Mahmoud Al Massad’s documentary “This Is My Picture When I Was Dead.”
Saba Mubarak and Ashraf Farah in Mohammed Al Hushki’s “Transit Cities.”