“Only 10 years go, the whole Gulf region lived in a total cinematic drought,” writes Masoud Amralla Al-Ali, artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival and curator of a series of Gulf-based films at Arab Shorts 2011 in his program note. “The cinematic image that others had of us was always either stupid Bedouins or rich people swimming in barrels of oil or … terrorists.”
At one of the last sessions of the Goethe Institute’s Arab Shorts 2011 festival, which ended Monday, Amralla screened five films from the Gulf region under the title “Paths to Solitude.” The unifying thread was a deep and sustained feeling of loneliness. In Omani director Amer Alrawas’ “Spices,” four characters act in total seclusion; an old man waits, a man writes a blog, another captures a protest with a camera phone, and an infertile woman walks to a river to try to cure her condition.
In “Heaven’s Water” by Kuwaiti director Abdullah Boushahri, a desperately lonely woman facing an abortion meets a poor man, who offers her emotional support as an unlikely friendship develops between them.
In “The Power of Generations,” a three-minute experimental film by Bahraini Mohammed Jassim, a man sits on a bench in the desert while the scene around him produces civilization, followed by explosions and war, and finally the desert again.
“Sabeel,” by Khalid Al-Mahmood of the UAE, captures solitude most effectively by refraining from using dialogue. In total silence, two brothers meditatively wash and sell vegetables in order to buy medicine for their sick grandmother. Instead of narrative, all we get is process. With only the sounds of their motorcycle, the rustling of the sick mother in bed, and snatches of angular, electronic music, every shot takes on grandeur and their isolation in the hills of the UAE is powerfully communicated.
Ironically, the best film of the set paired loneliness with humor. In “Land of the Heroes,” by Iraqi director Sahim Omar Kalifa, we are taken to the hills of Iraq near the border with Iran. The year is 1988, and the now farcical Iran-Iraq war is reaching its end. Dileer, a chubby 10-year-old wearing a ripped Spiderman costume, and his quiet sister Zienee want to watch cartoons, but only find the kitschy war propaganda of Saddam Hussein and horrific images of Iranian casualties on every channel. Their mother casually polishes grenades and tests her rocket launcher in scenes that alone reach the heights of political satire.
The mother’s friend arrives, bringing another child, a tough, obnoxious bully named Malo, who torments Dileer. Eventually, Dileer tricks Malo into trapping himself in a chicken coop. “You used to be Saddam, but now I am Saddam,” Dileer shouts poignantly, before looking to his sister and admitting sheepishly, “We are both Saddam.”
In the humor of the pointless war of attrition between two kids, we lose a feeling of solidarity with any of the characters, and are asked by Kalifa to face the loneliness of moral uncertainty. In the end, Malo goes home with his mother and the brother and sister are left in the chicken coop as the cartoons play on the television. We stare at their empty chairs, robbed of the joy of seeing them finally watch cartoons.
“Land of the Heroes” aside, the bulk of the films felt incomplete or undeveloped. Amralla knows this, and writes, of films from the Gulf in general, “If some of these experiments are confused … they came by themselves to say it openly: yes, it is like this, poor and desperate.”
The loneliness in the films, for Amralla, is evidence of the loneliness of their makers. He looks at recent films from the Gulf and pronounces: “They are projected to say in plain frankness: we didn’t die.”