News Column

Arab cinema in Beirut, via Amman and Paris

August 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 24--BEIRUT -- Some images from the Arab world cannot be found on television news or YouTube. It is possible, too, to find stories from this region that are not concerned with the turmoil roiling in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

A selection of such stories will enjoy a brief run in town next week, under a Jordanian aegis.

The Beirut reprise of the Festival du Film Franco-Arabe de Amman is comprised of five feature-length films that all emerged on the region's international film festival circuit in 2012.

Aside from the fact that none of them is explicitly about "The Arab Spring," these five works are a mixed bag.

Of those picked up for festival competitions, most did not collect major prizes. Some are the work of freshman artists, but veterans are also represented. Excluding one autobiographical documentary, all the works are fictions.

Among the most intriguing of these is "Asham," by Egyptian writer-director Maggie Morgan, which had its world premiere at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival last year.

In one sense, the film is exactly what you'd expect from Egyptian cinema: an ensemble drama embracing characters from across Cairo's broad socio-cultural canvas. Yet "Asham" is devoid of many of the characteristics that have come to define Egypt's commercial cinema -- the laborious plotting, melodramatic acting, soupy direction and editing.

In this, Morgan's film is representative of the work of Egypt's younger independent filmmakers, whose names began to surface on the circuit just before that country's 2011 revolution. Ahmad Abdulla's "Microphone," a musical love letter to Alexandria's youthful indie art scene, is the most lauded of these.

"Asham" moves very much like "Microphone" -- no surprise, since he edited both films. Unfortunately, the writing and editing are not entirely at ease with each other in Morgan's film.

While the story of "Microphone" thrives amidst the landscape of abrupt jump-cuts, which send the film careering unpredictably from character to character, this approach to Morgan's relatively diffuse plotting makes it more challenging for viewers to pull all the narrative threads together.

"Line of Sight," the debut feature from Jordanian writer-director Aseel Mansour, is also interesting in that, though flawed, it suggests the filmmaker's promise.

Abiding by all the conventions of a thriller, the film cleverly alludes to the class divide characterizing contemporary Amman to tell a story about the power of storytelling.

As the film opens, Laila (Nadia Odeh) arrives home to her sumptuous bourgeois house on the isolated fringes of Amman. She finds a note from her husband Nadim, informing her that he had to leave to catch his plane.

A pal of hers drops by to say hi, abet some backstory about Laila's frigid relationship with Nadim, then depart the film.

Outside, meanwhile, a pair of dodgy fellows stumbles about in the dark, intent on stealing Laila's Mercedes. They're puzzled when they find the car has no lock to jack.

Laila discovers the would-be villains, hurriedly arms herself and holds one of the two at bay. She doesn't have her mobile, however, so she can't call the cops.

During the ensuing standoff, the failed car thief introduces himself as Sami (Khaled al-Ghwairi). He explains that he is in desperate need of 700 dinars and that it was the escaped thief, (and real villain) Mustapha, who suggested they steal her car and flip it for 1000 dinars.

With "Sami" controlling the narration, Mansour weaves a merry tale of insecurity, seduction and representation. The story is so well thought out that the audience is left wishing that a filmmaking apparatus had been available to transform this fun little genre exercise into a good film.

"The Professor," the fourth feature of Tunisia-born, Belgium-based writer-director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud is a drama set against the still-nascent rise of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunis' now-former autocrat.

In terms of awards, it's the most accomplished of the films in this program, having won Ahmad Hafiane Best Actor prize at last year's Doha-Tribeca film festival for his portrayal of the title role.

He plays Khalil Kalsaoui, a university law professor appointed by the state to head an agency that rubber-stamps state security's efforts to suppress human rights and undermine the leftist opposition.

A respectable-looking family man, Kalsaoui is having an affair with one of his left-leaning students. When she is arrested, he must choose between defending her -- risking his career and marriage -- and abandoning her to the police state.

The lone documentary on offer is Marie Seurat's "Damas au peril du souvenir." The director is the widow of renowned sociologist and scholar of Islam Michel Seurat (1947-1986), who was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad in the dark days of Lebanon's Civil War, and died in captivity.

Seurat has been the subject of several filmic tributes, the most lyrical being "On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat..." by the late Omar Amiralay.

Marie Seurat documents her return to her native Syria, wandering about Damascus where history and personal recollections of her late husband mingle.

The work in this program that exhibits the characteristics of a strong, festival film -- lovely cinematography matched with appealing, recognizable actors -- is "Le sac de farine" (The Sack of Flower), the feature film debut of Kadja Leclere. It is also the most inadvertently amusing work in this Festival du Film Franco-Arabe.

Leclere tells the story of Sarah, a happily French little girl. One day Sarah's absentee father materializes to take her on a day trip. En route she falls asleep in the back seat of his car and wakes up in Morocco.

Pop's decided it's a shame that his daughter grow up cut off from her roots. This is a bewildering development for Sarah, a lover of French literature and everything else Gallic.

She remains in the rural household of her aunt Yasmine (Hiam Abbass) and eventually grows into a beautiful young woman (aka Hafsia Herzi). Her entire coming-of-age story unfolds in the shadow of her resentment of her father. Her goal is to reach the age of majority, so she can force him to return her French passport, so that she can return home.

He eventually does just that. Like a punch line, the closing sequence of "Le sac de farine" broadcasts a moral readily recognized as a theme of the EuroMed species of films: You don't have to live in France to be French.

The Beirut Reprise du Festival du Film Franco-Arabe de Amman runs at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Aug. 26-30. All films will be projected at 8 p.m. and, true to its title, with French subtitles. For more information ring 01 204080 or see www.metropoliscinema.net.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/

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