This blog is sponsored by

Index
Tag Cloud
1968 1972 1991 2011 Egyptian Revolution accent Ahmad Abdalla Ahmed Zaki Algeria Algerian cinema Algerian Revolution Ali Suliman Al-Kitkat Al-Monitor Alwaleed bin Talal anarchism Antonio Banderas Arab cinema Arab film Arab media auteur banned Barthes Beirut Ben Affleck Bessem Youssef Betrayal Black Gold Breathless Brendan Gleeson British Cannes Charles Laughton Charles Lloyd: Arrows into Infinity Chile Chronicle of the Years of Embers cinema civil war classic Colin Farrell Comedy controversial crime Cutouts of Memories cynicism Damien Chazelle Daoud Abdel Sayed dark comedy David Fincher Day of the Falcon dialect Diary of a Country Prosecutor documentary Doha Film Institute Doha Tribeca Film Festival Donal Mosher Dorothy Darr drama DTFF Dubai Intternational Film Festival egyptian Egyptian cinema Egyptian film Egyptian silent movies Ehab Tarabieh El-Kitkat Emma Stone epic erotic expressionism film film festival film industry film production football Freida Pinto gangster Ghassan Kanafani Gillian Flynn Gothic governmentality Hiam Abbas Hiroshima Mon Amour historic drama historical horror Hussein Kamal Ibrahim Aslan iconoclasm indie film indigenousness Ingmar Bergman Intolerance ISIL ISIS Israel James Agee jazz Jean Baudrillard Jean-Jacques Annaud Jeffery Morse John Legend Kamal Atiyah Khaled Abol Naga Khalid Ali La La Land Laila Marrakchi Land of Fear language Last Year at Marienbad Latin jazz Lebanese Lebanese cinema Lebanon Lilian Gish list of Egyptian movies Los Angeles Mahmed Nedali Mahmoud Abdel Aziz Mark Strong Martin McDonagh matryrdom medical humanities melodrama Memento Michael Palmieri misandry misanthropy misogyny Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina Moroccan Nadine Labaki Najwa Najjar nationalism Neil Patrick Harris Newt Gingrich Night of the Hunter nihilism nihlist cinema Off Label Omar Lotfi Omar Mullick Omar Sharif Palestine Palestinian Palestino Palme d'Or Pier Paolo Pasolini Point Blank police brutality published Qasaqees ath-Thikrayat Qatar Qatari production Rags and Tatters Rashomon realism realist drama Robert Mitchum Rodney King Rosamund Pike Ryan Gosling satire Saudi Arabia Shelley Winters short film Shukri Sarhan silent cinema soccer social comedy social drama suicide suspense Syria Syrian cinema Tahar Rahim Tarak Ben Ammar Tawfiq al-Hakim Tawfiq Saleh terrorism The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Deceived The Duped The Dupes The Fruit Hunters The Godfather Part II The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance The Postman The Wages of Fear These Bird Walk thriller TIFF Tinatin Gurchiani Toronto International Film Festival transnational cinema transnationalism Two for the Road Tyler Perry Um-Hashim's Lantern Wadjda Wahhabism Walter Benjamin William Mitchell Woody Allen World Cup Yahya Haqqi Yasmina Khadra Yorgo Voyagis Yung Chang Ziad Doueiri أحمد زكي أرض الخوف الصدمه الكيت كات المخدوعون جناح الهوى داوود عبدالسيد قصاقيص الذكريات وقائع سنين الجمر وهلّأ لوين؟
Monday
Jul292013

The Attack (2012): Polished, Inchoate and False

Humans are not the only animal to carry out suicide attacks I came to learn in researching for this review. A termite species found in French New Guinea sends off its old to carry out suicide attacks, deploying poison reserves that they will have accumulated over a lifetime. Curiously, the researcher who uncovered this behavior characterized it as altruistic.1

 

Samson destroys himself and his enemiesAs have theologians of one Samson’s suicide attack. Of the many violent crimes mentioned in the bible I was startled to learn that suicide attack is one. The attacker in question is the Israelite judge Samson who, after a lifetime of resisting the Philistines on behalf of his people, asks God to empower himself to kill those Philistines who had been summoned to regard the vanquished warrior (not realizing that despite Samson’s blindness his great strength had returned):Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.”2

Indeed, though most suicide attacks in modern times have been carried out by Muslims, non-Muslims have carried them out or prepared for them, responding principally to Nationalist ideologies: Kamukaze (nationalist though literally meaning “god’s wind”) fighters and Tamil Tiger militants (check out the superb Indian film The Terrorist.) As far as European native and settler societies are concerned, it has come to surface that Churchill had designated a secret group named the Auxiliary Unit (otherwise known as the Scallywags), which was to carry out a variety of militant acts of resistance in the event of a German occupation of Britain—a unit of4000 volunteer civilians. Tom Skyes, who had campaigned for official recognition of the Auxiliary Unit stated about its members: “Many of these veterans were in reserved occupations and could not join the regular Forces… But when the call came, they did not hesitate to join what would have been a suicide mission to confront the enemy.”3 Indeed, the most probing investigation4 into the motivation behind contemporary suicide bombing has found it weakly linked to religious fundamentalism, Islamic or otherwise.5 Rather, opposition to occupation and a desire to gain strategic advantage over it has described almost all such attacks, as has been proved by another comprehensive study conducted since.6 There is strategic advantage to not having to execute an exit plan, since an exit is not part of the plan.

A time existed not long ago when suicide attack was the commonly used term in Palestinian circles, though I do not now think that its gradual replacement with martyrdom bombing reflects the increasing religiosity among Palestinians, but a rejection of the connoted self-centeredness of suicide versus the connoted collectiveness of martyrdom: Those who commit suicide die for themselves, whereas those who commit martyrdom die for their people. Yet, whereas suicide is an objective term (as is Bush’s homicide attack, but homicide is confusing, because attacks that may involve homicide may well not involve suicide), martyrdom is subjective. Martyrdom’s meaning resides in perception of the act, not in the very act of self and enemy destruction for the sake of sustaining the cause of one’s own people.

Subjective is not to say ethnically or religiously restrictive, for martyrdom has been a term of use in a variety of religious traditions of various peoples. It was curious to encounter a resistance to describing Samson’s act mentioned above as suicide within the Judeo-Christian tradition7, which views suicide as immoral as the Islamic has, in favor of … you’ve guessed it—martyrdom. Not surprising, considering that Samson is the only character treated as a “keeper of the faith” among the several whose acts of suicide populate the bible.8

Palestinian militants who died in battle or during attacks, long before the first sucide attack of modern times, carried out in 19829, were called martyrs as well, including secularists and communists. Nor does a majority Palestinian Muslims support suicide attacks “in the name of Islam,” according to a recent PEW poll, though a higher percentage of Palestinian Muslims do than in any other predominantly Muslim country.10 That Afghanistan polled a scratch second to Palestine on the question of the occasional justifiability of suicide bombings is telling.

Occupation engenders acute indignity, an indignity that starting in the early 80s, though not since 200811, has persuaded fewer than 200 Palestinians to volunteer to seek terminal revenge. One such person was 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer Hanadi Jaradat, who detonated the explosives belt strapped to her waist in a restaurant in Haifa, in 2003, killing twenty people and wounding many others. Her family reported afterward that her decision was motivated by the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) killing of her brother and her fiancé, as well as for Israeli crimes of murder and land expropriation in the West Bank.12Jaradat was also in all likelihood the person who inspired the character of Sihem, author Yasmina Khadra’s Samson in his own piece of fiction The Attack, published in 2005. In the bestselling novel, Sihem is the secular, seemingly adjusted and integrated spouse of the novel’s protagonist, Palestinian hotshot surgeon Amin Jaafari, with whom she has shared a life in Tel Aviv for over a decade. Sihem blows herself up early in the novel, also in a restaurant.

Amin’s world is pulverized. Beyond smiting grief, he must deal with the ramifications of living in Israel as the spouse of a Palestinian who blew herself up in a restaurant full of Jewish kids. Further, Amin feels zealously impelled to investigate how the woman he had thought he knew so well, a secular-humanist, could bring herself to commit such a horrific act, not having betrayed her intention to himself in the least. Amin is determined to uncover who had taken the love of his life from him and persuaded her to betray her legacy with himself, a legacy that she had helped build. In his quest, he traces a couple of clues to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jenin. (Nablus appropriately stands in for Bethlehem in the film, Nazareth is referred to, and Jenin is dispensed with.)

Yasmina Khadra (AKA Mohammed Moulessehoul)The Attack, the novel, is at its best when mining its protagonist’s psyche, the psyche that Dr. Amin Jaafari has for years tamed, following formative years in the West Bank whose memory he has utilitarianly quarantined. Yasmina Khadra (nom de plume of Algerian Mohammed Moulessehoul, who immigrated to France with his spouse—suprise—Yasmina Khadra) does two things indicative of an adept modern storyteller: He injects his characters with evident humanity, which is a better way of saying that he cares about his characters. Secondly, Khadra manages to bring the story to a fulfilling end-start point, without its seeming as if it were heading there.

Regrettably, Khadra’s assiduous insistence that his novel honor its characters’ impulses and intentions, its pretense to secure a “balance” (existing subjectively, not objectively) comes off as stilted, especially when relying on baroque imagery and metaphors of a bygone era, which serve to soften the blow of the compunction suffered by his liberal humanist non-Arab readers’ sympathizing with a suicidal Muslim martyr. It’s as iff Khadra determined to broker insight into the most macabre realm of Muslim civilization to the secular humanist West and was rewarded for his delicacy and sagaciousness under topical duress with recognition and abundant sales.

Additionally, Khadra’s efforts fall short in a number of ways that a seasoned writer’s shouldn’t. I developed a wee concern when I saw the spelling of Sihem’s name. Palestinians would pronounce the name Siham. However, I all but forgot about this quibble when I came upon the principle example of The Attack’s major lapse. Amin is a naturalized Palestinian Israeli, but there is no such human. At first, I thought Khadra had meant a Palestinian Israeli, one born as a minority citizen of Israel, but soon enough I realized that Khadra intended him as a Palestinian born in the West Bank who had managed by attending medical school in Israel to acquire Israeli citizenship, as highly skilled professional may in more developed countries (MDC). Well, it could not happen. It could not have even happened through Amin’s having married an Israeli citzen, which Sihem is.13

Throughout The Attack, Khadra describes the severed territories as far more open to each other’s denizens than they really are. Israelis travel into the West Bank and even live there (no, not just within settlements) and Palestinian militants posing as businessmen travel through Israel “proper” freely—flagrantly fantastical. Khadra, despite his extensive sociological research, has made a few indicative assumptions. Thereby Khadra has cast his complex, sympathetic characters in a fairly contrived, hazily miserable world, persuaded perhaps by the postulate that such a vivification would meet the conception of the “Palestinian/Israeli conflict” held by the secular humanist Western European audience (as well as institutional supporters) that the novel would have to win over first.

Ziad DoueiriZiad Doueiri’s interpretation of the novel is also hazily vivid, most appropriately in the first 20 minutes or so, the lead-up to Amin’s identification of Siham’s (her name’s pronunciation corrected) body. This intro is rendered with a deftness and polish that belie the film’s relatively meager $1.5 million budget.

At the film’s center, in the role of Amin is one of the best Arab screen actors working today—Ali Suliman (who himself curiously played the abdicating suicide martyr in Hany Abu-Asad’s Paradise Now). Suliman, like all excellent actors, has great command over him movement and stillness. Wherein The Last Friday Suliman was seen fidgeting, hesitating and tilting, herein we find him a man depleted by anguish and indignity, so that even in rising to admonish or to accuse we see a person summing up energy reserves from all corners of his body. Suliman is a treat to watch, as is Uri Gavriel as Captain Moshe, whose scenes of interrogating Amin are among the best.

Ali Suliman as Dr. Amin JaafariDoueiri, who has written the screenplay with his spouse Joelle Touma, insists on secularizing the character and motivation of the Palestinian suicide bomber, which must be why Doueiri and Touma convert Khadra’s Sihem, the secular Muslim martyr, to Christianity, as does the screenwriting pair a young Muslim militant leader, who in the film becomes a young, vaguely militant priest.

What the writing pair does not do is to fix the naturalization and freedom of movement problems that mar the novel. And though this would upset the knowing, i.e. Palestinians, it does not the drama. What does undercut the film’s dramatic effect markedly, however, is the dispensation of the lyrical, elegiac conclusion that takes place in Jenin in the novel, amidst the ruin and carnage of an Israeli military incursion, in favor of a muddled, intrinsic finis. A single vestige of the novel’s near closing Jenin chapter is Amin’s coming upon, in Nablus, a site of an unremarkable, unindicative concrete demolition, replete with a graffiti verse “Ground Zero.”

As such, the film eventuates having concretely presented little, in dialogue or in imagery, of the oppression and injustice that has driven Palestinians to justify the murder of civilians, having restricted its explanation of the motivation behind such self-enemy annihilation to the following: on the Israeli side as a false historical narrative of Palestinian bonkers-bomber motivation, presented as probing, objective assessment on the part of two radio news show hosts. On the Palestinian side, such motivation is obliquely explained by two religious figures, distrusted a priori by secular humanists.

Too many well-funded, high profile films centering on Arab/Muslim suicidal martyrdom have been made I reckon, including three last year alone: beside The Attack, Horses of God (by far the best of the bunch) fictionalizes the actual coordinated suicide attacks in Casablanca, Morocco in 2003 and Inch’Allah culminates with a Palestinian martyrdom attack that waxes insipid by sensationalism. After all, Morocco has not seen a suicide attack since the noted and Palestine has not since 2008. Thus, what we have are films that feign boldness to tackle a most difficult subject, while engaging a discourse based on outmoded events. Suicide attacks carried out by Muslims in the last year have mainly occurred in Iraq, Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Most have been sectarian attacks against Muslims and/or have targeted occupation, particularly, US and collaborator targets. If a film about suicide martyrdom is to be made at all then it ought to be a gritty, realist, timely work, a Battle of Algiers for our day.


Note: The title The Attack has been translated into Arabic, in the cases of book and film, curiously as as-Sadmah الصدمه, which translates better as The Shock and is a term usually more internally directed than, say, al-hajmah الهجمة—a decision informed by target audience sensitivities perhaps?

  1. Cormier, Zoe. "Termites explode to defend their colonies." Nature. Nature Publishing Co., 26 July 2012. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.nature.com/news/termites-explode-to-defend-their-colonies-1.11074>.
  2. New International Version. Biblica, 2013. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.biblica.com/bibles/chapter/?verse=Judges+16&version=niv>. Judg. 16:30
  3. Elliott, Valerie. "Honoured at Last: Churchill's Secret Guerillas Who Were Poised to Execute Senior British Figures if There Was a Risk of Them Helping the Germans After Nazi Invasion." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 30 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301720/Churchills-secret-guerillas-poised-execute-senior-British-figures-risk-helping-Germans-Nazi-invasion.html>.
  4. King, Oliver. "News Blog: What really motivates suicide bombers?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Aug. 2006. Web. 26 July 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2006/aug/11/suicidebombers>.
  5. Pape, Roberet A. Dying to Win: The Strategic Advantage of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005. Print. pp. 3
  6. Harris, Rachel S. "Samson's Suicide: Death and the Hebrew Literary Canon." Israel Studies 17.3(2012): 67-91. EBSCO. Web. 28 July 2013. pp. 67-69
  7. Hassan, Riaz. "What Motivates the Suicide Bombers?" Yale Global Online 3 Sept. 2009: n. pag. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-motivates-suicide-bombers-0>.
  8. O'Mathuna, Donal P. "But the Bible Doesn't Say They Were Wrong to Commit Suicide, Does it?" Suicide: A Christian Response : Five Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life. Ed. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewert. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. 349-66. Print. pp. 361
  9. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. "Suicide Attack Database." Suicide Attack Database. U of Chicago, 14 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://cpost.uchicago.edu/search.php?noresults=1>.
  10. A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World: Sharp Decline in Support for Suicide Bombing in Muslim Countries. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2007. Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.pewglobal.org/2007/07/24/a-rising-tide-lifts-mood-in-the-developing-world/>.
  11. See # 9
  12. Burns, John F. "The Mideast Turmoil: The Attacker; Bomber Left Her Family with a Smile and a Lie." New York Times [New York] 7 Oct. 2003, World: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/07/world/the-mideast-turmoil-the-attacker-bomber-left-her-family-with-a-smile-and-a-lie.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.
  13. "Israel Upholds Citizenship Bar for Palestinian Spouses." News: Middle East. BBC, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16526469>.

 

Tuesday
May282013

The Forgotten (2012): An Unforgettable Short

Achingly beautiful is The ForgottenA Palestinian has much to lament, but she may at least not lament the world’s forgetting about her grievance, even when people of the world refuse to acknowledge the injustice wrought upon her own. The dispossessed, displaced people of the Golan Heights can scarcely console themselves with international recognition for their plight. After all, I cannot recall the last time I read or saw a potent piece, of any sort, on the Golan, until I watched The Forgotten.

The Syrian Golan was occupied by Israel during the 67, resulting in the dislocation of 100,000 people. Israel then formalized its annexation of the territory in 81, a territory which has been settled by 20 thousand Israelis in over 30 settlements1. The Forgotten’s director Ehab Tarabieh was born to the Syrians who remained in the Golan and has determined and succeeded at creating a most evocative work.

There is a scene in The Forgotten that epitomizes one of the most magical moments that film can serve up to a viewer: that when a principle character and the viewer develop an epiphany concomitantly. In the case of the Forgotten, the moment occurs about a quarter of the way into the 21 minute film. In it, the much younger of the film’s two principle characters begins to care about the other—as does the viewer—when the older character experiences a sudden moment of great vulnerability.

Shot on location and boasting its artifacts—minefields, decrepit tanks and disused bunkers—the film is beautiful to behold. Painterly composition, earthly colors and overcast landscapes enrapture, while the spare, suspenseful story captivates. The shortage of dialogue makes sense, since one character is smuggler and the other smuggled. As such, the symbolism inherent in the older, smuggled character’s experience representing that of his people comes off not as heavy-handed but poetic and affecting. Fans of Tarkovsky will surely discern the influence.

I was chatting with a friend about the The Forgotten, when I mentioned that the smuggled character wanted to be forgotten. My friend retorted that the character more correctly did not wish to be found. Touché! The smuggled character preferred to go missing on his own terms than to be forgotten on the terms of others.

 

Notes:

1. "Golan Heights Profile." BBC News. BBC, 21 May 2013. Web. 28 May 2013 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ world-middle-east-14724842>.

Friday
May102013

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969): It's in the Script

Bassem YoussefI was watching a news-of-the-week panel discussion program on BBC Arabic a few of weeks ago and the discussion turned to news of Bassem Youssef’s arrest by Egyptian authorities for insulting the president, denigrating Islam and undermining authority on his popular satirical TV show El Bernameg (البرنامج, The Program). In a case to whose fanfare Jon Stewert had added by discussing it in his own The Daily Show (Youssef had been scheduled to appear in court to face the stated charges, before the assigned judge dismissed the case) the topicality of satire in the Arab World was certainly given a potent shot in the arm.

The discussion turned to the cultural prevalence and utility of satire as a medium of sociopolitical defiance when a panelist remarked that he had searched for a direct translation for satire in the Arabic dictionary and could not find one. Indeed, the term used most to refer to satire is sukhriyah (سخرية), which more accurately means sarcasm. And even though the Arabic literary tradition incorporates a form named Hija’ (هجاء) whose modes of function and purpose paralleled satirical literature in the English tradition, Hija’ was mostly, though not exclusively practiced in poetry1. Nevertheless, the panelist’s inference that Arabs had been collectively repressed so staunchly over the centuries, so as to have stripped them of the capacity to humorously mock while making pointed sociopolitical commentary hardly holds water for anybody who has grown up hearing endless mockery of Arab rulers and regimes. Words need not be written—or performed—to stand for culture.

Not that notable satirical Arabic works have not been written or performed. Syrian Dureid Lahham’s film Al-Hudoud (الحدود, The Border, 1987) is required viewing for any Arab cinema enthusiast and Kuwaiti Abdulhussain Abdulredha’s play Bye Bye London (1981) was watched in my home repeatedly when guests attended, so that the adults visiting could riff on the jokes and declare their keen interpretations of the meaning behind the punch lines.

Tawfiq al-HakimDecades before these two works saw the light a satirical novel of the first order castigated the daylights out of the Egyptian government system. It was Diary of a Country Prosecutor (يوميات نائب في الأرياف), written by Tawfiq al-Hakim, one of the most important figures of 20th century Arab literature2. Al-Hakim is remembered primarily for his plays—he wrote around seventy full length plays—a few of which I read in my youth. I distinctly recall  how impacted I was by al-Hakim’s Journey to Tomorrow (رحلة إلى الغد), a science fiction play ascribed to his theater of the mind ('théâtre des idées', المسرح الذهني) (which I’ve seen translated as intellectual theatre, a misleading translation, since the term refers to the destination of the works, their being written without intent to have them performed).

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969)Indeed, al-Hakim’s standing resides in his having ushered drama into the text of Arabic literature vividly and assertively. The prolific al-Hakim wrote more than plays, including philosophical and theological treatises, political essays, biographies, and novels the second of which Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1937) would be made into a film in a drastically different Egypt 32 years later.

Tawfiq al-Hakim, who had been sent to France to pursue graduate studies in law, and had failed to earn a degree as he focused on cultural enrichment istead3, would fatefully land a post in the Egyptian countryside as a prosecutor4. By then, al-Hakim had begun writing and would find ample fodder in his prosecutorial experience.

Diary of a Country Prosecutor is such a formatively varied novel. It involves elements of folkloric storytelling, dramatic suspense, satire, and realism whereas its adapted screenplay folds the first three into the last, from a cinematic formative standpoint, toning down the satire to accommodate the censor in ways predictable and not. The film’s plot unfolds in an unnamed village in an unnamed year and involves many characters, most of whom are unnamed, including the Prosecutor, the protagonist, whose journal entries over the course of twelve days, October 11 to 22, tell the story. Storytelling through journal entries facilely justifies the use of first person if nothing else and the paucity of names… Well, perhaps such details don’t mean that much when one is as jaded as the Prosecutor and besides, who needs names when titles will do.

The ProsecutorThe Prosecutor is awakened in the middle of the first night to attend the scene of a shooting in a distant marsh. Upon arrival with his prosecutorial team along with the Sherriff and his team, the Prosecutor is proud to demonstrate the meticulousness of his method in assessing the crime scene and in questioning the shooting victim, who shockingly was left to suffer in the scene of the attack by the constable to first arrive upon the scene, while the latter waited for the crime investigation unit to arrive! Ahem, but the prosecutor’s meticulousness has nothing to do with his commitment to fulfilling the cause of justice, rather with a compultion to shield himself from any criticism from his higher-ups. He admonishes his assistant to fulfill all bureaucratic expectations, recalling an occasion when he himself had been chastised by a superior for submitting a dossier on a murder case that was too light—too physically light.

Among the rewards of Diary is that the whodunit turns out merely a vehicle for sustained reading. The shooting investigation acts as an exposition of much rot in government: in the judicial, police, and electoral systems. The problem of the prosecutor’s jadedness is uncorrectable just as the murder case is unsolvable, not that they couldn’t be. Oh, but where does a lone country prosecutor begin to mend the rot … He doesn’t.

Diary the film preserves much of the story, not surprising since with a 150-page novel adapted for a near 2-hr film, little abridging was necessary if one considered that the typical manifestation rate of a screenplay is a minute in film per page. At least one macabre scene is omitted, since it likely could not have been filmable in Egypt at the time, one involving crime scene brain extraction and a frivolous, grotesque shared search for a deadly bullet.

The Sheriff, making a persuasive case Tawfiq Saleh, director of Diary, is one whose work I have long admired and whose best film The Dupes I elected to discuss in launching this blog. Saleh worked on Diary’s screenplay as he did on most of his films’, which leaves me mulling how concerned he was about potential trouble with the censor. As I had noted in my extended review of The Dupes, Diary of a Country Prosecutor was reportedly banned by the censor until Nasser himself permitted its release in full. I now suspect this account is apocryphal. What I did not know when I wrote that review over a year ago is the extent of Nasser’s admiration for al-Hakim, particularly Hakim’s Return of the Soul (عودة الروح, his first novel)5. Moreover, having read the book since, I have noted that the film’s very last shot depicts the prosecutor scribing his final journal note: “22 October 1935.” Not only did the novel not end in such a fashion, but the deliberate insertion of the year of the story in the pivotal final frame of the film suggests the extent to which the screenplay writers were concerned about having the film construed as an unsuccessfully veiled attack on the Nasser regime.

Diary’s principle participants are competent but not particularly enthralling. Tawfiq ad-Daqn is his vivid self as the Sherriff and Abdul’athim Abdulhaq is convincingly queer as the mystic-cum-village-crazy Sheikh ‘Asfour. The lead role is performed adroitly with coy restraint by the versatile, underappreciated actor Ahmed Abdulhalim. The staging is mannered in the studio-bound sense and the action lacking the élan evident in Saleh’s The Dupes, for example, and this despite a few elaborately staged shots, each over half a minute long.

By Diary’s end, I realized what I didn’t when I referred to the film in my blog’s very first post, over a year ago, that the film’s excellence lies in its source material. I learned what I’ve heard and read from so many film practitioners over the years: “It’s in the script."

Notes:

1. Van Gelder, Geert Jan. The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes towards Invective Poetry (Hija) in Classical Arabic Literature. Brill: E.J., 1988. Print. PP. 2

2. Allen, Roger M. A. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. N. pag. Web.

3. See sourse # 2

4. Johnson-Davies, Denys, ed. The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim: Plays, Fiction, Autobiography. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008. Print. PP. 3

5. Mondal, Anshuman A. Nationalism and Post-Colonial Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt. London: Routledge, 2003. Print. PP 199

*Diary of a Country Prosecutor the novel has been translated into English.

Thursday
May022013

5 Documentaries--Short Reviews

Dear readers,

Here are short reviews of five films I had watched as a member of the jury for the Best Documentary Film award in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. None of these films is Arab, but I do look forward to posting a long overdue review of Tawfiq Saleh's Diary of a Country Prosecutor next week.

 

The Fruit Hunters:

Bill Pullman stars in The Fruit HuntersFor years I have complained about the subdued taste of fruit in America (as wells as veg and eggs). I have not been as moved by an artistic celebration of fruit in art/literature since reading Chekov’s The Black Monk. The two rather distinct subjects of fruit hunting and of the ills of mass agriculture are well integrated. The photography sensuous as it should be. Two aspects of the doc hamper the effect, regrettably: the affected, self-important narration (reminiscent of that in The Corporation, another memorable doc hampered by its narration) and the unnecessary extended focus on Bill Pullman (who inexplicably appears on the film’s poste. He’s not the star, the fruit is). It’s as if the makers intended to underscore the merit of such fruit fascination by association with celebrity--good for publicity, bad for credibility. 


 Charles Lloyd: Arrows into Infinity:

Musician extraordinair Charles LloydA fascinating, underappreciated artist not served by a ho-hum biographic documentary film. In its chronological approach, its stuffing itself with archival footage and in its well-trodden commentary on the iconoclastic 60s the film waxes far too familiar. Moreover, near two hours in length, Charles Lloyd the doc seems to aim for fervent jazz fans for its comprehensive disquisition on an American legend. Lloyd deserves another attempt at his story. I nominate Spike Lee.

 

Off Label:

Bearing the psychotropic cross in Off LabelA pedantic exposition about the mendacious psychotropic drug industry that does not manage to deliver on its thesis, because of its diffuse structure and its heavy-handedness. There are moments of genuine poignancy and pathos, especially regarding one luckless Korean American chap—so bright, so wretched. The mother’s account of her son’s suicide is heart-piercing and the delay in its account is one of the best editing decisions that the makers have made. Yet what of the overbearing symbolism: cross bearing, smiley faces on the shirts of miserable people—hackneyed.

If the film is trying to differentiate itself from films such as Sicko by focusing on the plight of the consumers, instead of on the machinations and manipulations of the drug companies then why include the account of an ex-pharmaceutical sales rep? To support the thesis that the business of psychotropic drugs is rotten? Such a point would have been argued for more convincingly by physicians and prominently stationed whistle blowers instead. Moreover, if the film’s conclusion is that we the masses are better off dumping such drugs if at all possible then why include the testimony of the “guinea pig” who managed to get his book, the vehicle of his salvation, completed because he wrote it while on ADHD medication!

 

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear:

Seeking stardom in The Machine Which Makes Everything DisappearIt is curious to compare this film to Off Label, in that both docs are topically and structurally disintegrated and both involve personalities based on a single criterion; in the case of The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear it is a seemingly arbitrary age group—15 to 25 (though with a single exception, just like Off Label). Yet, whereas diffusive fragmentation hampers the former it only enhances the mood of The Machine. Its eerie composition of the interview segments (most are based on 90 degree shots, generally a no-no in photography) and in its elliptical structure only deepen the pathos and entrench the melancholy. There are shots of remarkable ethereal beauty in this film. Yet, what really leaves an indelible mark is the honesty and self-awareness of young people, whose profundity in truth is a staunch rebuttal against superficial, patronizing youth cinema to which we have become so accustomed. The final testimony of the film in particular I found remarkable and canny at once—an epitaph inscribed on the tombstone of disaffected youth.

 

These Birds Walk:

Flying if only momentarily in These Birds WalkThere is a candlelit conversation scene in These Birds Walk that's the stuff of great realist novels. The film is poignant insight into the lives of children seeking refuge and those adults who have come around to realizing not only that the state is unwilling to move to shelter its citizenry (intimations of drone strikes anyone?) but more importantly, that assisting children in dealing with their misery is an effectual way to keep such adults’ own misery in check. Despite the heart-rending milieu exposed, These Birds Walk never turns maudlin. The kids curse, bully and attempt escape and in the case of the lead character Omar, even falsify their identities (his real name turns out to be Fuad). The earnest but jaded “ambulance driver” (It’s more than an ambulance and he is much more than a driver) is a fascinating and compelling portrait of social worker in an environ that could use with so much social work than, as the “driver” knows, Edhi Foundation could ever provide. The photography suffers from the inadequate lighting, especially in so many nighttime shots, yet makes up for it in its composition and verite style movement. 

 

Tuesday
Feb122013

60 Second Scoop: Whad'Ya Know about the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival?

Dear readers,

I have been on blog haietus, because of my work schedule, which has involved curating and directing the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Once the festival is concluded--it is scheduled for March 13-17--I intend to return to writing film reviews, including of films that I will have selected for the festival itself.

In the meantime, I hope that you may enjoy the first of a few promtional videos that we have created for the festival and encourage you to learn more about the festival, by going to the Mizna festival website.

Page 1 ... 2 3 4 5 6 ... 7 Next 5 Entries »