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Article for Al-Monitor: Little Film Festival That Could: Beirut Beats the Odds

Dear readers,

Forgive me for not blogging for a few months. I have been utterly consumed in work. In addition to my fulltime college gig, I am curating the current round of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, organised by Mizna. In addition, in summer I joined Levantine Films in development affairs. Nevertheless, I hope to post in the weeks to come about my activities, and if fortunate enough, a film review or two!

For now, my interview with Colette Naufal, director of the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF).





In Bruges (2008): Trangressive Comedy, Grim Fairytale

In Bruges

Note: Considering the tumult of summer and with the allowance I've given myself to write about "related matters," I've decided to post my review of In Bruges, from a few years ago.

“They’re filming midgets,” announces Ray (Colin Farrell) to Glen (Brendan Gleeson) at one point in the juicily macabre comedy In Bruges. He is referring to a film whose set the two had earlier come upon while “nightseeing” in Bruges.

Not Really. No more than is Martin McDonagh, the first time feature director of In Bruges, making a film about midgets. And he certainly isn’t making a film about little people.

But there is a little person in both films, and not simply by the syllogism that a little person appearing in a film being shot within a film would appear in the latter!

In In Bruges, he’s mostly referred to as a midget, a term many of us know is rejected by those who bear dwarfism. “Midget” is not the only politically incorrect term or reference that the film employs to generate laughs; the film assaults black people, obese people, women, priests, Americans, and Bruges itself—sometimes literally!

Do I forgive its doing this? Yes. Do I applaud it for doing this? No. Do I applaud it for getting away with this? Yes.

Oh, so then I must not stand firmly on the side of respect and compassion? Maybe not, but I think that a creative work must be permitted to transgress, assuming it accomplishes at least one of two things: First, it must earn such transgression. And this is a gauge that cannot unfortunately be anything but subjective. In Bruges, I qualify, earns its transgression because its script is so well written. The humour is so incisive that it’s as if the actors’ lines are hacking at us; it is so testing that our guts twist as we second-guess our urge to laugh.

Secondly, a transgressive creative work must, and this strikes me as a necessarily dichotomous mode of assessment, deliver redemption or let us in on its interest in agitating us or do both. In In Bruges, a member of each of two of the assaulted groups of people turns out heroic, one by way of steely determination, the other by way of sheer misfortune. (Spoiler alert: Move on to the next paragraph to avoid it.) As for the killers, they get got.

Moreover, In Bruges certainly lets us in on the artifice that is its very construction. Beside its incorporating a film shoot in its plot, a film that is being shot in Bruges (and in In Bruges) that is referred to by one character as “an homage to Don’t Look Now,” the marvelous Venice-bound psychological thriller, there is a scene wherein Glen is watching Touch of Evil, whose story unfolds near the Mexican-American border. Such references to two noir classics, in which, like in In Bruges, location is as prominent a character as any of the plot populating humans, wryly prod the audience to position In Bruges in the very camp of exotic noir that its mentioned antecedents have come to exemplify.

In Bruges

Colin Farrel’s eyebrows are also a character—the most animated eyebrows I’ve ever witnessed in film. Not that this comes off as a gimmick. It does not because the film regards its characters attentively. There is a scene in which Ray disconcertedly regards himself in the mirror. He then pokes himself in the cheek. What plot related purpose does such a shot serve? None. Why include it then? Because it offers a unique view into a primary character’s mindset. The film feels intimate throughout, though it never feels realistic, in part due to the earlier noted self-exposure in relation to films and filmmaking, and in greater part due to the film’s inexplicable, outlandish ending.

In Bruges

I doubt that the hired assassins in In Bruges speak the way assassins do in real life, but who says that they should? Realism is not a fair standard of excellence, not when realism is not among a film’s operative objectives. I further doubt that director and writer McDonagh would have set the film’s story in Bruges, if he’d been after realism.

“It’s a fairytale town isn’t it?” postulates one of the characters in admiration of the mediaeval city. Indeed, it is. And In Bruges is a fairytale, a grim fairytale.


Black Gold (2011): More Like Feculent Brown

Black Gold (2011)

Cinema Arabiata regulars will have noted that the blog has discussed films that I have deemed worthy of celebration or at least of viewing and consideration. Indeed, since I don’t get paid to do this and considering the related time commitment I had resolved to focus on films that have at least drawn me in, even when faulty in one way or another.

Why then review a film as poor as Black Gold. Not many readers will have heard of it, considering that the film has failed to garner festival recognition or box office returns (Non-US gross returns of less than 10% of its $55 million budget, according to IMDBPro). Noting that none of the reviews that have contributed to the film’s tomatometer of 5% had an Arab name attached to it, I thought it worthwhile to lay into the film Arab style.

I was expectedly suspicious about Black Gold when I first read about it. Readers who have seen how Hollywood cinema has depicted Arabs historically would understand why. Moreover, even though Black Gold was being backed, I had learned, by Qatari state arm Doha Film Institute, European actors had been cast so I knew I had “olive face” not to look forward to (not so much it turned out, though the kohl appeared to have been applied with a paint brush). Most worrisome was the novel upon which the screenplay had been based. Written in 1957 by Swiss retired race car driver Hans Ruesch, who had written Top of the World, upon which was based the screenplay to The Savage Innocents, whose conceptions of the lives of the Inuit people seemed drawn from apocryphal 19th century white explorer accounts, I had suspected that the novel upon which Black Gold’s screenplay was based would peddle similar toss. After watching the film, I reluctantly considered as wont reading the operative novel South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia/The Great Thirst/The Arab, until I soon came upon the following image online and remembered not only that I didn’t do this for a living, but also that I simply couldn’t afford to potentially smash that much furniture.

I don’t wish to dwell on the insolent, insipid plot. It involves a longstanding feud between two Arabian Peninsula monarchs that takes on greater stakes when oil is discovered in a territory that the two had agreed neither would claim. Their offspring get involved: two die, one rises to power and one gets pregnant. At the end of the film, I was eager to ascertain that no camels had been hurt in the making of the picture, but it seems that I couldn’t even console myself with such news.

Black Gold (2011)

How about some gems from the screenplay—their speakers unimportant:

“You were so exotic, like a boy from a book”

“I’ve had myself dressed as a Bedouin girl for you”

 “I thought I’d hate him, but I don’t. He reminds me of a young owl, something very sharp behind all that blinking.”

“All that I know about gold is that it seems to fluctuate in value”

“… And men and women fit together like water and thirst. When they meet they are everything. Alone we are nothing”

Black Gold (2011)Black Gold (2011)

Antonio Banderas (Prince Nesib) outdoes himself. I was certainly surprised that a film funded by the Doha Film Institute would cast a ham as one of the leads. Near perpetually suppressing a smile, he seemed (it’s the paycheck, stupid), while drawling and garbling the ends of his utterances in a Spanish accent, I thought it astute that the markedly more talented Mark Strong (Sultan Amar) had resolved to wince himself through the whole picture. At times while watching, I thought to stop the film to check if Strong had developed dyspepsia during production. I also developed a notion for what Strong could have been thinking about when he shed that heartfelt tear at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his film following.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Freida Pinto plays Prinse Nesib’s daughter Leyla. Literate (as are all lead characters, which is preposterous for the story’s period of the 1930s or so), willful and bold enough to admonish her father (also preposterous), to dun then expose a stylish two piece negligee for her “night of entry” (as Arabs call it) to her groom Awda (Tahir Rahim, in a rehash of his performance in the superb A Prophet), but not empowered enough to venture out of her “harem” except for a quickie in the curtained backseat of the royal automobile, between the mansion entrance and the gate, as she bids her husband farewell.

Black Gold (2011)

Don’t ask me what the Doha Film Institute was thinking in backing this project. Some have described it as a lost opportunity. I qualify that there was never an opportunity, and audiences can smell rubbish this putrid even when it’s been garishly dressed, which must have been why Warner Bros had decided not to release Black Gold theatrically in the US.

Black Gold is a dish both distasteful and unhealthful. As I digested it, following its completion, I felt bloated and empty at once. If you’ve considered watching it dear readers then do yourselves a favor and make a hearty sayadiya instead.


The Postman (1968): An Unmitigated Tragedy, an Unqualified Triumph

“Tell me, Khalil, what did the king’s daughter do?”

“The king’s daughter fled with him and they went to another kingdom”


Hussein KamalI wonder what it would have been like for a cinephile to have lived in Cairo in the early 1970s, to have marveled at what director Hussein Kamal had accomplished in under a decade and to have mused over what would be in store for him. It would have seemed likely that he would bring to himself and by association to his national cinema unprecedented esteem and recognition. Egyptian cinema would indeed garner recognition in the years to come, though mostly for the work of Kamal’s senior Yousef Shaheen. Kamal’s own output since would not match the blazing success of his early films, most of which still stand among the most notable works of the Egyptian cinema.

Kamal’s first film The Impossible (1965)—nay, its first shot, a tracking shot of the troubled protagonist walking a shopping district pavement —declared his talent. The Impossible was the first in a trilogy that would come to represent his first period as filmmaker, a trilogy whose unsettling stories illustrated in resplendent black and white photography and complex sound design. To call Kamal’s fourth film a departure would be an understatement. My Father above the Tree (1969) was a lurid, extravagant revue in vivid color that set a standard for the genre that the Egyptian cinema has arguably not reached since1. Kamal would make several more notable films, including the highly regarded satire Chatter on the Nile (1970) and family melodrama Emipre of “M” (1972).

It has been argued that Hussein Kamal’s films lost much or their luster once he had been compelled to abandon black and white photography for color2. (The iconoclastic, almost entirely black and white burlesque Chatter on the Nile hints at Kamal’s disgruntlement with the imposed transition to color, in boasting a single scene in color wherein a music video director lauds the color treatment of a comically cruddy song and dance production.) Others have contended that Kamal’s career descent had to do with his opting for decidedly commercial projects3, perhaps having realized the rewards of the colossal commercial success of My Father above the Tree. Having watched films of Kamal’s from the 1980s I found myself bemoaning that though Kamal’s knack had persisted, his virtuosity had considerably depleted. The singular success of the latter part of his career would be in his direction of a hilarious theatrical rendition of Raya and Sakina.

The Postman (1968)Not that I grieve Kamal’s career. Quite the contrary: I would be delighted to review at least half a dozen of his films and think that his oeuvre rivals those of the greats of Egyptian cinema Salah Abu Seif, Youseff Chahine and Henri Barakat. It is his second film, however, that left my head hanging with humility at its end. It is The Postman (1968, البوسطجي) whose scenes for days replayed as I drove, through one eye, as the other was relegated to minding the road.

The Postman is based on a novella by the same name, written by Yahya Haqqi, one of Egypt’s most admired literary figures of the last century. Haqqi’s influence on Egyptian culture realized primarily in his having edited the state owned and by now legendary journal Al-Majallah, during most of the 1960s. (The journal, whose publication had ceased by the Sadat regime, along with other publications, in what came to be known as the campaign to “put out cultural lanterns,” has relaunched recently in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution.4) The Postman is one of four works of Haqqi’s to have been adapted for film and one of two to whose adaptations he had contributed.

The Postman (1968)The Postman tells of the experience of ‘Abbas a postal worker from Cairo who is assigned to a post in Koum Annahl (literally “heap of bees”) a village in the Central Si’eed. ‘Abbas is soon appalled with the provinciality of the village, with the vulgarity of its population and with the dilapidations of his own meager quarters that he rents exorbitantly, to his own mind, from the mayor. As ‘Abbas’s despair mounts, he resorts to mollifying the hateful quiet of rural nights with the drink, which then expectedly distorts his temperament in the days following, eventuating in his unclosing letters and peeping into the lives of others, desperate for a semblance of community.

The Postman (1968)A particular regular exchange interests ‘Abbas, that between Khalil and Jamilah, an exchange whose peculiarity and intrigue beguile him into an ongoing voyeurism of their epistolary romance.  As it were, ‘Abbas underestimates the consequence of having interpolated himself. He soon learns of Jamilah’s desperation, of her unplanned pregnancy. He might have managed to assuage a conscience guilty over his not having moved to help her, only that he mistakenly stamps an opened letter from Khalil, one that he had read with great anticipation, while in the office, instead of waiting to read it at home in the evening, as usual. ‘Abbas, unable to come up with a way to conceal or remove the stamp on the letter makes a decision that proves fateful, a decision that would ultimately implicate him in an unmitigated tragedy.

Yahya HaqqiThe novella’s elegant, meticulous prose conveys what struck me as a detached familiarity with its milieu. I would later learn what explained this. Haqqi, long aware of his non-Egyptian ethnicity (Turkish and Albanian lineage) urbane and ambitious as he was, had been compelled to take up a legal post in Manfulout in Asyout province, where he spent two years that must have proven challenging, but whose experience would figure mightily in his writing, including in The Postaman5. Haqqi by his own testament absorbed all that was Egypt throughout his life, a bent which coupled with his feelings of displacement while in his rural post must have contributed to the noted detached familiarity.

Whereas in the novella Haqqi seems at pains to subtly disinvolve, his screenplay is at pains to contain its fury. The screenplay accommodatingly expands on the novella in ways that suggest Kamal’s influence. The story is made linear in its narrative, dispensing with the flashback story telling by ‘Abbas in the novella, which aids in the steadily accelerating tempo to the drama. More significantly, the screenplay incorporates a subplot wherein Jamilah’s father rapes the maid (who doesn’t exist in the novel). Jamilah’s mother, instead of castigating her husband, arranges for the victim to be taken away by her family, under the pretext that she had behaved shamefully, knowing that her accusation against the maid would near certainly subject her to another round of severe victimization.

The Postman (1968)Kamal in the first decade of his career exhibited a marked interest in women’s struggles and not only as victims of the oppression within the systems that men have created. We Do not Plant Thorns (1970) and Empire of “M” enabled their top billed stars, Shadyah and Faten Hamama respectively, to deliver performances that became standouts of their careers. Female characters in The Impossible, in A Thing of Fear (1969) and in the mentioned Emipre of “M” strike me as some of the most complex and willful in classic Egyptian cinema. It is also notable that Kamal worked regularly with legendary editor of Egyptian cinema Rashidah Abdussalam, including on all films of his mentioned in this review. Kamal also worked with screenwriters Kawthar Haikal and once, on The Postman, with Dunya Al-Baba.

The Postman (1968)The Postman’s screenplay is not the sole well crafted component, for the film is a tour de force.  The acting is credible and precise throughout. The casting of Shukri Sarhan to play ‘Abbas comes off as particularly apt. Sarhan’s enduring strength as an actor was his manifest sense of dignity, a trait that serves The Postman in that the audience is convinced that ‘Abbas is a victim himself, a victim of economic and social need, that he had once been a well-adjusted, functional member of society. The location, not far from Cairo6, with its uneven clay laden landscape, palms and mud houses suggests the misery that an urbanite would experience living in Koum an-Nahl. And editing by Rashidah Abdussalam propels the steadily rising anxiety, especially in the crosscutting between scenes involving ‘Abbas and Jamilah.

The Postman (1968)It is the compositional scheme and audio design of the film that smite and stamp, however. The Postman’s photographic composition is mostly conventional in the first half of the film, with occasional flourishes that suggest a filmmaker making his restraint known, foreshadowing the tumult to come. As ‘Abbas’s and Jamilah’s (as well as Khalil’s, though mostly through his letters) disaffections begin to mount, the photography and sound design become more expressive and more evocative. Unusual camera angles and stylized mis-en-scene alert us to the topsy-turvy world that the principle characters have come to inhabit, while a looping, echoing, mournful mantra, in Jamilah’s voice, quoting from a fairytale that Khalil had earlier recounted punctuates the pain with the ellipses of ruin: “in another kingdom.”

Breaking the Waves (1996)And then there’s the final shot, a shot for the books (spoiler alert!) I readily recalled the final shot from Breaking the Waves, Lars Von Tier’s masterpiece. Like The Postman, Breaking the Waves told the tale of a woman who is sacrificed because she had dared to love according to her own impulses. The final shot of Breaking the Waves depicts bells sounding in the heavens, in acknowledgement of such sacrifice. (Curiously, the finale in the novella, which I read after watching the film, has the bell of Koum Annahl’s small church announce Jamilah’s death. The film does not indicate the religious background of her family—Coptic—for then concerns about potential offense7)

The Postman (1968)As evocative as the last shot in Breaking the Waves is, The Postman’s last betters it. Arriving on the scene to find Jamilah having been stabbed to death by her father, ‘Abbas loses his bearings. Reaching into his satchel, he extracts letters that he flings into the air in anguish, as if to protest the futility of human agency against seemingly fateful injustice. He continues to hurl the letters as he passes by the camera and out of the frame, so that the letters momentarily thereafter appear as if to drop from the sky, as if God, rejecting ‘Abbas’s fatalism, has sent letters of protest to the people of Koum Annahl, indicting all of complicity in the unconscionable murder—thesis then antithesis manifest in a single, lingering, heart piercing shot. The Postman is among the finest works to ever come out of the Egyptian cinema.

The Postman (1968)

* My Father above the Tree and Chatter on the Nile are available in the US through Arab Film Distribution.

Works Cited:

1.  Kamal, Hussein. "Episode 22: Special Discussion with Hussein Kamal" (in Arabic) Interview by Ammar Ashsherei'i. An Evening with Sherei'i. Dream TV. 22 Sept. 2011. YouTube. Web. 4 June 2012. <>.

 2.  Assabban, Rafiq. Hussein Kamal: Lover of the Impossible (in Arabic). Cairo: The Cultural Development Fund, 1997. Digital Assets Repository. Web. 4 June 2012. <>.

3.  Hassan, Mahir. The Passing of Director Hussein Kamal(in Arabic). Al-Masry Al-Youm, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <>.

4.  Ali, Sa'd. "Return of Egyptian Cultural Magazine Al-Majallah after an Absence of 40 Years (in Arabic)." Reuters. Thomson Reuters Corporate, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <>.

5.  "Egyptian Figures: Yahya Haqqi (in Arabic)." Egyptian State Information Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <>.

6.  See reference # 2.

7.   See reference # 2.


Where Do We Go Now? (2011): Not very far I'm Afraid

There is a village in Lebanon whose Muslim and Christian residents have long co-existed, in which each of the respective religious groups' house of worship is a stone throw’s distance away from the other’s. It is a village whose relative isolation, thanks to its remoteness and protectionism, has shielded it from interfaith strife and sanguinary chauvinism—until now. The story thus begs the question announcing the title of Nadine Labaki’s second feature, winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award, Where Do We Go Now?

Labaki has impressively asserted her talent as actor and especially as director on the international film scene, not only having won the most prestigious audience award in world cinema for Where Do We Go Now? (2011, Et maintenant, on va où, وهلّأ لوين؟), but also for having debuted with a film that would secure theatrical distribution in the considerable US market and garner an enviable return on investment.

Caramel, Labaki’s first film, was a charming piece of melodrama that showcased her ability to elevate sentimental, even maudlin fare through delicate direction, incorporating many more uninvasive long shots than typical to dialogue scenes in melodramas. The film also illustrated Labaki’s (as co-screenwriter) adroit appreciation for how people communicate—perfunctorily, obliquely and fallaciously—as they aim to protect themselves and others. Caramel also demonstrated Labaki's deft humorism in both the situational and linguistic senses, having focused on the stories of select women, intimately and revealingly.

Where Do We Go Now? does much of the same, but instead of focusing on the romantic and domestic lives of its female characters, it tackles communal and societal challenges. Whereas the first film suggested and lamented patriarchic society’s suppression and oppression of women, the latter suggests a solution to their subjugation: Women should take charge, especially considering how human life has been undermined by the machinations of the macho.

Where Do We Go Now? tells the story of denizens of an unnamed village somewhere in Lebanon, sometime in the late 1990s. The village’s relative remoteness is communicated in an establishing shot depicting a crossing bridge drawn to a misty hillside, early in the film and again later. Such remoteness has for years served the villagers in having supported their ostensible collective wish to sustain the cohabitation of Muslims and Christians, while war waged in their surroundings, and to disallow the sectarian strife that had propelled the Lebanese Civil War from spoiling life for themselves, an effort that proves futile when long simmering sectarian tension rises in the wake of vandalism of church and mosque respectively then boils over when a young man returns to the village having met the worst of a sectarian skirmish.

Five writing credits is unusual and perhaps for good reason, for it is in the writing that Where Do We Go Now? falters, though the film does well elsewhere. The film is handsomely shot. Labaki aptly moves the camera much more than in Caramel, apt because Where Do We Go Now? includes far more scenes of the outdoors and scenes of frenzy than the more reserved Caramel (not that Caramel is particularly reserved.) Labaki elicits impassioned performances from her large cast and turns in a vital, charismatic performance herself. (Labaki was an actor before taking on directing.) The film is infused with effectively expressive music, heightening the emotional stakes of many scenes in the film. What Labaki’s film accomplishes most notably, however, what explains its audience appeal (as well as that of Caramel’s) is its thoroughgoing adherence to the classical Hollywood style. Indeed, Where Do We Go Now? does recall the work of Almadovar and Fellini, but the film so points to “social problem” films of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood that I couldn’t help but think that if the village had lain in a boarder state during The Civil War in the United States, a village whose population’s loyalty had been split between the Union and the Confederacy, that Where Do We Go Now? could well have been made by Hollywood then. The film even boasts a reproachful speech, typical to the genre, in which Labaki’s character Amal excoriates the men, Christian and Muslim, in the village café over the anguish they have brought upon the village.

The film often comes off as a parable. After all, the remote village is never named and in many ways is made to seem suspended in time. The broad categorization of factions in the village as Muslim and Christian does not reflect the complex conflict and convoluted alliances that characterized the Lebanese Civil War. The film also incorporates touches of magic realism and of lyrical dance, adding to its uncanniness. Yet the parable is thwarted by at least one detail—the year of its story. If the film’s story had been set in the 1930s then it would have seemed plausible that the women and religious leaders had managed to ward off the surrounding tumult by striving to keep the men ignorant about it, but not in the late 1990s! The dating of the film presents another problem: The Lebanese Civil War had ended in 1990 and no significant event of sectarian confrontation that I can think of took place in the late nineties. The dating of the story remains inexplicable to me.

Where Do We Go Now? also contains problems of moral congruity, which suggest a lack of command of the material on the part of the writers. The first of these is in the scathing attack against the town’s men, most of whom are reduced to sums of their hormonal urges. Only that one of these obdurate sectarian characters happens to be Christian Amal’s (Labaki) Muslim love interest, which undercuts scenes of courtship between them that could have otherwise been successful. Moreover, the only two reasonable, likeable adult males are made to be the imam and the priest. Thus, we are expected to believe that the religious leadership in Lebanon has not only contributed nothing to strife wrought by its followers, but has also contrived to prevent such corrosive behavior on the part of its followers—naïve.

Another moral incongruity involves the Ukrainian belly dance troupe that the women of the village contrive to invite and with whom they then scheme to thwart a palpable escalation in sectarian tension between the men representing both religious groups, one that could turn to bloody confrontation, now that talk about armaments has taken hold. Yet, not only does the cockamamie scheme, involving hashish, pills, belly dance and playacting serve as little more than a temporary distraction for the men, but it does nothing to benefit the Ukrainian dancers. If Labaki’s film is a call for women’s empowerment then why are the Ukrainian dancers permitted, by the women of the village and by the writers, having exhibited solidarity with their Lebanese sisters, to depart the village, along with their “gig manager,” having experienced no amelioration in their occupational situation, considering their evident exploitation within the international (soft) sex industry. If anything, the women of the village appear to have participated in such exploitation.

Where Do We Go Now? impresses despite its faulty writing. Yet, I find myself considering that with rigorous, politically conscious writing the film could have more credibly suggested an answer to the question that its title poses.