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Middle East stories from those who know the territory

Two festivals explore the work of filmmakers whose knowledge of the region provides insight.

November 16, 2002|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Santa Claus stabbed on a hilltop in Nazareth. A bride from Ramallah, staring into space in her Cleveland home. A modern-day Joseph being arrested by Israeli soldiers for seeking a place for his wife to give birth. An angry young Muslim in Brooklyn pulling an elderly Orthodox Jew from his car and pounding him to the ground.

These images -- allegorical, sad, violent -- come from films about the Middle East presented in Los Angeles this week at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest 2002 and the UCLA Film and Television Archive's "Intangible Cartographies: New Arab Video" program (both end on Sunday). Over the past two years, the public has seen countless news-related images from the Middle East but has rarely experienced personal storytelling from filmmakers working there, particularly in Arab communities, programmers said.

"One of the motives is to both enrich and complicate people's idea of what the Arab world is," said David Pendleton, programmer of the UCLA event.

As the United States gears up for a possible war with Iraq, filmmakers' perspectives are more pertinent than ever, said Nancy Collet, director of programming for AFI Fest 2002. "People can see the similarities between us and people living in the Middle East but also the differences and gain an understanding of them so they will not think of them as the enemy," she said.

Filmmaking conditions vary from country to country in the Arab world, noted John Sinno, president of Seattle-based Arab Film Distribution, which distributes Arab films in the U.S. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has no film industry and few, if any, films come out of Iraq. In some countries, like Syria, the film industry is monopolized by the government. Morocco and Tunisia have had a vibrant cinema, financed and influenced by the French.

Until recent financial problems and competition from India cut into production, Egypt was a leader in film production. But the West ignored most of the films until the 1980s, when films from Iran screened at international festivals and won awards, Sinno said. Only a small fraction of films from the Middle East find their way to the United States, and less than a handful make it into general distribution.

Unlike news, films from Arab or Islamic countries offer viewers an unabridged view of the filmmakers' world, Sinno points out. "By simply watching a scene you get so much information," he said. "I've heard people say so many times, 'There are no camels. They drive cars.' "

AFI's Collet said she scoured festivals worldwide to come up with the international films from 37 countries shown in the festival, including a short film from Israel, "Boys, Girls." The films about the Arab world include:

* "Divine Intervention," a Cannes jury prize winner. In a patchwork of surreal vignettes, writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman, 42, the son of a Palestinian resistance fighter, reveals the harsh and uncertain lives of Palestinians living in Nazareth, a city with the largest Arab population in Israel. In an allegorical sequence, boys chase Santa Claus, a knife in his chest, up a hill. Motorists, routinely stopped at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Nazareth, are humiliated and robbed by armed Israeli soldiers. Neighborhood streets are peopled with lost tourists, uncooperative neighbors who throw garbage into one another's yards, and a driver who curses everyone he sees. Amid the chaos, a couple struggle in vain to keep their love alive.

* "Wedding in Ramallah," a documentary by Australian Sherine Salama, daughter of a Palestinian mother and Egyptian father. Salama follows Bassam Abed, a divorced Palestinian living in Ohio, as he returns to Ramallah in 2000 to enter into an arranged marriage with Mariam, an arrogant but sheltered young woman. When violence erupts, Bassam returns to telephone repair work in Cleveland where his co-workers confuse Palestine with Pakistan. Mariam and her girlfriend dream of moving to America for its modern kitchen appliances. But when Mariam arrives, she finds herself alone and isolated while Bassam works two jobs to make ends meet.

* "West Bank Brooklyn" a first feature by writer-director-actor Ghazi Albuliwi, 26, a stand-up comic who was born in Jordan and raised in Brooklyn by traditional immigrant parents. The film's three young protagonists, all fictionalized aspects of Albuliwi's own life, meet the crises of an arranged marriage, the death of a Palestinian uncle and a job working for a Jewish shut-in. One turns to secular American values. One becomes a fervent Muslim. One befriends his Jewish employer. Throughout, the characters are continually tuned to radio and television news from their parents' homeland. After the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, the character played by Albuliwi is so afraid to appear Arab that he starts dressing like a Puerto Rican and calling himself "Tito."

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