Each year Bill Meyer reviews movies shown at the Toronto International Film Festival for the PWW. The following is the first in his Progressive Cinema series.

Films from the Middle East played prominently at this year’s 30th Toronto International Film Festival.

Israel provided two thought-provoking stories, one by the prominent Amos Gitai titled “Free Zone,” which describes a trip by two Jewish women to a tax-free area just outside Israel. It’s here where political animosities are overlooked in order to meet, to sell and to buy goods, most often cars. Gitai has become a favorite at many film festivals for his challenging and thought-provoking films, which often include award-winning performances. His films are not didactic but rather expose the complexities of Israeli society through human dramas.

Another film from Israel, “Live and Become,” charts the migration of Ethiopian Jews to that country in 1984. It centers on the story of a young boy who avoids certain death in his homeland by feigning to be Jewish in order to be rescued by Israel. Reminiscent of the rewarding “James Journey to Jerusalem,” the young boy quickly discovers the harsh realities of life as a dark-skinned person in his newfound home away from his mother. Having to live his own lie to avoid discovery, while dealing with the not-so-latent racism in Israeli society, his story symbolizes the plight of immigrants worldwide.

Two Palestinian films premiered at this year’s festival. It’s hard to imagine that with the extreme harshness Palestinians endure daily that a film crew can actually put together a work of art under the most trying conditions. Rashid Masharawi’s “Ticket to Jerusalem” was a favorite at last year’s festival. Focusing on a movie projectionist who attempts to set up a screening for Palestinian children in Jerusalem, the film shows the extreme obstacles that have to be overcome for even this simple act. Mashawari develops the theme further in this year’s “Attente” (Waiting), which uses the search for actors for a new theater company as the basis to explore the Palestinian condition. He defines this condition as one of “waiting” — waiting at checkpoints, in traffic, for news about relatives and friends, for peace and justice. Under these harsh and unbearable conditions, many Palestinians have lost interest in the theater and acting, and instead struggle simply to survive.

“Paradise Now” addresses the issue of suicide bombers in a serious matter-of-fact manner. Two friends eking out a mere existence in the West Bank are approached to take on a vital mission. Director Hany Abu-Assad finds clear and convincing answers to why people would choose to do this. What goes through their minds?

From England comes “Diameter of the Bomb,” a documentary that confronts the effects of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002 that killed 20 people and injured 50. Interviews with relatives of the victims, Hamas training videos, experts who describe the process of identification and collection of body parts, and homemade movies made by the bombers, bring home the tragedy that befalls both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. The film spells out the expected consequences of such acts: perpetual psychic wounds, increased suspicion and distrust, police and military vengeance that only escalate the battle.

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the U.S. occupation of Iraq bear some parallels to the French occupation of Algeria in the 1960s. Two new French films examine the excesses and problems of military occupation.

The brilliant “La Trahison” (The Betrayal) is a study of the contradictions wrought from utilizing local forces to sustain the occupation of Algeria. Trust can rarely be granted those who could easily be the enemy. Those dedicated to the liberation of their own people infiltrated the occupying forces they worked for. Much is said of the racism by colonial forces. They subjected Algerians to a subservient role that often comes in conflict with their national interests. This film is an intense drama, superbly written and convincingly acted.

“October 17, 1961,” is a date that has stayed out of the French history books for decades. A peaceful protest march by more than 11,000 Algerians in the streets of Paris resulted in the killing of hundreds of unarmed protestors on orders from the police chief. This well-made film is an accurate reconstruction of the battle and seems to indicate the revived interest by French filmmakers in the past actions of a colonial power that carry relevance to the current struggles against U.S. imperialism.

Another film that deals with the subject of the Algerian War is “Cache” (Hidden) by the great German filmmaker Michael Haneke. More a psychological thriller, it deals with personal responsibility and the racism of France’s past. Haneke’s films are always emotionally intense and intelligent. With the recent rioting in the streets of Paris and throughout France, the film brings the subject full circle.

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