Last month's Toronto International Film Festival featured, among its 146 world premieres from 70 countries, cutting-edge films from the greater Middle East. (See separate article about films by and about Palestinians.)
Many of the films are documentaries on the cutting edge of not only technology but coverage of critical world events. History is now being recorded by cellphones and small camcorders easily accessible to the masses.
Along with professional filmmakers, Egyptian activists recorded their grassroots revolution at every phase along the way. Personal interviews and candid footage of battles, police brutality, political rallies and even detention centers were all recorded for posterity, some poorly filmed but much of it shockingly moving.
Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim was there from the beginning of protests in 2011 and is still filming the daily actions and working in coalition with other filmmakers.
There've been a lot of great and informative films about the Egyptian revolution, but Noujaim's The Square has surpassed them all. Spanning the time from the first action in Tahrir Square, January 2011, to the latest developments with the removal of Morsi and the army takeover, the film grabs you by the heart and mind and pulls you through the front lines of battle.
There are moving scenes with activists, including Egyptian-born actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner) who played a lead role in organizing the people's social media network. An activist named Ahmed featured throughout the film and involved in every phase of protest, stated, Wwe removed Mubarak, then the Army, then Morsi, and we're ready to remove anyone else." Ahmed now actually lives in Tahrir Square, the focus and symbol of hope for democracy.
The Square's convincing message is one of optimism, demonstrating the determination of Egyptians to forge a true people's democracy regardless of what happens next.
The film is clearly titled and structured which aids in clarifying the many stages of advances and retreats. Having so much footage to choose from, and placed in the hands of skilled documentarists, creates a dramatic, informative and gripping film totally effective to the end. The Square won the Audience Award at Sundance this January, was re-edited in the summer to update current events, and then won the Peoples Choice Award in Toronto in September!
Another film at the Toronto International Film Festival dealing with the Egyptian revolution, Rags and Tatters, takes the viewer on a journey to lesser known areas of Egypt. Taking a more dramatic approach, with minimal dialog, long shots and rare locations, director Ahmed Abdalla mixes documentary with drama, following escaped prisoners, some of them thugs and criminals, wending their way back home through the chaos of the revolution. The film offers rare but true stories about the many overlooked people from the far corners of the country who were affected one way or the other by the social upheaval. Asser Yassin, acting his part often among non-professionals, draws a compelling character discovering surprises among the quickly formed neighborhood watch groups, the garbage collectors settlement and the Mawaldeya people, Sufis dedicated to the art of religious chanting. Although not directly filming the revolution, it provides the visuals and realities that created and shaped the people's revolt.
A charming and thought-provoking film from Morocco, Rock the Casbah, includes among the cast the legendary Egyptian icon Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia) and Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (Miral, The Visitor, Amreeka). It deftly addresses the issues of women and their role in a religion-dominated patriarchal society. When the patriarch (Sharif) of a powerful Moroccan family dies, his family of mostly daughters gathers at the funeral. One rebellious daughter left the fold years earlier and went to Hollywood to make it big. Instead she's been playing mostly roles as a "terrorist," a fact ridiculed by the rest of the family who remained mostly in Tangiers. What starts out as a light but cautious reunion of family members who have held long untold secrets develops to an ending beyond the imagination of most viewers. Sharif, as the ghostly departed father, regularly offers satiric asides directly to the audience as the unbelievable story unfolds. It's for you to discover when you watch this highly entertaining film from Morocco.
With Syria constantly in the news, and with its people continuing to endure the worst hardships, it's hard to imagine films coming out of the war-torn country. They actually aren't, except for Ladder to Damascus, filmed during the beginning of the civil strife until it became unbearable. This is a stylish minimalist interpretation of the Syrian dilemma as young people who are forced to move to the city are confronted with a growing militant resistance movement. Filmed at great danger, the drama defends the secular revolutionary cause that has lately been usurped by religious extremists.
The other film at the Toronto festival about Syria, Border, was actually filmed in Italy by director Alessio Cressolini, known for his script on Private, a 2004 allegorical study of Palestinians held captive in a house by the Israeli military. Border carries the same sympathies to Serbians being forced to leave their country because of growing civil war. The film follows two young Muslim sisters attempting to find a safe escape but limited by their religious dress and beliefs that make it difficult to camouflage their appearance and manners. One of the sisters' husband has defected to the Free Syrian Army which puts their lives in jeopardy as they flee with the assistance of people they can't totally trust. With minimal dialog, and scenes shot mostly indoors and in the forests, the film carries the viewer through a journey of fear and hope and offers a closer look at the realities of the Syrian war.
Censorship in the arts in Iran took on a new level when famed director Jafar Panahi (The Circle, The White Balloon, Offside) was arrested in 2010. Sentenced to prison for six years and barred from filmmaking for 20 years, he became a frustrated man without a camera. Devising ways to circumvent the sentence, Panahi sat in his apartment while being filmed by a buddy and released This Is Not a Movie, which skyrocketed to fame in the film festival circuit. Now he has moved on to a more multi-dimensional project, which for some reason has missed the eyes of the censor. Closed Curtains is a much darker allegory of an artist imprisoned in a darkened room unable to offer his light to the world.
Panahi depicts a man, removed to his seaside beach house, dealing with his past accomplishments, which are referenced by movie wall posters throughout the house. He has a pet dog that allows reference to the restrictive new law banning dog walking in public. A man and woman continually enter and exit the beach house without invitation or reason, supposedly representing the role of actors who are key elements of his films. For an artist denied the tools of his trade and the freedom to create, Panahi has somehow found a way to circumvent both by presenting yet another thought-provoking essay on censorship.
Another film addressing censorship in Iran is from fellow filmmaker and prisoner Mohamad Rasoulof, who was arrested along with Panahi in 2010 for "acting against national security." It's a much stronger critique of the Iranian regime and its attempt to assassinate 21 writers and journalists in 1995. Manuscripts Don't Burn won the FIPRESCI Prize (Film Critics) at Cannes, for its bold and creative style of addressing censorship. Rasoulof plays with time, examines collective memory and shows the physical and psychological destruction caused by a right-wing theocratic regime. Although the Iranian revolution freed the country from American influence and corruption, it punished and killed many in the left. Talented filmmakers are in the forefront of documenting these historical developments.
Photo: Scene from The Square. Film website