Progressive Cinema

Have you ever seen a good film from Iraq? They make them, but they are seldom shown in the West. We could certainly learn a lot more about that country if these films were made available to us. But it’s Iranian cinema that is so well known at film festivals. A humanist cinema depicting natural surroundings and simple lifestyles is totally contrary to the Western experience of sex, violence and fast-paced action. In Iran, where moral codes are more restrictive, directors often choose children as their subjects, and the plots may contain subliminal political references. Lately, however, Iranian cinema is blossoming into more forbidden areas. This year in Toronto, there were three Iranian films dealing with serious social issues. Letters in the Wind, a documentary, tells the story of drafted soldiers and their harsh existence as potential cannon fodder. Candid views of severe barracks life, and the soldiers’ thwarted attempts to keep in contact with their loved ones back home, form the basis of this film. Exam describes the determination of young women to pass the state exam to get into higher education, which, to many women in this male-dominated society, is a ticket to freedom. Women’s Prison, an amazing drama, addresses the unjust moral codes penalizing women in Iran, and shows how prison is much harsher for women. One of the prisoners is pregnant and has her baby in the jail cell. The film, which spans 17 years, follows the child being raised in the institution by fellow inmates, a microcosm of Iranian society.

With curfews, checkpoints, and war, Israel and the occupied territories would seem like the most unfavorable place to make movies. But the very importance of culture and cinema is the theme of Ticket to Jerusalem, a highlight at this Festival. The tragic daily struggle of the Palestinians to eke out a minimal existence is portrayed in what the director, Rashid Mashawari, calls a “fiction documentary.” This exceptional film tells the poignant story of a movie projectionist, Jaber, determined to bring culture to his deprived people. He carts his heavy film equipment to refugee camps to show cartoons to children, while his wife works with the Red Crescent Society to meet the urgent medical needs of her people. Mashawari was born in a Gaza refugee camp and the story parallels his personal experiences. The dramatic struggle Jaber faces getting his equipment through checkpoints, sometimes after curfew and often into areas where Palestinians are forbidden, and his idea for an open-air screening in East Jerusalem, where it’s illegal for a Palestinian to enter, shows how bringing art to the people is a political challenge.

In a starkly different manner, director Elia Sulieman, born in Nazareth, uses slapstick to define the harsh existence in Palestine. Divine Intervention won the top Critics Prize at Cannes, “for its sensitive, amusing and innovative vision of a complex and topical situation and the tragic consequences that result from it.” And it just won Best Non-European Film Award at the 2002 European competition. In receiving the award, Sulieman thanked the judges for “accepting Palestine as a separate cultural entity.” Divine Intervention at first startles the viewer with its slapstick, reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. It’s a totally fresh satiric treatment of a tragic situation, utilizing absurd and surrealistic images in place of what the viewer would expect to see happening in a war-torn country.

This Festival also screened a couple of films from Israeli directors. The perennial, Amos Gitai, presented his latest offering, Kedma. Pedantic, slow moving, and poorly acted, the film re-creates the events of 1948 during the creation of the State of Israel, but failed to grab my attention. Gitai’s other offering, however, was a profound contribution to the collective venture called 11”09’01, the French film on the Sept. 11 incident, which will be discussed in my next column.

The most artistic and thought-provoking film on the Israeli issue was a documentary by Israeli artist, and New York resident, Udi Aloni. His profound philosophical search to find the reason for the madness in the Middle East is the basis for Local Angel. The first part, dealing with theological questions, is intriguing, but the film’s real power comes in the second half, a collage of sculpture, art, poetry, photography and even Arabic rap music. Aloni’s mother, Shulamit, was one of the founders of the Israeli civil rights and peace movement in 1973, and has privileged access to the main players in the Palestinian struggle. Her best friend, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, an important Palestinian spokesperson, brings Shulamit and her son the filmmaker to meet with Yasser Arafat during the ferocious attack by Israeli forces on his office compound. This personal visit is the apex of Udi’s film. What transpires is another rare hopeful moment in film and the struggle for peace. Local Angel is a must-see film for anyone interested in a fresh solution to the tragedy in the Middle East.

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