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Online Cultural Briefings, no. 2, 2008
By Hilary Hesse
Fallujah: Journalism as Theatre
The 2004 U.S. offensive against the Iraqi city of Fallujah has been described by some as one of the more egregious cases of human rights abuses in recent times. The so-called "city of mosques" was reduced to rubble, while many of its citizens, including a sizable number of white flag-holding women and children, were wiped out. Accused of having breached over 70 articles of the Geneva Conventions, U.S. forces bombed schools and hospitals, impeded the distribution of necessary medical supplies to the citizenry, and are believed to have deployed napalm as part of their strategy to "pacify" the city. Many of the actual details of the atrocity remain murky, as most journalists were either kept or forced out during the siege. However, after attending a seminar conducted by British generals and journalists at Oxford, British director Jonathan Holmes became convinced that this should no longer be so. What emerged was the documentary-style play entitled "Fallujah," which ran for a month at London's Old Truman Theater last May.
Antiwar in spirit but new to war talk, Holmes found the contents of the seminar "immediately theatrical." With the participation of such figures as Shakespearean actress Fiona Shaw and triple Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Scilla Elworthy, the 31-year-old senior lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, Holmes was able to concretize and put his vision on stage. Using eyewitness accounts by British antiwar activist Jo Wilding and freelance American journalist Dahr Jamil, along with a slew of others, Holmes fashioned a verbatim script meant to "publicize the disgrace and condemn it noisily." A promenade production, the play demanded 90 minutes of standing or shuffling about, with the audience often compelled to accompany actors on such futile missions as delivering medical aid to injured victims.
According to the New York Times, the "anti-American theme is relentless," with one British soldier making the assertion that "war is an American way to teach geography." Interestingly, conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph saluted it as a "necessary act of collective penance," while the Guardian dismissed it as well- intentioned but ineffectual. The papers seemed similarly ambivalent about the set and sound effects, with the Daily Telegraph opining that the simulation of aerial bombardment bore more resemblance to "being at a rave than under siege." Nevertheless, the play drew considerable attention for its specificity in an ever-growing canon of pieces on Iraq. If not for individual theatrical elements, the play should nonetheless be praised for its commitment to the revelation of facts, which, with a dexterous cast that includes Imogen Stubbs, is part of its core.
'The Band's Visit': Hitting High and Low Notes
Characterized by division and dispute, the story behind the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is, ironically, the spiritual antithesis of the one the movie seeks to tell. Banned from Arab film festivals, the film was also disqualified as Israel’s official Oscar candidate for best foreign film on the technicality that it contained slightly too much English. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in order for a film to qualify in this category, more than 50 percent of it must be in a language other than English. With 18 minutes in Hebrew against 22 in English, the film lost the nomination--again, ironic, considering that the film earned the international recognition for, among other things, its focus on reconciliation, which was symbolized by English.
Its exclusion from the Oscars has prompted considerable controversy in Israel. Those associated with “The Band’s Visit” claim that the producers of the haunting antiwar film “Beaufort,” which was submitted in its place, reminded the Academy of the rules regarding language, which led to the former’s disqualification. This domestic dispute combined with the fact that the makers of “The Bands Visit” received an invitation to attend the inaugural Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, only to have it later retracted after a press leak on the subject led to threats of withdrawal from the festival by the Egyptian Actors Union.
Despite the rancor and pettiness that have hounded it, the film itself is lovely--full of pathos and droll humor. First time feature film writer-director Eran Kolirin has created a film where English functions as a bridge, and silence becomes a language of its own. The movie opens with the airport arrival of the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra from Egypt, which has been invited to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center. No one, however, has bothered to pick them up. Dressed in baby blue marching band outfits with cute matching hats, the men arrange transportation for themselves, but through a language error, end up in a rural town in the middle of nowhere. There they meet the ultra-bored locals, who treat them with varying degrees of hospitality, offering food, shelter, and diversion. As the day wears into night, we are left with a trio: Saleh, the band’s roguish violinist (Saleh Bakri), Dina, an alluring local restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz), and the band’s leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai). There is a haunting sense of loneliness as the three talk in Dina’s kitchen; a loneliness that the New York Times suggests may be both universal and specific to Israel itself. Kolirin gets stellar performances out of his cast, consisting of Israeli and Israeli-Arab actors. The film elicits longing and, most importantly, empathy.
'No End in Sight': Documenting the Iraq War’s Lack of Vision
Acclaimed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for its concision and temperance, political scientist Charles Ferguson’s documentary “No End in Sight” soberly details the fatal decisions regarding the Iraq war that were made in the spring and summer of 2003. Although the past four years have yielded a diverse crop of movies on the war, Mr. Ferguson’s stands alone for its clarity and level-headedness, refusing to moralize even as it explores the administration’s bungled decisions and the hideous consequences that ensued. Narrated by somber Campbell Scott, Ferguson tells the story unemotionally, relying, instead, on the power of images to astound. And what he puts on screen is, according to the Los Angeles Times, “a catalog of horrors so absurd and relentless it verges on farce, or Greek tragedy.” Central to the piece is the question “What went wrong in Iraq?” As the title implies, it is a question we might be meditating on for quite some time to come. The film’s anti-heroes are Paul Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremmer III, and the masterfully glib Donald Rumsfeld, who drops such one-liners as “stuff happens” and, “I don’t do quagmires.” What appalls most, perhaps, is the sheer number of miscalculations and lack of strategic expertise demonstrated by the administration. “No End in Sight,” which makes its point in a succinct 100 minutes, is as necessary as it is disturbing to watch.
Is there Such a Thing as 'Nice Bombs'?
Shot in January 2004, just 10 months after the American-led invasion of Iraq, Chicago filmmaker Usama Alshaibi’s offbeat documentary “Nice Bombs” engages the viewer with an oddly casual tone. A Baghdad native, Alshaibi chronicles his return home with his wife and father to see his extended family for the first time in 24 years. It opens with Alshaibi describing his personal history and explaining his motives for returning to Baghdad. After arriving and reuniting with his family, he and his wife, Kristie, wander around Baghdad making such observations as everything “smells like gasoline.” Accused by some critics of meandering and lacking distinctiveness among what is now a sea of documentaries on post-Saddam Iraq, the film succeeds in capturing a distinct moment in Iraqi history: a moment of uncertainty when the country was still teetering on the brink of hope and despair. Although the cool tone does not sit well with everyone, the New York Times commends it for allowing “the occasional jarring moment to arterialize naturally.” Ending with a phone call to a shattered Baghdad two years later, the film implies that it was all for nothing. You think?
'Blood and Tears': The Arab-Israeli Conflict Straight Up
Ambitiously attempting to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict in a mere 73 minutes, Isidore Rosmarin’s documentary “Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict” offers no solutions. Instead, it focuses on the complexity of the issue through an array of interviews with an impressive cast. Included are former Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak; Palestinian politicians Saeb Erekat and Sari Nusseibeh; assassinated Hamas leader Abdel Azis al-Rantissi; and distinguished Middle East scholars Bernard Lewis and Rashid Khalidi. Though each one says what you might expect, the film’s strength lies in its determination to be non-partisan. Ping-ponging back and forth between often extreme perspectives, “Blood and Tears” serves as a primer on the conflict for anyone who has not already chosen a side. However, the educated viewer may glean very little from seeing it, as, according to the Los Angeles Times, it affords neither philosophical presumptions, nor hard perspectives. Consequently, the information in “Blood and Tears” amounts to a necessary point of departure for anyone who would have some understanding of the conflict. Yet, its lack of subtlety and fresh perspective relegate it to being a tool of education, rather than one of enlightenment.
‘American East’: Fear and Joy in a Post 9/11 California
Though quiet, there is a sizable Arab community living in the United States whose lives continue to be complicated by the 9/11 attacks. For them, there is nothing “random” about checks administered at the airport, and their sense that they are being watched can hardly be called paranoia. It is points like these that Egyptian-born director Hesham Issawi makes in his film “American East,” which depicts the joys and hardships of a population living at the mercy of America’s jumpiness. Much of the action takes place in Habibi’s Café in Los Angeles, owned by the good-natured Mustafa, who still glows with the American Dream. Though bullied and harassed by the FBI, Mustafa will not give in to bitterness, saying, “I still believe in this country.” Meanwhile, the film’s various other characters undergo challenges of their own that sometimes border on the absurd. As is typical, much of the cast has played terrorists in other movies, as well as on television. According to Issawi, "American East" was refreshing for them. It’s an honest movie about how we feel.” The film met with much resistance following its debut in Egypt, where intellectuals and critics alike decried its portrayal of a friendship between the protagonist and a Jewish man, with whom Mustafa decides to go into business. It seems that Americans are not the only ones on edge.
'Al Ghaba': Cairo As An Urban Jungle
Egyptian director Ahmed Ataf’s brutal film "Al-Ghaba" (“The Jungle”) is not for the faint of heart. Spurned by producers for years because of its racy content, the 90-minute film debuted at the Cairo International Film Festival last December. It focuses on the degradation, deprivation, and violence that Cairo’s urban poor, particularly its children, are subjected to day in and day out. Included in the film is the rape of children, the mutilation of a woman’s face with a pair of scissors, organ theft, and attempted patricide. Criticized by the Los Angeles Times for lacking cohesion and textured characters, “Al-Ghaba” nevertheless succeeds in its depiction of Cairo as a squalid, almost barbaric, metropolis full of stunning polarities. Although a subtle finger of blame is pointed at the Egyptian government throughout, Ataf, surprisingly, has not been subjected to any harassment by police. For this he thanks his personal connections – a necessity for dodging bullets in the labyrinth of Egyptian politics. After slaving for 14 years to get the film made, Ataf does not seem like one who is daunted by obstacles.
'To Die in Jerusalem': Two Mothers Joined by Grief and Humanity
Readers of Newsweek will remember a cover several years ago featuring the juxtaposed images of two teenage girls, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, who were killed in a Jerusalem supermarket when the latter detonated the bomb that was attached to her waist. Although suicide bombing in Israel had become tragically common by that time, the story of Rachel Levy and Ayat al-Akhras was particularly disturbing because the victims were so young and so close in age, with frighteningly similar physiques. Unable to forget the cover, HBO documentary president Sheila Nevins teamed up with Southern Illinois University film graduate, Hilla Medalia; the result is a film titled “To Die in Jerusalem.” Herself Israeli, Medalia was able to make the necessary inroads into the families of both girls, and the movie details the attempts to bring the mothers of the two dead girls together for a meeting. That they live a mere four miles from one another doesn’t make it any easier, given the enormous difficulty of crossing from Israel into the occupied territories and vice versa. Because of the seeming impossibility of a face- to- face encounter, Medalia settles in the end for a satellite meeting between the mothers, which is captured in the final 30 minutes of the film. Though disappointing to viewers, the satellite functions as a metaphor for the apparently unbridgeable gap between their respective worlds. While offering no solutions to the problem, “To Die in Jerusalem” provides a fresh take on the situation by examining it through the eyes of two grieving mothers.
'Half Moon': Bittersweet Celebration in Kurdistan
His fourth film since 2000, Iranian Kurdish director BahmanGhobadi’s “Half Moon” is a lyrical piece about hope and return in the aftermath of war. Mamo (Ismail Ghaffai) is a famed Iranian Kurdish musician who has been planning a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan for seven months to celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein. In spite of failing health and some warnings against making the trip, Mamo obtains the necessary permits for himself and his sons and sets off. One of the film’s most visually arresting and symbolic moments occurs when 1, 334 female singers line the rooftops of their cloistered village. Although not overtly political, the film is set amidst the ashes of almost 30 years of suffocating dictatorship. Dealing principally with the individual’s fate, it is both haunting and funny, touching on such themes as pride and mortality. As one of seven films commissioned for the New Crowned Hope film series commemorating Mozart’s 250th birthday, “Half Moon” implies that, when confronted with a higher purpose, even death must wait. A challenging task in the West, making and distributing independent films in the developing world requires near Herculean effort. Ghobadi’s predicament is particularly grueling in that he is habitually confronted with red tape imposed by the Iranian government. The authorities not only carp at the content of his films, but, also, at his choice to film them in Kurdish. Unnervingly, they recently refused to issue him a permit for his next project. When asked by the New York Times whether it was easier to shoot in Iran or Iraq, Ghobadi unhesitatingly said that it was less difficult to shoot in Iraq. Now that’s telling.
Playing Politics with Book Fairs!
Its decision to dedicate the prestigious “Pavilion of Honor” award to Israeli writers cost the Salon du Livre international book fair in Paris some attendance. At the urging of The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), countries including Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen announced their withdrawal from the event, which ran from March 14 to 19. Implying that art cannot divorce itself from politics, ISESCO issued a statement saying that “the crimes against humanity Israel is perpetrating in the Palestinian territories” make it undeserving of such an honor, especially at a time of “siege” against the Palestinian people. Feathers were particularly ruffled in terms of timing, with ISESCO pointing out that the award’s conferral fell (not-so-coincidentally) in the same year that Israel would be celebrating 60 years of statehood.
An unsettling end to his five-day state visit to France, Israeli president Shimon Peres commented, “I am against the boycott of books. Books are written to try to awaken reflection, to try to make sense of ideas.” Adding to this, French presidential spokesman David Martinon said at a news conference, “It is not books we should fear,” calling for tranquility in the meantime.
Speaking on behalf of the French Publishers’ Association which organizes the Salon, Christine de Mazieres said the controversy was unfortunate. “What is happening in the Middle East is very sad, but it is not linked to our event.” She emphasized that Israel was not being honored for its politics, but for its writers, which included Amoz Oz, David Grossman, and Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew. According to her, all of the countries that pulled out knew that Israel was being honored when they signed up. The fair’s organizers also stressed that their choice to distinguish Israeli literature was unrelated to the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary.
Not surprisingly, the issue has generated controversy from both sides, with dissidents of all stripes coming out of the woodwork to offer their opinions. Several known Israeli writers have voiced their opposition to Israel’s recognition at the fair, while a number of Arabs have dismissed the boycott as being ridiculous.
Similar concerns have been voiced about Israel’s impending recognition at the book fair in Turin, Italy, which will take place in May. Calls for its boycott by leftist Italian political activists, as well as prominent Italian and Arab intellectuals and authors, have left the fair’s turnout anything but certain.
Beaufort: Holding Down the Fort
Little is known about the history of southern Lebanon’s Beaufort Castle (Qala'at ash-Shqif in Arabic) prior to its capture by Crusader forces in 1139 AD. After that point, it changed hands frequently, according to who was occupying the surrounding lands at the time. From 1976 to 1982, the castle was controlled by the PLO, which used it as a launching pad for firing rockets into northern Israel. At the start of the 1982 Lebanon war, however, the fort was heavily shelled and taken by Israeli forces, who occupied it until 2000.
Enter “Beaufort,” the matter-of-factly named Israeli film that dramatizes the last weeks of Israel’s 18-year occupation of the castle. Based on a novel by Ron Leshem, it is Joseph Cedar’s third film, earning him a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin Film Festival and selected as one of five nominees in the 2007 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category.
Referring to it as “a kind of Israeli ‘Apocalypse Now,’” the L.A. Times calls it “a film so realistic, so intense, it verges on the surreal.” “Beaufort” implies , according to the New York Times “the futility of war may be inseparable from its nobility.”
The movie opens with bomb squad technician, Ziv (Ohad Knoller) being helicoptered into Beaufort to dispose of a bomb that is blocking the only road leading in and out of the castle. We are introduced to various soldiers, including Liraz (Oshri Cohen), the team’s volatile 22-year-old commander. The audience journeys with the men through their various daily routines, watching as they stream though the eerie corridors of this castle that has become almost endearingly familiar.
The IDF team’s planned departure, however, has provoked increased shelling from Hezbollah, who wants the evacuation to read more like fleeing. As casualties mount and terror grows, the men wonder about the original purpose of the mission. ICedar, himself an IDF veteran stationed in Lebanon at the start of the 1982 war, has been quoted in interviews as saying, “One minute you are willing to die for it. The next, it’s worth nothing.”