Online Cultural Briefings, no. 2, 2008

Hilary Hesse

'Fallujah':  Journalism as Theatre

The U.S. offensive in 2004 against the Iraqi city of Fallujah involved shocking human rights abuses. As the "city of mosques" was reduced to rubble, many of its citizens, including white-flag-holding women and children, were also 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 suspected of having deployed napalm as part of their strategy to "pacify" the city. Many of the details of the atrocity remain murky, as most journalists were either kept or forced out during the siege. But after attending a seminar at Oxford University given by local generals and journalists, British director Jonathan Holmes became convinced that the story needed to be told. What emerged was a documentary-style play matter-of-factly titled "Fallujah," which ran for a month at London's Old Truman Theater last May.

New to war talk, Holmes found the contents of the seminar "immediately theatrical." Using eyewitness accounts by British antiwar activist Jo Wilding and freelance American journalist Dahr Jamil, Holmes fashioned a verbatim script meant to "publicize the disgrace and condemn it [Fallujah] noisily." With the subsequent participation of heavyweights like actress Fiona Shaw and triple Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Scilla Elworthy, Holmes was able to stage his vision. “Fallujah,” a promenade production, demanded 90 minutes of standing and shuffling about, with the audience compelled to accompany actors on dangerous missions like delivering medical aid to injured victims.

According to the New York Times, the play’s "anti-American theme is relentless," with one British character declaring that "war is an American way to teach geography." TheDaily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper, unexpectedly saluted “Fallujah” as a "necessary act of collective penance," while the politically liberal Guardian dismissed the play as well intentioned but ineffectual. Both papers were skeptical about the set and sound effects, with theDaily Telegraph gibing that the simulated aerial bombardment bore more resemblance to "being at a rave than under siege." “Fallujah” was nevertheless appreciated for the freshness and specificity of its subject matter, given the ever-growing canon of pieces on Iraq.

Nice Bombs for Whom?

Filmed in January of 2004, just 10 months after the American-led invasion of Iraq, Usama Alshaibi’s offbeat documentary “Nice Bombs” assumes an oddly casual tone. In it, the Chicago transplant journeys to his native Iraq with wife and father to see his extended family for the first time in 24 years. Alshaibi opens the film with a brief personal history and explanation of his motives for returning to Iraq. Once there, he reunites with kin and then wanders the streets of Baghdad with his wife, Kristie. The two record random impressions of the chaotic post-invasion period, quirkily observing that everything “smells like gasoline.”

Alshaibi’s days soon become punctuated by the sound of explosions, which an unperturbed cousin explains are just “nice bombs” that the US is dropping on insurgents. But as time presses on, these explosions begin to fray the optimism of the filmmaker’s long-suffering relatives.  

Criticized for meandering and lacking distinctiveness among what has become a sea of documentaries on Iraq, the film does succeed in capturing a particular moment in post-invasion Iraq when people still dared to hope. Although the documentary’s cool tone has not sat well with everyone, the New York Times commends “Nice Bombs” for allowing “the occasional jarring moment to materialize naturally.”  The movie ends with a shattering phone call to Baghdad two years later, during which a cousin tells Alshaibi how badly things have deteriorated in Iraq since his visit. The cousin makes no mention of nice bombs. 

'The Band's Visit': Hitting High and Low Notes

International acclaim for the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” was followed by some sour luck for its producers. The movie was disqualified as Israel’s official Oscar candidate for best foreign film on the technicality that it contained slightly too much English; 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 Band’s Visit” lost the nomination—ironic, given that the film earned international recognition for its theme of reconciliation, which was cultivated and symbolized by the use of English.

The Oscar disappointment has created some bad blood back home, where producers of “The Band’s Visit” have accused those of the antiwar film “Beaufort” of stealing the nomination by reminding the Academy of the language rules. And the misfortune doesn’t end there: producers of “The Band’s Visit” were invited to screen at the inaugural Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, only to be disinvited after the Egyptian Actors Union threatened to withdraw if the Israeli film was featured.

Despite the feuding that has surrounded it, “The Band’s Visit” is a lovely, gentle film, full of pathos and droll humor. In it, writer-director Eran Kolirin uses English as a bridge and silence as a language of its own. The film 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 a language error lands them in a rural town in the middle of nowhere. There they meet the uber-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 debonair violinist (Saleh Bakri), Dina, an alluring local restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz), and Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the band’s leader. There is a haunting sense of loneliness as the three talk in Dina’s kitchen—a loneliness that the New York Times observes may be both universal and specific to Israel itself. Kolirin gets stellar performances out of his cast, which consists of Israeli and Israeli-Arab actors. “The Band’s Visit” leaves us unexpectedly touched and longing for something not easy to pinpoint. 

'No End in Sight': The War Without Vision

Acclaimed for its concision and temperance, political scientist Charles Ferguson’s documentary “No End in Sight” recounts the fatal decisions on the Iraq War made in the spring and summer of 2003. Though the past four years have yielded a diverse crop of movies on the war, Mr. Ferguson’s film stands alone for its clarity and level-headedness, refusing to moralize as it explores the administration’s bungled decisions and the hideous consequences that followed. Narrated by a somber Campbell Scott, Ferguson tells the story unemotionally, trusting the images to astound. And astound they do. What he puts on screen is, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “a catalog of horrors so absurd and relentless it verges on farce, or Greek tragedy.”  What went wrong in Iraq? is the film’s central question and one we might be meditating on for years to come. 

“No End in Sight” features a troika of anti-heroes, including Paul Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremmer III, and the masterfully glib Donald Rumsfeld, who revels in dropping one-liners like “stuff happens” and “I don’t do quagmires.” Most terrifying is the sheer number of miscalculations that were made by the administration. Isn’t international politics supposed to be more sophisticated than this? “No End in Sight,” which makes its point in a succinct 100 minutes, shatters any such illusions.


'Blood and Tears': The Arab-Israeli Conflict Straight Up

Striving 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, the film labors to show the complexity of the land dispute through a series of interviews with a high-powered 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, among others.  

Ping-ponging back and forth between often extreme perspectives, “Blood and Tears” works hard to be non-partisan. We are presented with a history of the conflict, from its biblical origins to the bleak present, along with a series of facts and opinions given by experts. But though the film is a decent primer for anyone unfamiliar with the issue, it manages to say very little that might tempt those in-the -know to rethink their commitments. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Blood and Tears” offers neither philosophical presumptions, nor hard perspectives. Still, Rosmarin deserves applause for distilling this epic struggle into a cinematic Cliff’sNotes. 


‘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 movie debuted at the Cairo International Film Festival last December. “Al-Ghaba” centers on the degradation, deprivation, and violence that Cairo’s urban poor, particularly its children, endure daily. The film features 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” is clear in its depiction of Cairo as a squalid, savage metropolis full of mind-blowing contradictions.

Although a subtle finger of blame is pointed at the Egyptian government throughout the film, Ataf says he has not been subjected to police harassment. For this he thanks his personal connections, which are vital for navigating the socio-political landscape in Egypt. But after 14 years of slaving to get “Al-Ghaba” made, Ataf seems perfectly capable of navigating on his own. 


'To Die in Jerusalem':  Two Mothers Joined  by Grief  and Humanity

Readers of Newsweek will remember a 2002 cover juxtaposing the images of two teenage girls, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, who were killed in a Jerusalem supermarket when the latter detonated a bomb that was attached to her waist. Although suicide bombing in Israel had become common by that time, the story of Rachel Levy and Ayat al-Akhras attracted special attention because the victims were so young and close in age, with disturbingly similar physiques.

Unable to forget that 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.”

As an Israeli, Medalia was able to access the families of both girls, and the movie documents her attempts to bring the mothers of the two dead girls together for a meeting. That these women live a mere four miles from one another is sadly of no help, given the enormous difficulty of crossing from Israel into the occupied territories and vice versa. As a face- to- face encounter grows increasingly impossible, Medalia settles in the end for a satellite meeting between the mothers, which is captured in the final 30 minutes of the film. Though this may disappoint viewers, the satellite becomes a metaphor for the unbridgeable chasm between the women’s worlds. “To Die in Jerusalem” gives a poignantly humanistic view of the conflict through the eyes of two grieving mothers.   


'Half Moon': Bittersweet Celebration in Kurdistan


His fourth film since 2000, Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s “Half Moon” is a lyrical piece about hope and return in the aftermath of war. The film tells the story of Mamo (Ismail Ghaffai), a famed Kurdish musician living in Iran, 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 obstinately secures the necessary permits for himself and his sons and the group departs.

Though set in the ashes of almost 30 years of dictatorship, “Half Moon” is not overtly political. Rather, it is a haunting and humorous exploration of the individual’s journey, touching on such themes as pride and mortality. The movie’s most visually arresting and symbolic moment occurs when 1, 334 female singers line the rooftops of their enclosed village.  One of seven films commissioned for the “New Crowned Hope” film series commemorating Mozart’s 250th birthday, “Half Moon” seems to say that when humans are confronted with a higher purpose, even death must wait. 

While making and distributing independent films is challenging enough in wealthy countries, doing so in the developing world requires near Herculean effort. Ghobadi had an especially tough time trying to cut through the red tape imposed by Iranian authorities, who complain not only about the content of his films, but also about his choice to shoot them in Kurdish. In illustration of its displeasure, the Iranian government recently refused to issue Ghobadi 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!

The 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), 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 over the timing of the award, with ISESCO pointing out that its conferral fell (not so coincidentally) in the same year that Israel would be celebrating 60 years of statehood.

During this 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.” Calling for tranquility, French presidential spokesman David Martinon said at a news conference, “It is not books we should fear.”

Christine de Mazieres, who spoke on
behalf of the French Publishers’ Association that organizes the Salon, 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.

have leaped at the opportunity to offer (sometimes surprising) opinions. Several known Israeli writers, for example, have voiced their opposition to Israel’s recognition at the fair, while a number of Arabs have dismissed the boycott as ridiculous. 

Similar political concerns have been expressed about Israel’s impending recognition at the book fair in Turin, Italy, which will take place in May. Calls for a boycott by leftist Italian political activists, as well as by 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 AD 1139. After that point, it changed hands frequently, depending on 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, the fort was heavily shelled and taken by the Israelis, who occupied it until 2000. 

Enter “Beaufort,” the matter-of-factly named Israeli film that dramatizes the final weeks of Israel’s 18-year occupation of the castle. Based on a novel by Ron Leshem, “Beaufort” is Joseph Cedar’s third film, and has earned him a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin Film Festival. It was also selected as one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 2007 Academy Awards. 

Characterizing it as “a kind of Israeli ‘Apocalypse Now,’” the L.A. Times calls “Beaufort” “a film so realistic, so intense, it verges on the surreal.” According to the New York Times, “Beaufort” implies that “the futility of war may be inseparable from its nobility.”

As the movie opens, bomb squad technician Ziv (Ohad Knoller) is 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 various daily routines, watching as they stream though the eerie corridors of this castle that has become almost endearingly familiar to them. 

The IDF team’s planned departure, however, has provoked increased shelling from Hezbollah, which wants the evacuation to read more like fleeing. As casualties mount and terror grows, the men begin to question the original purpose of the mission.

During an interview years later, one IDF veteran who was stationed in Lebanon at the start of the 1982 war commented, “One minute you are willing to die for it. The next, it’s worth nothing.”

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