Friday, March 5, 2010

Laila's Birthday: Black Comedy and the Tenacity of a Palestinian Father

Laila's Birthday (Eid Milad Laila) by Palestinian director Rashid Mashrawi, like the films of Elia Suleiman, uses black comedy to represent the psychology of the Palestinian people.

In the film, Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri) goes through a typical day at his job as a taxi driver, though this day is not so typical. It is his daughter's birthday and he must return home that night with a gift, a cake and candles to celebrate.

The day starts with Abu Laila going to meet the new head of justice to see about getting his job back as a judge. For reasons not entirely understood, Abu Laila lost his position as a job, but while you can take the man out of the law, you can't take the law out of the man.

For every problem or conflict Abu Laila is faced with, he approaches it with a calm and collected attitude, using logic and reasoning to try and find a solution. He believes in the power of logic and has faith in the government's ability to enforce an orderly society--in theory.

But the reality is that Abu Laila's world is surreal and order is almost nowhere to be found. His customers are difficult and there is no such thing as a straight-forward ride from point A to point B. He must explain to riders that he won't drive to checkpoints or drive around a couple only looking for a private place to make out. In addition to a typical "No Smoking," Abu Laila's cab is fixed with a "NO AK-47s" sign, since apparently this comes up a lot.

One man, an ex-convict, leaves his phone in Abu Laila's cab, sending him on a goose-hunt to return the phone. In between, there is a bombing and his taxi is used to transport the wounded to the hospital. The bombing is the final straw, sending Abu Laila into a state of shock.

In the film's climax, Abu Laila, fed up with the chaos of his life, grabs a police megaphone and starts yelling at people in the streets, cars honking and even Israeli helicopters flying overhead. His message is that he wants people to take control of lives and assume responsibility for their action, and to Israel, he wants Palestine to be left alone so they can start making sense of their life and actually develop a sense of order.

By the time Abu Laila is parked outside his house at the end of the day, it is dark and finally quiet. It is now that he discovers a cake left behind in his taxi and remembers some candles he bought for a customer but forgot to give him. And then there is the cheap necklace he purchased from a street peddler to leave him alone. Yes, it is a bit unbelievable that everything worked out that well for this distressed man, but the symbolism built here is promising.

Despite the chaos and absurdity of the everyday routine in Ramallah, people find a way to get through life one day at a time and find a way to survive.

Survival is a common theme in Palestinian culture, since for many people, just finding a way to get by and move on to the next day is a struggle. This tenacity is a defining characteristic of many Palestinian films.

So aside from the rude customers, incomprehensible red tape, and daily bombings that plague Abu Laila, Laila's Birthday is ultimately an optimistic story about the desire to survive and be happy against all odds.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Nightingale's Prayer: Praise for a Classic

The Nightingale's Prayer (Doa al karawan, 1959) by Henry Barakat stands as one of the greatest works of classic Egyptian cinema. The story, adapted from a novel by Taha Hussein, The Nightingale's Prayer is an epic love story filled with betrayal, tradition and murder.

The story follows Amna, a young, pretty Bedouin girl in Egypt who moves to the city with her mother and sister upon the insistence of her uncle, who wishes the women to escape the tainted name left by their womanizing father. Fascinated by, though fearful of, the city life, Amna and her sister, Hanadi, find jobs as housemaids in separate homes. Hanadi works for a respected engineer who seduces her by making her believe he was in love with her. When their mother learns of this, she notifies their uncle to take the girls back to their village.

However, the uncle has his own plan in mind and murders Hanadi in the desert to hide her sins from the villagers. Filled with rage, Amna returns to the city to find the engineer Hanadi fell in love with. What she finds is a womanizer who has seduced a long line of unsuspecting housemaids. Amna decides to work for the engineer and kill him to avenge her sister. But Amna realizes it is more difficult to murder than her uncle made it seem, and as she grows closer to the engineer (who remains nameless throughout the film) she finds her feelings for him change in a very unexpected way.

In the first half of the film, the story follows a traditional formula of moving from the rural to the city. Like many stories with this setup, the family that moves must change or sacrifice something to adapt into their new environment. The mother refuses to do either and sticks to tradition, while Amna and Hanadi quickly embrace city life. It is unclear what is more to blame for Hanadi's death--the mother's devotion to tradition in notifying her brother-in-law or Hanadi's embrace of sexual freedom--but the devastation that follows indicates that moving from the village to the city is a complex transition.

Following the death of Hanadi, Amna's adventures are just as much a search for revenge as it is an internal struggle. What makes The Nightingale's Prayer so powerful is the richly complex growth and development of its characters. Amna's development from young and naive villager, to fierce and determined avenger, to confused and torn lover is heart-wrenching. Faten Hamama's evocative performance is clearly the highlight of the film.

Also, the film's serves as a preservation of Bedouin culture. There are various scenes that are devoted to portraying traditions, values and practices of the Bedouins. The clash between Egyptian city life and village life is a reminder of the vast diversity that exists in the country.

The Nightingale's Prayer does not shy away from difficult subjects--such as poverty, sex and murder--but unlike contemporary, independent Egyptian films, this is in no way an "agenda" film. Nightingale does not seek to teach its audience a lesson about cultural traditions; it is purely an account of the complexities of love and the many forms it can take.

It may seem trivial to make such a distinction; however, the current independent Arab film industry comes with it a stereotype and expectation to make films that address current political and social issues. While many films do just that, its important to remember a that at one time, cinema in Egypt did resemble the "dream factory" that was Hollywood. In retrospect, a film such as Nightingale may seem to be a reflection on social attitudes towards sex and honor killings among Bedouins, but I feel this is an erroneous statement derived from the West's current obsession with political and social issues in the Arab world.

Overall, The Nightingale's Prayer is a lasting masterpiece of Egyptian film making with a worldwide appeal, while still being rooted in Arab culture and tradition.

Click here to watch a scene from the film. Amna and the Engineer relationship is complicated when the Engineer confesses his love, and Amna confesses her true motives.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Closed Doors: Exposing the Taboo

Atef Hetata's controversial Egyptian film The Closed Doors (Al Abwab Al Moghlaka) marks a moment in Egyptian cinema where the nation began to more openly acknowledge its tense cultural and religious problems, particulalry those concerning sexuality. The film follows the story of 13-year-old Mohamed, known as Hamada to his mother, as he comes of age and battles with urges he's been taught are wrong and the unsettling idea of his mother as a sexual being.

The film opens with an eye peering through a hole in a wall. The audience soon sees that the eye is gazing at a group of girls. As the image continues to grow, we see a young boy, Hamada, distracted in class by the passing girls. His teacher is quick to reprimend him and remind him that he is at school, not at the movies. Hamada is thrown out of class and after closing the classroom door behind him, he is approached by another teacher and told to go to the mosque to escape the hardships of school. Hamada sets off on a walk through his neighborhood, and images of an impoverished Cairo provide the backdrop for the film credits.

Before the credits roll, The Closed Doors, has already given audiences a lot to consider. The image of an eye through a hole in a wall suggests a voyeuristic quality to the film. The camera both stares back at the eye and assumes the eye's vantage point, thus building a twofold relationship between the eye's beholder and the audience. First, the audience is gazing at Hamada, observing and judging him. Next, the audience becomes Hamada, joining in his curiousity of the female form and seeing the world as his inexperienced eyes see it. This relationship persists throughout the film.

Next, there is the remark from the teacher, that this is a class, not a cinema. For Hamada, it is a class pretending to be a cinema, but for the audience, this is a cinema acting as a class. Hamada is being taught literature and writing, but not the things he wants to learn: sex and sexuality. For that, he uses his symbolic cinema in the form of the hole in the wall.

On the other hand, the audience comes to the cinema to experience the sensuality and pleasure of seeing images on the screen. There is a fascinating satisfaction gained from viewing human bodies, particularly beautiful bodies, on the theater screen. This is why movie stars are pressured to be so picture-perfect. However, The Closed Doors closes the door, in a manner of speaking, on this saught-after satisfaction and instead turns every image of beauty and sexuality into one of tension and discomfort. The human body is feared and uncertain in The Closed Doors, for this is the way Hamada interprets it.

Finally, in the opening sequence, Hamada closes the door behind him when he leaves his class. This act seperates him from the boys and teacher inside the room and leaves a void for another door to fill. When one door closes, another opens. In this case, the next door opens towards religion. Hamada closes the door on his education and takes another step towards the door to Islam. And this is where we meet him at the start of the film, and from this point on Hamada will bounce back and forth in his beliefs, struggling with his growing sexuality that has changed his perception of the world.

One way to read through The Closed Doors is to examine the role of doors, both literal and metaphorical. There are in fact many doors in the film that dictate the fate of Hamada and his mother.

As a metaphor, the door is an in-between place and a barrier. It can be used to hide behind or block others out, or it can be removed to bring people together. It can be the threshold for something great, or something devastating.

In that respect, the characters are constantly situated near doors in the home or at school or even car doors. The doors serve as either a separation between two types of people--man and woman, mother and son--or as a barrier to keep things hidden and safe.

For example, when Hamada accidently sees his mother changing in her room, he quickly closes the door to protect himself from seeing her and to protect her from being seen. The door is being used to hide and protect his mother, but at the same time, it was by accidently opening the door that Hamada caught a glimpse of her undressed. The door is neither friend nor foe for Hamada and it is clear that no door remains closed forever.

For the film itself, the door it opens is the one blocking any public discourse on sexual practices or issues, such as incest or extra-marital sex, both of which are major elements of The Closed Doors. Hetata opens the door with a shocking and riveting drama that is rich with metaphors and yet tragic in its realism.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lemon Tree: Solitude in the Middle East

Eran Riklis's most recent film, Lemon Tree (Etz Limon), is a collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian creative forces that observes the strained relationship between these two peoples.

Salma (Hiam Abbass) is a widow who lives for her lemon grove, which she tends to with the help of her friend Abu Hussam (Tarik Kopty). However, after the Israeli Defense Minister, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife move in next door, her grove is declared a security risk and most be uprooted. Salma hires young lawyer Ziad (Ali Suliman) to sue the Israeli government for the right to keep her lemons.

The film is based on a true story and tackles the touchy subject of Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes. Riklis isn't new to controversy, having directed the critically acclaimed film The Syrian Bride (2004) about a family living in the disputed territory of the Golan Heights.

Riklis claimed that Lemon Tree would be his last say on the matter, so to speak, regarding the Middle East conflict. He definitely plays it safe in the film with characters that are all victims, and yet all villains at the same time. They are all wrong and all correct, with perhaps the exception of Salma, who is the innocent doe trapped in the midst of brutality.

Instead of pointing blame, Riklis rather contemplates the notion of loneliness. All his characters are lonely, having either built walls around themselves (both figuratively and literally) or had walls involuntarily built around them.

Salma lives alone with her lemon grove. A widow, her children are too busy or too far away and strict cultural tradition forbids her from associating with men, as demonstrated by the character Abu Kamal (Makram Khoury).

Her counterpart would be Mira, the wife of the Defense Minister. After moving to the border with her husband, she is left at home while he works, surrounded by guards and hardly able to look out her window without an official escort.

Over time, Mira learns to pity and empathize with Salma. Although the two only meet once and speak only a few words to each other, an unlikely bond forms between the two women, both bound by restrictions and loneliness.

Salma does not win her case, but the judge amends the orders so that only half her trees are chopped down. As Ziad points out, this is actually a great victory since it is the first time an Arab suing the Israeli government has managed to change anything at all. She may be a hero to all Palestinians fighting to keep their land and homes, but the stark image of a half- barren lemon grove feels more like the glass is half empty, not half full.

The Defense Minister himself is unaware of his loneliess, convincing himself throughout the film that he is justified to order the descruction of the lemon grove and ignoring the warning signs of his wife's growing isolation. By the end of the film, he is more alone than any other character: his wife has left him and the wall he was eager to have built around his home blocks any visitors, intruders or any signs of life.

So who is to blame for this perpetual unhappiness? It would be easiest to try and blame the Defense Minister, but was he not simply doing the job assigned to him? Salma seems like the most obvious victim, but her reluctance to compromise or negotiated is matched only by the Israeli government.

As it were, the biggest culprit here is a collective failure to communicate. It is as if Riklis wants us to acknowledge the suffering of all parties involved, from the hapless and young soldier keeping watch over the lemon grove to the widow about to lose her entire livelihood, as though these are all equal forms of suffering so that there is no right or wrong side to the conflict.

Frankly, this is a higly political and safe stance to assume. While at first it seems Riklis is being bold and controversial, Lemon Tree proves to be less explosive and more meager.

This is not to say Riklis has not made a good point. His characters have gotten so caught up in a history's worth of conflict and failed diplomacy that they have forgotten how to simply speak to each other. Indeed, the volatile Palestinian-Israeli confict could do with a mediator or two, but Lemon Tree only points out this fact and does not try and offer a solution.

In regard to aesthetics, Lemon Tree has Riklis's familiar romantic-realist style filled with long takes, location shooting and topped with a dreamy quality that laces certain scenes, such as in the court room where the camera revolves slowly to capture the poetic words of Abu Hussam.

Photo Caption: L to R Tarik Copty, Hiam Abbass and Ali Suliman in Lemon Tree

Photo courtesy of

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Paradise Now Part 2: Self-Reflexivity

In my last post on Paradise Now, I argued that Abu-Assad had given a voice to a previously silent character, the terrorist. The story comments in many ways on the current political crisis in the Middle East, but the film is also a self-reflexive work that comments on cinema and media as they operates in the Middle East.

The most indicative scene is where Said and Suha discuss cinema over tea at her home. Suha asks Said if he likes movies and he responds by saying that Nablus does not have a movie theater, and the only theater he has ever been to was one he help set on fire. This dialogue helps establish two important points about the perception of cinema in the West Bank.

First, cinema is not accessible to Palestinians due to lack of infrastructure. Said does mention that movies are available on tape in Nablus, but the experience of watching a film in a theater is relatively foreign to him. Cinema is, perhaps, a foreign art form to Palestine. By setting a movie theater on fire, Said destroys not just a building but a symbol of something foreign and imperialistic. It is possible to deduce that Said's destruction of the theater reflects a larger rejection by the Palestinian people of cinema as a whole.

Nonetheless, media does exist in Nablus. Two scenes in the film take place at a video store that rents out tapes of suicide bombers' final messages and the confessions of collaborators before they are killed. In this way, media has become incorporated with the conflict. Suha is shocked and disgusted by these video rentals, though she does not know that Said himself had recorded his own video hours before.

The idea of taping these messages is to make them immortal, so that the stories of the terrorists and collaborators will live on. The videos also help to distribute the messages to a large audience. These two points are also goals for cinema as a whole: to make stories eternal and to distribute them to a mass audience. But in this case, videos are manipulated for political purposes and exploitation. This is not to say that certain cinemas, such as Hollywood, do not have political agendas or exploit for a profit. In fact, many theorists would say all Hollywood films have some form of agenda, and mainstream films have profited from exploiting people and situations for as long as cinema has existed. The only difference is that the video rental store is straightforward in its purpose and uses all real people. The videos achieve the same end as cinema but without the seductive illusion created from cinema magic.

Going back to Said and Suha's initial conversation, there comes a point where Said is also unable to name a genre of film he enjoys. He asks Suha if a "boring" genre exists, since that is what his life is like. Said feels that no current genre of film relates to his life or is fit to tell his story. Indeed, perhaps no genre or style of cinema in existence is suited to tell the Palestinian narrative and become part of the developing Palestinian cinema.

While Abu-Assad may be reflecting on cinema's failure to attract or accurately portray Palestinians, he is himself attempting to construct a Palestinian cinematic identity. Paradise Now is painfully aware of its task at hand.

In the end, Said and Suha can come to no conclusion about Said's interest in film. She, being born and raised outside of the West Bank, is too removed from the situation in Palestine to understand his apathy towards cinema. Their conversation eventually escalates to a debate about how to fight the occupation and the two realize they do not see eye to eye, and arguing is futile.

In addition to its address of the Middle East conflict, Paradise Now meditates on the role, if any, of cinema and media in Palestine as it attempts to construct a Palestinian style to make cinema an effective art form in telling the Palestinian narrative.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Paradise Now: Voice for the Voiceless

No discussion of contemporary Arab cinema would be complete without analysis of Hany Abu-Assad's Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated film Paradise Now. This film represents a huge artistic and financial success for Arab cinema, and investigating the reasons why it attained such success reveals many great possibilities for the region. It was popular and grossed fairly well both within the Middle East and abroad, enjoying a long run in American theaters as well. It's success at film festivals and award shows helped put Middle Eastern cinema on the map and solidified it as a viable competitor in the global film market.
All of this success is especially shocking considering the film follows the point of view of two would-be suicide bombers--a perspective not typically shown and one that most audiences are reluctant to empathize with.

A film's protagonist is by nature someone for audiences to empathize and connect with. Without a relatable protagonist, a film cannot go very far. This has created a certain understanding with audiences so that before a film even begins, they know they are about to embark on a journey with the protagonist, and by the end of the film should feel more connected to the character. So for a terrorist to be given such powerful access to people's hearts is a bold and unexpected accomplishment.

But by taking this risk, Abu-Assad humanized a character that is often relegated to being portrayed as a loud, obnoxious, and unintelligent background character whose purpose is only to be "taken down" by the film's hero (Think the Libyan terrorists in Back to the Future, or Salim Abu Aziz in True Lies).

In comparison to past Hollywood terrorists, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashif) in Paradise Now are a huge departure from the hegemonic stereotype. The two are childhood friends who, aside from their radicalism, lead very normal lives--or as normal as they can as Palestinians in the West Bank.

Khaled has trouble holding onto a job, Said fights with his younger brother, and their families are constantly looking for better and cheaper water filters. These are all seemingly trivial and mundane elements of everyday life, but Abu-Assad intentionally highlights these things to humanize his characters before introducing any indication of terrorism.

When the two men are finally approached for their mission, the focus of the film always remains on their personal struggle in going through with the attack. Islam is mentioned in the film as merely a fact of radicalism, not the source or motivation for it. Khaled and Said's family history and personal experiences are the things that have led them to violence.

While Abu-Assad was careful to portray terrorist activities in an accurate fashion, going so far as to have militants supervise a scene where the men record their farewell messages on video, this realism only contextualizes the characters. Paradise Now is a purely character-driven narrative that delves into the psyche of the two terrorists.

What emerges is desperation, confusion, and identity crisis. As Khaled says, they are dead if they stay alive or go through with the attack, indicating a severe desperation. The two seem to have lost a will to live but still have a will to resist, raising an interesting paradox in extremism.

To challenge these beliefs is the character of Suha (Lubna Azabal). She is a Palestinian born in Morrocco, educated in France and now returned to her parent's hometown. It is revealed that she is the daughter of a famous martyr, though she resents the glory her father received and takes a decidedly pro-peace and pro-diplomacy stance. In a memorable conversation with Khaled, Suha claims that there is no paradise; it exists only in their heads. In response, Khaled says that he would rather have paradise in his head than live in hell on Earth.

Abu-Assad uncovers the humanism behind radicalism in Palestine. There is no clear message in Paradise Now and I do not believe Abu-Assad is trying to preach to his audiences. Rather, he is educating them and giving a voice to the voiceless. Abu-Assad has complicated the Western stereotype of the uneducated and unkempt religious fanatic that has allowed Hollywood to vilify Arabs without any remorse.

Paradise Now trailer:

Photo Caption: Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) wait patiently to carry out a suicide bombing in Paradise Now.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Man in Our House: Nationalism in Egyptian Cinema

I would like to look at another Henry Barakat (Days and Nights) movie, the 1961 film A Man in Our House (Fi Baitina Rajul) starring Omar Sharif. Like Days and Nights, A Man in Our House features a love story that is threatened by social and political elements beyond the lovers' control and ultimately reinforces traditional morals. However, A Man in Our House features a prominent political message concerning nationalism and patriotism and glorifies the Egyptian resistance to British colonialism, which ended in 1954.

Sharif is Ibrahim Hamdy, a young Egyptian university student and revolutionary who assassinates the prime minister as part of the struggle for freedom. Ibrahim hides from the police by taking refuge in the home of an apolitical fellow student, Mohie, and his family, who risk their own safety to help him.

The father of the family must battle with his obligation to keep his family safe and his sense of duty to his country to protect Ibrahim. He ultimately decides to take in Ibrahim, who quickly becomes another member of the family and an honored guest. A romance emerges between Mohie’s sister, Nawal, and Ibrahim, though Ibrahim tries to reject his feelings because he feels guilty for putting the family in danger.

Their plan is severely threatened when Mohie’s cousin, Abdel Hamid, accidentally discovers Ibrahim. He blackmails the family by threatening to expose their secret if they do not approve of his marriage proposal to the eldest sister, Samia.

Barakat weaves together the political and personal in his narrative. The family’s troubles are also the country’s problems and Sharif’s roles are both an uninvited guest and a wanted felon. This suggests that every Egyptian, even the most apolitical family, is a member of the struggle against colonialism.

Ibrahim's arrival to the house represents an interruption of daily life. The family is forced to examine their role in the revolution and decide what side they are going to take. He is the stranger entering the personal sphere and during his visit, he leaves an impression on everyone in the house.

The film also takes place during Ramadan, a fact that is often mentioned by the characters, and religious morals play a large part in the story. In Days and Nights, religion was almost non-existent. By making Islam so prevalent in A Man in Our House, Barakat makes his film a more uniquely Egyptian work. Themes of resistance and revolution are nothing new in cinema, so by inserting elements of everyday Egyptian life, such as religion, Barakat marks his film as a nationalist work.

A Man in Our House does not spend much time providing context for the events taking place. Indeed, the film was made in the middle of the Gamal Abdel Nasser years in Egypt and the Egyptian revolution was still fresh in people's memories. Barakat overtly embraces Nasser's theory of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism and observes how these affect the average person trying to lead a normal life.

As also demonstrated in Day and Nights, subtlety is not Barakat's strong point. His middle-class-influenced moral and political messages are made very clear in the film's characters. The Egyptian police are seen abusing and mistreating political prisoners, nearly torturing Mohie to death. The fact that Abdel Hamid is uneducated, having dropped out of college, is repeatedly referenced when discussing his rudeness and immorality.

Essentially, Barakat suggests that a good person is also a nationalist. Resistence is the greatest virtue in the film, so much so that Ibrahim's romance with Nawal is sacrificed for freedom and Ibrahim becomes a martyr for his cause.

Just as Egypt fought to free itself from British colonials, Egyptian cinema struggled to create its own identity separate from Hollywood and other Western cinema. This decolonization of cinema is a problem that persists throughout the Middle East and is just as much an issue today as it was immediately following the Egyptian revolution. As stated in my last post, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman employs a blend of black humor and absurdity to reflect Palestinian reality and this style contributes to the development of a national cinema. This week, we see that Barakat calls upon religion and Egyptian middle-class morals to distinguish his cinema and represent basic elements of everyday life.

This question of national identity in cinema is one I will address more in the future. However, it is clear that the story of a physical resistance in A Man in our House creates the opportunity for artistic and psychological resistance to colonized art.