Fertile crescents

Everyday "mysteries" get dispelled in a rich festival of Arab cinema.

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 am

Instead of viewing the East from the West, why not have a look at the East from the East? Do it at the second annual Middle Eastern and North African Film Festival (MENA), presented this weekend (May 17-19) at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn by Ahlam Film Group, a local alliance of Arab-American filmmakers. By exposing U.S. audiences to films that reflect the vast diversity in the Middle East, Ahlam Film Group hopes to destroy blanket Arab stereotypes and dispel the effects of Orientalism, unveiling the intricate layers within this multiculture through individual insights from an inside perspective.

MENA will present a series of documentary, feature and very short films, such as Michel Kammoun’s La Douche, a Lebanese film about a possessed bathroom that could either be looked at as a silly, surreal experiment or a symbolic loss of control at home when everyday environments take over. The shorts can be as innocuous as Taxi Service (France-Lebanon), a simple taxi fare gone wrong with a loony-on-the-loose punch line — or as grave and severe as Diary of a Male Whore by Palestinian filmmaker Tawfik Abu Wael. The latter is short but tough, slapping us awake with lines such as “The chicken and the goat were my first females,” then proceeding to lead us into a nasty cul-de-sac of physical pleasures and “pleasurable” violence. Diary is a beautifully bruised and deplorable depiction of flesh colliding with flesh, while conquering is confused with connecting.

Another little gem to watch for is Satellite Shooters (United States-Palestine) by Annemarie Jacer. Tawfiq, an Arab youth in America seduced by the language, manner and dress of the Hollywood western proposes to hook up with fellow west-obsessed “The Kid.” But this white-bread American turns his nose up at Tawfiq, until he finds out he’s from Bethlehem: “Just like the baby Jesus.” The Kid decides that someone from “The Holy Land” would make a perfect virtuous partner, and they embark on a crusade to clean up all the un-modest evils spread by satellite dishes. The combination of hokey, regurgitated cowboy-speak with low-tech acting, suburban surreal situations (like when things get too hot and they have to hide out at Tawfiq’s family’s home) and the metaphorical implications of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations makes for good entertainment and food for thought.

As one of MENA’s feature-length films, A Girl’s Secret (Egypt, dir. Magdy Ahmed Ali) explores the outrages of life within traditional ethics through the story of Yasmeen, a slightly spoiled 16-year-old girl in a proper, Egyptian middle-class family. At her cousin’s birthday party, Yasmeen is depressed with a cold. She decides to spend the night at her aunt’s house anyway, sweating and whimpering in bed until she goes to the bathroom to suffer in private, cramped over with dark fluids dripping down her leg until … shhh, it’s a secret, one that causes the world around her to turn absurd.

When it comes to heart-crushing documentaries, there’s plenty to choose from. Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (Palestine-United States) chronicles the lives of Mona and Manar, two teenage Palestinian refugees living in separate camps in Beirut and Bethlehem, respectively. Their daily lives include birthday parties, reading love letters and hurling rocks against Israeli bullets, because you have nothing to lose when you have next to nothing. The graffiti on Manar’s camp wall says it all: “No peace without the exercise of our right to return.”

Moroccan-born filmmaker Hakim Belebese, an Arab-American living in Chicago, has two films included in the festival: Whispers, a short visual poem on trying to catch up with a memory; and Boujad: A Nest in the Heat, a very personal illustration of the filmmaker’s struggle with being loyal to his family while trying to pursue individual dreams. Boujad taps into universal fears embedded in the restructuring of roles within the family from generation to generation, a process woven with guilt, love, ritual and a lot of tears.

Shatter Hassan (Jordan-The Netherlands) by Mahmoud Al Massad unfolds the lyrical disenchantment of a childhood hero (the invincible Hassan the smart) through the trials of a self-displaced “Hassan” in the Netherlands. Massad portrays this scarred homeless man, playing a flute made of plastic pipe, with the charm and magic of a childhood eye through bewitching camera work, only to rip away the illusion, then patch it back up again with a more substantial dream.

For more information and a complete list and schedule of the MENA Film Festival, visit www.ahlamfilmgroup.org or call 313-628-4919.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].