The Personal is Geopolitical

Horror and grace at the Third Annual Arab Film Festival

The name "Osama" elicits negative reactions in our post-September 11 society. But while there is only one Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda leader, there are many other Osamas who are ordinary Joes. They are businessmen, computer technicians, and musicians, as in the case of the six men featured in Mahmoud Kaabour and Tim Schwab's 2004 documentary Being Osama. Each of the film's subjects has experienced a range of reactions to his name, from uneasy jokes to blatant discrimination. A lack of understanding lies within this discomfort, and thus the six Osamas represent a problem endemic in the Arab diaspora today. Being defined by the actions of a few leaves many Arabs in the position of having to explain and often defend their history and culture to the rest of the world. The personal becomes symbolic, which becomes problematic on a daily basis.

Through its journal and the various arts events it produces, the local organization Mizna gives voice to Arab culture and seeks to shatter stereotypes and foster greater understanding. Its third annual Arab Film Festival opens this week with over 35 features, shorts, and documentaries (including Being Osama). Viewing even a sample of the festival's offerings provides a rare opportunity to learn more about what lies beyond the headlines, and discover universal truths that transcend geopolitical, religious, and racial boundaries.

Jack Janssen's 2003 documentary, We Loved Each Other So Much, for example, examines the influence of one pop singer, Fairuz, on the people of Lebanon. For years her voice has united people who have been divided on so many issues. Muslim, Christian, radical, conservative--all seem to revere Fairuz, not only for her skill but also her ability to summon fond memories of an era before the civil war began in 1975, back when Beirut was the "Paris of the Middle East." Various fans are interviewed, including a woman injured by a car bomb, a record collector, and a cab driver who's dismayed by the current state of his country. Throughout the film Fairuz remains as mysterious as her music, which is appropriate. Her singing, filled with longing, provides a soundtrack conjuring the lost promise of the past, and a tentative hope for the future.

The soundtrack of their lives: 'We Loved Each Other So Much'
Mizna
The soundtrack of their lives: 'We Loved Each Other So Much'

Nouri Bouzid's 2003 feature Clay Dolls summons up a similar set of complex emotional reactions. The film tells the story of Omrane (Ahmed Hefiane), a scruffy man who recruits girls and young women from the poor provinces to work in wealthy homes in Tunis. His life is triangulated by two of his recruits, the rebellious Rebeh (Hend Sabri) and impish Fedhah (Ourneyma Ben Afsia). Rebeh refuses to live in servitude, while Fedhah is forced to reclaim her childhood from a home where sickness, discipline, and dirty dishes rule her daily life. Bouzid's film provides an intimate glimpse into the dynamics of an underground trade and leaves open the question of why wealthy city dwellers would hire children to work for them at slave wages. The director trips up, however, by relying on an increasingly erratic pace. The film bounces back and forth between Omrane and Rebeh's uncertain romantic dance and Fedhah's troubles, pausing only briefly to ponder the moral dilemma Omrane faces and the means he employs to assuage his guilt.

On the other hand, Private, Saverio Costanzo's 2004 feature about a Palestinian family forced to endure the occupation of their home by members of the Israeli army, lays bare both the hearts and minds of its characters. The Italian film (denied entry by Italy for Academy Award considerations because its primary languages are Arabic and English) was inspired by actual events. The father, Mohammed (Mohammed Bakri), is determined not to be driven from his property, but his resolve creates tension within the family. The occupation of the house serves as a micro version of the entire Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and each family member must attempt to cope. A young daughter, caught in a gunfight, is numb with fear, while her older sister risks everything to sneak into the soldiers' stronghold on the second floor and spy on their activities. The eldest son grows weary and plots revenge. Each night the entire family is crammed into their living room and must endure constant shooting, the crude demands of the soldiers, and the utter humiliation of losing control. The film brings up a host of issues including the dynamics of pride, the loss of dignity, and the impact constant degradation has on younger generations. Frantic confusion is mixed with moments of peace, providing an effective counterpoint to the tumult in the family members' lives. It's a poignant story, filled with moments of horror and grace.

The festival includes several shorts, the most topical of which is "Where Is Iraq?" by Baz Shamoun. Shot in Jordan, on the border with Iraq, the film documents conversations between Iraqis who cannot cross back into their country. While waiting at a roadside coffee shop, they debate the fate of Iraq and the reasons behind the war. Life is put on hold by the promises (kept or broken) of the occupier. Like the family in Private, these men have lost control, their actions circumscribed by the whims of others. So much time is wasted, it seems, while others do the defining.

 
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