The Bush administration regularly reminds us that the "war on terror" isn't being fought against the whole Arab and Muslim world, but only against terrorists (who, of course, are anyone the administration sees convenient to label as such). At a press conference this past September 10, Donald Rumsfeld spoke ineloquently about "a small percentage of people of that religion that are trying to hijack that religion." Small percentage is the defense secretary's bid for sensitivity, but that religion, which he stressed angrily, is more revealing. Like a common bigot, he can't even name what vexes him--won't say Islam or Muslim. We are fighting those people, he says; it's us against them. The very essence of fundamentalism.
In his 1978 book Orientalism and elsewhere, Edward Said had much to say about how depictions of that religion and those people have been and are misrepresented, either demagogically or unwittingly, in the interest of domination and imperialism. Emmanuel Hamon's Selves and Others: A Portrait of Edward Said (Saturday at 4:00 p.m.) is one of 21 features and short films being shown as part of Mizna and Intermedia Arts' second annual Arab Film Festival. Said, who died of leukemia not long after this film was made, is seen in his Manhattan apartment, in his office at Columbia University, and at other spots around the city. Hamon keeps his camera moving, shooting his equable subject from various angles, often jumping from his face to his hands and back in what seems to be an effort to inject movement into a visually static film. But the effort is unnecessary. Said's thinking is so incisive, his critiques so vital, his manner so attractive, that Selves and Others appears as vibrant as the multi-patterned ensembles that the ever elegant Said wears for the interviews.
Said was born in Palestine to an affluent family (his father was a Christian and a U.S. citizen) and spent much of his youth in Cairo. As a teenager, he was sent to a Massachusetts prep school, and he spent the rest of his life in the States. Particularly relevant at this moment are Said's thoughts on the destructive tendency to lay special or exclusive claim on virtues and ideas, as when our leaders say that America is the cradle and propagator of freedom--as if freedom wasn't an ideal found in all cultures (and one that obviously precedes the American Revolution). This exclusivity and the negative corollaries it breeds--that the people of the East, for instance, don't value freedom--is particularly dire when promoted by those with great power. But it's just as bankrupt when used for the boosting of identity politics: Women are inclined toward pacifism, Jews are an especially inquisitive people, Arabs put on better film festivals than the Welsh.
This does, however, seem to be quite a fine film festival. It opens, alas, on a sour note with Egyptian director Hani Khalifa's Sleepless Nights (Sahar Al Leyali) (Thursday at 7:30 p.m.). Khalifa's frank and melodramatic look at the marital and sexual problems of four young upper-crust couples made the movie both a cause célebrè and a blockbuster. A culturally significant bad soap opera, though, is still a bad soap opera. On an opposite aesthetic pole sits Ibrahim Shaddad's "Human Being" (Saturday, part of a shorts presentation at 1:00 p.m.), a wonderful, dialogue-free movie that follows a Sudanese villager from city to country and through deep despair and broad comedy. Scenes of sorrow and joy abut disjointed images in this collagelike half-hour movie, the finest experimental Sudanese film I've ever seen.
Okay--it's the only experimental Sudanese film I've ever seen, but it sets a high standard. Similarly moving is Annemarie Jacir's Rana's Wedding (Saturday at 7:30 p.m., followed by a discussion with the director). Clara Khoury plays Rana, a young Palestinian woman who's suddenly faced with setting her life's course on a tight deadline. Her father, a man of means, gives her a list of five respectable men from which she can pick a bridegroom. If she doesn't want to marry from the A list, she must accompany her father to Cairo. But Rana will only marry for love, and heads out to find her forbidden boyfriend Khalil (Khalifa Natour), a theater director whose charm and wit may or may not exceed his interest in fidelity. Rana has to convince her lover, her father, and herself that she has to get married in a hurry--all the while navigating army roadblocks, violent clashes, unexpected street funerals, interminable encounters with the Israeli bureaucracy, and other realities of occupied Jerusalem. Despite its heroine's rush, Rana's Wedding is leisurely paced (sometimes to a fault), but its unsentimental romanticism is irresistible, and its depiction of a day in the life of a (well-off) second-class citizen is illuminating. It's something like Run Lola Run with more waiting than running, or The Graduate as filtered through Kafka's The Trial.
Egyptian filmmaker Tamer Ezzat's Everything Is Gonna Be Alright (Sunday at 4:00 p.m.) is an ideal companion to the Said documentary--so if you can see both, do. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ezzat was in downtown Manhattan on his way to pick up film equipment for a feature he had hoped to complete in New York City. The attacks of that day derailed his project, so he started making this simpler movie. Ezzat turned the camera on himself and interviewed other Egyptians living in New York about their experiences as Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. Starting with perhaps too broad a focus, the film feels diffuse at first. It catches fire as themes take shape and as we become better acquainted with the film's half-dozen or so subjects, who range from comfortable intellectuals to devout hot dog vendors. Osama Abdel-Aziz is a news producer for Fox TV who quit out of frustration with the network's tirelessly patriotic coverage. NYU professor Khaled Fahmy argues that living as an Arab in the U.S. today is like being an Indian in 19th-century Britain--with the key difference that the British Empire was a proud empire, whereas the American empire, in the minds of the public and the rhetoric of our leaders, doesn't exist.
But the most affecting interviews are with Youssef, a nine-year-old Egyptian American born and raised in New York City. After 9/11, he tells his father Hossam that he wants to change his name and no longer wants to be a Muslim. Youssef doesn't like that he shares a first name with one of the 9/11 hijackers, and he's convinced that his people are not liked in America. As evidence he cites the U.S.'s pro-Israel policies and general impressions he gets from the media, the sort of subtle and explicit stuff Said strove to point out. Youssef also has nightmares, so Hossam holds him and sings him Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," the chorus of which goes, "Don't worry/'Bout a thing/'Cause every little thing/Is gonna be all right." It works. Youssef is lulled to sleep and eventually decides not to renounce his heritage. Hossam is grateful for Marley's reassuring optimism. But it's a message he's no longer sure he believes.