Sound and effects courtesy of the IDF
While in Israel people are waiting impatiently to see whether "Beaufort" will be the first Israeli film to win an Oscar, and after the local film industry experienced particularly impressive momentum at the important international festivals, there are signs of awakening among our neighbors to the east and the north. The film industries of Jordan and Lebanon have recently produced interesting films, and there is increasing curiosity worldwide about films originating in the Middle East.
This year, 983 films were submitted to the Sundance Film Festival Independent Feature Film Competition, which took place last month in Utah. Sixteen of them ended up being chosen to participate in the competition, and of those, three came from the Middle East. The triple summit in Utah included the Jordanian film "Captain Abu Raed," directed by Amin Matalqa, the Israeli "Strangers" (Zarim), directed by Erez Tadmor and Guy Nativ, and from Lebanon, "Sous les bombes" (Under the Bombs), directed by Philippe Aractingi.
The most interesting of the three was "Captain Abu Raed," which is the first Jordanian film to be screened abroad. Matalqa, 32, a native of Jordan who was educated in the United States, wrote the script in Los Angeles, where he lives. He raised the $2 million budget from private investors in Jordan, through a production company that he established with his mother and with Hollywood producer David Pritchard ("The Simpsons," "Family Guy"). Filming took place last year in Amman, and the Jordanian media demonstrated tremendous interest in the movie. "The film created a huge buzz and encouraged people to start getting involved in cinema," said Matalqa recently.
The title role is played by Jordanian-British actor Nadim Sawalha ("Syriana," "The Return of the Pink Panther"). He plays a maintenance man at the Amman airport, who has never left the borders of his country. One day he dons a pilot's cap that he found in the garbage can. After the children in the poor neighborhood where he lives begin treating him as if he really were a pilot, he gives in to their pleading that he tell them stories about his trips. The stories that Abu Raed invents pull him into a world of fantasy and lead to strong ties between him and the children. Two months ago, at the Dubai Film Festival, Sawalha won the prize for best actor for his performance.
"Captain Abu Raed" was not the only Jordanian film accepted into the official Sundance competition this year. The documentary "Recycle," written and directed by Mahmoud al Massad, was also invited to take part in the festival's international documentary competion. For a country with such a meager film industry, the participation of two films in official competitions of one of the world's most important festivals is undoubtedly a very impressive achievement.
As opposed to Matalqa, who preferred to refrain from discussing political issues, Al Massad did not hesitate to burrow through some of the region's open wounds. "Recycle" documents the life of a former Islamic jihadi, who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and who now lives in the town of Zarqa near Amman. After deciding to retire from political activity, he finds that he has to struggle just to survive, to support his family and to define his identity.
Last year, Israel's double success at Sundance - Dror Shaul's "Sweet Mud" (Adama Meshuga'at) won the grand jury prize for the best foreign feature film, and "Hot House" (Bithoni'im), the documentary by Shimon Dotan, won a special jury prize - marked the beginning of a year of impressive successes for Israeli films abroad. Last month, at the award ceremony of the leading American festival for independent film, the signal was given for the beginning of celebrations on the other side of the Jordan. Both of the films from the Hashemite Kingdom were sent home from Sundance with awards: "Recycle" with the World Cinema Cinematography Award, and "Captain Abu Raed" with the World Cinema Audience Award for best foreign feature film.
"The audience gave us a standing ovation at all the screenings, people laughed and cried. It was amazing to see that we had achieved exactly the goal we had set ourselves," said director Matalqa to a reporter for Variety. And the moment the spectators are enthusiastic, the distributors are of course right behind: Two large American distributors are competing for the distribution rights to the film, "in a deal that is likely to be the largest ever signed for an Arab film," according to Variety. In the wake of the success, Matalqa has already begun work on his next film, with the same cast, this time with a budget of $3-5 million.
Al Massad is also already working on his next film. This time he is planning a humorous feature, partly autobiographical, centering on a failing filmmaker who returns to Jordan and struggles to complete his documentary. "Everyone in this film is a failure. That's why I like it," he told Variety. "Usually the Middle East is presented in a serious way, but this time it will be a film that is full of humor."
Meanwhile, films from and about Lebanon have also been attracting international attention. Of course there is Cedar's "Beaufort," which won its Israeli creator the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and is now a candidate for the Oscar for the best foreign-language film. Last month's Sundance, too, showcased two films about the Second Lebanon War: The Israeli "Strangers" (written and directed by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor) presented a love story between a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man that takes place in Germany against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Lebanon, whereas "Under the Bombs" finally offered a Lebanese view of that war.
Although it is a feature film, Aractingi's film presents authentic scenes of destruction and ruin left by the war. The director decided to make the film two days after the start of the fighting on the Israel-Lebanon border, and even before the battles had subsided, he began filming, with a only a partial script and four actors, who had to improvise large parts of the film.
The movie's plot involves a Lebanese woman who returns to her homeland from Dubai in the summer of 2006, and who, in spite of the heavy bombing, convinces a taxi driver to take her on a dangerous journey in the bleeding and scarred southern part of the country. There she searches for her son and her sister, and also finds the emotional energy to become involved romantically with the taxi driver. UN soldiers encountered by the film crew appear in the film as themselves, as do the inhabitants of villages in South Lebanon, who talk before the camera about their life under the shelling of the Israel Defense Forces.
Even before it was accepted to the official Sundance competition, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the EIUC Human Rights Film Award (alongside films by Ken Loach and Jonathan Demme).
Another example of the flourishing of the Lebanese film industry is "Caramel," the debut effort of director Nadine Labaki, which also had its premiere at Cannes last year. Labaki preferred not to use the rich materials offered by the ongoing regional conflict; instead she centered her film around five women who meet in a beauty parlor in the heart of Beirut and share their experiences with one another. The film quickly became one of Lebanon's most successful pictures ever: It has been screened at many festivals, was chosen to be Lebanon's representative for the Oscars (it is not one of the five nominees), is screening commercially in over 40 countries, and has raked in revenues of $7.6 million to date.
Although the Lebanese film industry is more developed than the Jordanian one - the former usually generates two to three films a year - it too is tiny compared to the unquestioned ruler of Arab cinema, Egypt, which produces about 20 full-length features annually. But recently more and more Arab countries have demonstrated their interest in making a mark on the Middle East cinema map. The United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - all produced full-length features for the first time during the past two years.
No Arab state provides public support for cinema, but several new foundations are likely to make it easier for filmmakers to bankroll their projects. The Arab Cinema Institute, which was founded in 2005 in Jordan and is supposed to get into full swing this year, plans to support three full-length films every year; the Gulf states have foundations offering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of support to Arabic films designated for international distribution; Queen Noor, the widow of Jordan's King Hussein, last month announced the establishment of a $100 million foundation, with the support of the UN, which will invest in films that shatter stereotypes and present intercultural relations on the screen.
For Israel, this success will not make it possible to watch films here that are produced on the other side of the border, and vice versa. As long as the Cairo and Abu Dhabi festivals continue to refuse to screen Israeli films, and as long as Israeli film distributors and local broadcasting groups don't make an effort to present films from neighboring countries, the vision of a new Middle East will take place only in dark theaters and at glittering festivals in distant countries.