Marha, Marha! Middle East Film Festival!

by Noor Adilah (17S06B)

A woman drives a car down a Saudi Arabian street wearing a fake moustache, donning men’s clothes.

20 people on opposite sides of a brutal protest spend hours trapped together inside a police van.

A man, depressed and hopeless, makes plans to blow himself up.

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Marha, Marha!

These are just a few scenes from the 4 movies recently screened at The Projector during the 2016 Middle East Film Festival, organised by The Middle East Institute (NUS). The film fest aimed to be a “celebration of the region’s diversity and strengths”. It showcased 4 films created in 4 different countries: Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The 4 films have gathered a total of 6 nominations and 4 awards at distinguished film award societies, such as the Oscars and the Berlinale.

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Middle East Film Fest!

These films, as foreign and critically acclaimed as they may be, still appealed to me — a student armed with little Arabic facility, an admittedly limited experience of Middle Eastern politics and only a small repertoire of the skills required to critically appraise a film. This must have been due to the fact that these films allowed me to humanise certain aspects of the region, by pushing narratives of real human experiences to the forefront of national issues, instead of the otherwise detached and almost clinical perspective of the news we hear from overseas.

In simpler terms, these films put real stories to the headlines. As much as this article is intended to review the films, it also serves as a meditation on the importance of watching foreign cinema, to shed light on the human stories behind headlines, statistics and stereotypes.

خانه پدری – The Paternal House (2012)
directed by Kianoush Ayyari

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“Won’t open it.” – “You’re making a gross mistake, you shrew!”

This was the first film I watched of the four. Admittedly, I had watched snippets of it and read about the film before, so I tried my best to prepare for some of the truly disturbing scenes that the writeups promised. This film, which progresses through the timeline of a closed-off Iranian family, explores the taboo subject of honour killings – the practice of killing a family member (usually a woman) for bringing shame or dishonour to the family, after being a victim of rape, for marriage out of wedlock, or even for dressing in “inappropriate ways”.

The film begins with the violent scene of a father trying to get into a room to kill his own daughter. In one part of the scene, we see the woman leaning against a wall, screaming, watching her father’s silhouette as he tries to break into the room. Blood flows down between her legs. The father eventually kills his daughter. He buries her corpse in the cellar, his wife and son bearing witness to his actions.

The film not only explores the subject of honour killings and Iran’s societal faults, but, more universally, the workings of totalitarianism in stripping civilians of their basic human rights.

This film scared me greatly, and left me completely devastated for the whole week. To merely know of honour killings will not supply anyone with knowledge to the full extent of the situation. In fact, watching the film exposed even more of my own ignorance about the subject. It brings depth and a chilling fear appropriate to the reality of honour killings. I would recommend this film to those who wish to have a deeper understanding of how dictatorships, more specifically Iran’s political situation, can reinforce and create an environment of violence and brutality in both a citizen’s private and public spheres.

اشتباك – Clash (2016)
directed by Mohamed Diab

Clash is a fast-paced Egyptian movie centering around the protests of the June 30 Revolution, which saw hoards of Egyptians – roughly 14 million – demanding the immediate resignation of president Mohamed Morsi. This resulted in a complete overthrow of the government. Al Jazeera aptly dubbed the entire event “Egypt’s Pandora’s Box“. Amongst other things, citizens felt outraged that Morsi had manipulated the entire system of the government to work in his favour, pushing for an “Islamic-led” government and almost complete control of governing systems through the controversial Draft Constitution of Egypt.

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“They think we are Muslim Brotherhood. But they can’t get us.”

I imagine Mohamed Diab would have gone through a lot of trouble in trying to find a way to represent the complexity of the situation within the limited constraints of a movie set. But he managed to pull it off perfectly in a stroke of genius. How? By filming the entire movie in the confines of one 8m police truck.

The site of such police trucks was not uncommon during the protests. Once the police felt that a certain protestor was acting too unruly or could cause controversy, they would throw the person onto a nearby police truck (often unjustifiably so). Such trucks could hold 20–25 people, and would often be jam-packed with journalists, protestors, and innocent civilians. Diab aimed to capture the different viewpoints of the riot by placing different characters with vastly polarised viewpoints together in the confines of the police truck. With this, he could seamlessly weave in a narrative that represented this conflict amongst countrymen in an organic manner.

This film was well written and expertly shot. It conveyed hard truths through heart-wrenching dialogue in brilliant cinematography. Credits also to Diab for writing in two strong-willed women who fought hard for their beliefs and stood up for themselves in the confines of a van filled with angry, violent men.

Watch the trailer here. English captions unavailable.

بركة يقابل بركة – Barakah Meets Barakahh (2016)
directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh

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“Barakah. You are a grown man now. You need a partner to take care of your house and clothes.”

Amidst the heavily-themed films that discuss political turmoil, refugee crises, and honour killings, this movie is a gem. It centers around two characters who just happen to have the same name – Barakah. Barakah, the man, is a shy young civil servant who penalizes minor infractions of the law for a living, but dreams of becoming an actor. Through his work, he meets Bibi (short for Barakah), a famous social media star who is also unsatisfied with just modelling abaya after abaya.

The two instantly click and begin dating – which would be a-ok if they were dating in any other country. But they happen to be right smack in the middle of Saudi Arabia, where even being alone with a person of the opposite sex can be punishable by law. They skirt around each other in funny ways, but a darker, heavier undertone is always present in the film – that maybe some of these “precautions” and “laws” are ridiculous, and more importantly, oppressive.

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An uncovered woman. The sea. A box of chocolates. Barakah Meets Barakah challenges everything you think you knew about Saudi Arabia.

The movie also explores the history of the Middle East, and how it was not always the way it is today. In a tender moment, we catch Barakah reminiscing about the days when he saw cafes and cinemas in the streets.

This adorable love story – and dare I say – Arabic rom-com, is charming and beautifully shot. But it also explores deeper concepts of censorship, civil (dis)obedience and the importance of earnest romance between two individuals.

Watch the trailer here.

علم ليس لنا – A World Not Ours (2012)
directed by Mahdi Fleifel

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“My friends in Europe have never understood why I’d spend my holidays in a place like this.”

I’m glad to end this review with my favourite of the four. This movie is a staged biography of sorts, where the narrator brings viewers around a Lebanese refugee camp that houses thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict in their homeland. I cannot adequately explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the confines of this article, so I would recommend all readers to try and embark on your own journey of fact-finding about this conflict, not just to understand this movie, but to be a more socially-informed citizen of the world.

The film follows three generations of a Palestinian family that lives in the confines of Ain El-Helweh, a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Mahdi Fleifel dives deeper into the relationship of the narrator with his friend, Abu Eyad. The narrator (Fleifel himself) has settled in Denmark with his family but returns regularly to El-Helweh, where he reconnects with his friend Abu Eyad, who has to stay there. He watches Abu Eyad grow slowly more and more discontented with life in the refugee camp. With little to live for, and in the throes of depression, Abu Eyad contemplates suicide. In the stunning scene below, Abu Eyad says, “I want to go on a mission and blow myself up, man. I bet most of the guys who blew themselves up felt the same way I do. They just used Palestine as an excuse to end their lives.”

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“Nothing has changed.”

This film is an enlightening look on how living conditions, politics and disenfranchisement can polarise normal citizens and create terrorists. It is also a representative depiction of the lives that many Palestinians go through when faced with the challenges of displacement and discrimination. However, the film is peppered with very wonderful moments of humour and clarity, which leaves audience members with a yearning to understand more about the situation, while understanding the very real human emotions and stories behind the crisis. All in all, this film balances the weight of human issues and the reality of displacement with the light-hearted wholeness of human relationships.

Watch the trailer here.

The Middle East Film Festival has definitely attained its goal of spreading awareness and celebrating the region’s strengths and weaknesses. I highly recommend watching any, if not all of the films for new perspectives and renewed enthusiasm to involve yourself in the region’s issues.

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