Every feature film from the Middle East shown at the Toronto International Film Festival touched on the theme of terrorism, war and/or religious fundamentalism. And the story was often set amidst scenes of chaos, devastation and brutal oppression. Exceptions include the Iranian films I covered earlier and some Israeli films which usually ignore the violent Occupation consuming the country.
In 2006, Iraq reached its highest level of violence. Saddam was hanged and the US began training Iraqis to kill each other so American soldiers could leave. The Journey takes place at this volatile time, when a young woman, not unlike many others brutalized during the senseless imperialist war, decides to strap explosives on her body as a desperate but religious act of sacrifice. The carefully paced drama is void of dialog for most of the first hour as she travels through the crowded train station deciding who will be her victims. Looking for soldiers who “came to save her country” or other criminals who had filled the void of disorder brought on by the foreign invasion, she makes friends with an unlikely conman after she shows him her hidden weapon. She begins to rethink her life and her mission, as the story takes on amazing twists and turns keeping the audience on edge throughout. Side stories include two young siblings struggling to survive selling flowers and shoeshines. There are references to the US having created this mess, demonstrated in one scene where soldiers brutally interrogate the woman. The stark reality and tension is occasionally offset by scenes of fantasy that harken back to a time of normalcy -- a band playing for a wedding in the train station; a traditional fireworks display for the enjoyment of the people. Without giving the film away, director Mohamed Jabarah Al-daradji, using impressive non-professional actors, teases the audience with a questionable ending, much like the questionable departure of US troops. Did she pull the bomb or not? Did Americans really leave? Could this film based on real incidents been any more powerful and relevant?
Another film with a deep conviction and compelling story is Black Kite , an Afghani drama that follows a family through three generations of political upheaval in the war torn country. The film begins with an old man being sentenced to be hung the next day. He's placed in a cell overnight with a young man bearing the same fate, and they become friends. In flashbacks, he tells his life story about being a kite maker, (a national sport in the country) who sends his son off to school – the first in his family to be educated. The son fails school and falls back on the family tradition of kite making. He carries on the tradition with his daughter, but now kite flying is illegal in Afghanistan. And that's the power of this moving story. It parallels the effects on the family members as the country goes through successive types of governments: the 40 year monarchic reign of Zahir Shah who at least liberalized education; the bloodless 1973 coup bringing to power the first president; and neutrality during WWII and the Cold War until the communist revolution of 1978. The government called in the Soviets for assistance against the mujahideen who were trained and funded by the US, eventually bringing in the rule of the Pakistan-backed Taliban. And we all know what happened next. This movie is an emotional and stylish work of art with great acting and a strong musical score, that will bring greater understanding to the human cost that the people of Afghanistan have endured.
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AzmaiA Journey Through the Subcontinent is a penetrating insiders view as Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar and popular Indian Bollywood actress, Kalki Koechlin journey through their homelands of Pakistan and India. In their travels they bring to light the common humanity of the many people of all economic, political and religious persuasions they interview. From the hustle and bustle of urban Mumbai, to the rural farmlands of Pakistan, people have much in common. But among the differences, they discover the sad decline of secularism and the formidable growth of fundamentalist Hinduism in India. Interestingly, while asking the question “What are your dreams?” in India, they always received some sort of a positive response, but in rural Pakistan, most replied “Why should I have a dream?”
This very thought-provoking cinematic travelogue needed more backstory, failing to address the impact of British colonialism, Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan, and US imperialist aims in the region. The Pakistani director and Indian actress, like most Pakistani and Indian citizens, have had little access to each other's country and its people, so this film is a huge step forward in understanding. But regrettably, because of the politics, the film will not be released in either country.
And finally, most people attending TIFF, seeing the many ads and posters showing an Arab man looking and dancing like Michael Jackson, were expecting a light and funny escapist film from Egypt. But the director of Sheikh Jackson was prompted to include “WARNING: This is NOT a comedy” on its publicity. Certainly not a comedy, it IS unique and somewhat farfetched at times, while also addressing a wide range of taboos in Muslim society. A young devout Egyptian imam is thrown into a spin when the musical hero of his youth dies. Flashbacks bring back memories of his school days, his questioning sexuality, the death of his mother, the cruelty of his father who quickly takes on another lover, and his strange obsession with a singer he thought was a transvestite, the iconic Michael Jackson. His failure with girls resulted in a deeply religious man who fathered 3 daughters who all loved him. The tender and loving story allows the viewer to rethink stereotypes in the Muslim world – and comedy in general.
As a side note, the director couldn’t get the rights for Jackson’s songs so substituted for sound-a-likes that feel authentic and move the story along anyways.