Daily Archives: October 8, 2011

Films From the South #3: Finding Ali (Sweden 2011)

The subject of 'Finding Ali' as he was in 2002.

It could be argued that this film is more ‘about the South’ than ‘from the South’ but it certainly worked for me as what felt like a much more authentic ‘voice’ from Afghanistan than most of the news or current affairs programmes that I have seen. It formed part of the festival’s documentary strand and in this specific screening also part of a strand termed ‘The Critical Room’ in a session titled ‘Afghanistan – the Civil Society’. This comprised a discussion before the screening in which three panelists offered personal viewpoints on the prospects for civil society in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces in 2014. The panelists were Director of PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) Kristian Berg Harpviken, leader of the Afghanistan Comittee Linda Våge and the Iranian filmmaker and author of the international bestseller Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep (2002) Siba Shakib. The debate was convened by Jarle Roheim Håkonsen from NRK (Norwegian Public Service Broadcaster).

I was very impressed by the level of debate and contributions from the floor. I thought the convenor asked some ‘leading’ questions about the potential pragmatism of the Taliban but the three panelists gave much more considered answers. The consensus seemed to be that the best hope for Afghanistan was that left to its own devices a stronger civil society in the country could deal with the Taliban in its own way and that the best support for the Afghanis would be concrete infrastructure improvements such as roads, power supply, transportation systems etc. – and not the failed American-funded efforts which have so far not delivered. Interestingly much of what the panel (and the audience) said was re-iterated in the film.

Pål Hollender introduces his film

Finding Ali was written, directed and filmed by Pål Hollender for his own production company and was presented via a 2K digital print on what is, I think, the biggest screen used during the festival. It looked terrific. Hollender had first visited Afghanistan with his camera in 2001 and had befriended a nine year-old Afghan boy, Ali. The boy had a real personality and quickly learned sufficient English in Kabul (where his father had a shop) to converse quite freely on his feelings about the situation he found himself in. Hollender decided ten years on to return to Afghanistan and to try to find Ali to see how he had changed, along with the country. He cleverly structures his documentary narrative so that first we only see the younger Ali in clips from the earlier film as Hollender tours the country asking local police about the boy – mainly, I think, as an excuse to expose some of the local conditions. He finds Ali eventually.

Hollender is to some extent a ‘performer’ in his documentary but not in the same way that a Michael Moore or a Nick Broomfield takes over (and ‘provokes’) the action. I found Hollender more engaging and quite witty in his attempts to get points across. Some of what he uncovers is quite mind-boggling, including the luxury hotel and armour-plated vehicles used by some western personnel. Later on in the film he becomes the centre of a quite dramatic sequence but mostly he allows ordinary Afghanis (all men except for a single woman) to speak directly to camera and what they say is quite revealing – and quite shaming for western supporters of the ‘War Against Terror’. (Hollender recognises the difficulties he faces attempting to ask women to speak.) There are a few cinematic devices in the film such as occasional freeze frames but Hollender’s strength is finding simple but powerful images. He’s also good on simple historical observations, e.g. showing how Kabul looked in the 1960s. In fact he finishes on what should be a much better-known quotation from the British General who in 1880 suggested to London that the best policy was to “leave the Afghans alone and they will have less reason to hate us”.  The British Raj in India has a lot to answer for, but not all its leaders were fools. Finding Ali deserves a cinema release – I hope the 2K print means that it will get one in Scandinavia at least.

Here’s a taste from YouTube:

Films From the South #2: Man Without a Cellphone (Bidoun Mobile, Palestine/Israel/Fra/Bel/Qatar 2010)

Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh) uses his phone in the field by the mast as his father Salem (Basem Loulou) looks on.

This witty and sharp little film (only 78 mins) is one of several recent productions from Arab filmmakers that defy easy categorisation in institutional terms. Director Sameh Zoabi was born in a village close to Nazareth in 1975 and took a joint English and Film degree at Tel Aviv before completing a Masters in Film Direction at Columbia University in New York. This is his first feature after critical acclaim for his 2005 short film Be Quiet at Cannes. Supported by two Israeli Film Council backed funding bodies plus French and Belgian funding as well as support from Sundance and the Doha Film Institute, Man Without Cellphone pokes at the sore issue of Palestinian identity within Israel’s declared borders – Palestinian land first occupied after 1948, rather than in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In a personal statement on the Memento Films website, Sameh Zoabi tells us:

Growing up, our own communities and schools are not integrated into the larger Israeli society. After high school, many young people flock to universities and the work place where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self-discovery for young adults across all cultures, but it is particularly unique to Palestinian-Israelis, who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region, and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people.

In finding a way to explore these ‘personal stories’, Zoabi hits on a number of ideas that have also turned up in two other productions from the region, the Israeli film The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian film Rana’s Wedding. In this case it is not a Palestinian lemon orchard but an olive grove that sits next to an Israeli development. The new development is a mobile phone mast which improves the reception of the villagers (both Arab and Jewish communities) but angers the older farmers including Salem who owns the olives and believes the mast is sending out radiation to give the Arab villagers cancer and to ruin the olive crop. But his 20 year-old son Jawdat enjoys the new reception and is more interested in dating girls – Muslim or Christian Arabs, or even Jewish or Russian. The twist is that Jawdat has no real future because he keeps failing the Hebrew entrance test for university – unlike his sister who is already there. The plot requires Jawdat to be reconciled with his father in order to galvanise the community fight to have the phone tower removed and this is achieved (i.e. Jawdat does help) by that standby of Palestinian films, the need to get permission to cross into the West Bank (thus the link to Rana’s Wedding, a serio-comic film narrative about organising movement between Jerusalem and Ramallah). I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure of Man Without a Cellphone any more, suffice to say that the narrative device works well. I should also note that the interaction of the men and women (old and young) in the village is treated in ways similar to that in the Nadine Labaki film we saw yesterday.

I enjoyed the film very much. There are plenty of laughs and Jawdat and his friend Muhammad are very likeable characters. But the dig at both generational conflicts within the Palestinian communities and the unjust treatment of Arabs in Israel is clear throughout. I hope the film gets widely seen. My only concern is the length. ‘Short’ features like this often fail to get distribution or are shunned by audiences. I felt that some elements of the narrative could have been extended – but perhaps budget constraints were the problem.

Go here to see the ‘pitch preview’ of the film on the website of the Doha Film Institute.