The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2017)

Noredin (Fares Fares) interviews the singer (Hania Amar)

The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.

This  film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.

Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid is a witness

The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing  his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.

The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.

Trouble in the streets.

In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.

Here’s the UK trailer:

Theeb (Jordan/UAE/Qatar/UK 2014)

Theeb looks out across the desert

Theeb looks out across the desert

Here is one of the films of the year – a film both familiar and mysterious from a region with few cinemas and where filmmaking has traditionally been a struggle. Reading a little about the film before I watched it I thought this might be relatively conventional. I expected to enjoy the representation of the Arabian Desert but I was not expecting the complexity and richness of the narrative – nor the story that lay behind the production itself.

Director Naji Abu Nowar was born in the UK but now works out of Amman in Jordan and this is his first feature-length film co-written with Bassel Ghandour. The director has called the film “a Bedouin Western” and that certainly makes sense. But the genius of the film is to tell the story from the perspective of a young boy, Theeb (which in Arabic means ‘Wolf’). This reminded me of When I Saw You (2013) the Palestinian film shot mainly in Jordan that I saw earlier this year. Using the boy’s perspective means that the narrative proceeds via the logic of the enquiring mind of a mischievous boy rather than the conventional structure of adult storytelling. There are no on-screen titles to tell us where and when the story is set. We have to pick up scattered clues, mainly via what Theeb observes. A further difficulty is that discourse in Bedouin communities proceeds with formulaic traditional greetings and also through poems and aphorisms. Gradually we learn that Theeb is the youngest son of a sheikh who has recently died and that he is being taught about his role in the family by his older brother Hussein. When guests arrive in the middle of the night they must be welcomed and hospitality and family reputation means that their guests’ request for help in finding a local guide to take them to a well in the desert must be met. Hussein sets out to guide them through the dangerous territory. Theeb, intensely curious about who they are and where they are going, and not wanting to be parted from his brother, tracks them and eventually arrives in their camp. Whether they like it or not he is now part of a dangerous mission.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative because it is important that it unfolds slowly and with surprises. Instead, I’ll fill in the historical background which might help you enjoy the film. The story appears to be set in the Arabian Desert around 1916. Most of the Arab world at this time was part of the declining Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had lost their control over North Africa but hoped to keep suzerainty over what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Their plans included the building of the Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Medina in the Hejaz province (modern-day Western Saudi Arabia). The railway, completed in 1908 had two ostensible purposes. It meant Ottoman troops could be dispatched south not only to maintain control over Arab communities but also to deter attacks – by the British in particular. It also provided transport for travellers to Mecca making the Hajj. This latter threatened the livelihoods of many Bedouin who worked as guides through the desert. In 1916 the area just south of present day Jordan was dangerous because it contained various potential combatants – local Arabs wanting to use the confusion of war to stage rebellion against the Turks, British ‘insurgents’ aiming to attack the railway and Bedouin ‘marauders’ who had lost their livelihood and were forced to prey on travellers. The Turks themselves didn’t wander far from the railway line without considerable support.

Riding through the narrow dry gorges

Riding through the narrow dry gorges

In lots of ways the geopolitics of the region was similar to the mix in the border territories of Mexico and Texas over the long period from 1840-1920 – one of the locations for classic American Westerns with soldiers, cowboys, revolutionaries and Native Americans as well as Mexican peasants. The Arabian desert also resembles the deserts of Arizona with the equivalent of canyons, arroyos etc. The film was shot in wadis (dry stream beds – like arroyos) in Southern Jordan by Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, best known for his work with auteur Ulrich Seidl but also on many documentaries. One of the most discussed aspects of the film’s look concerns the images captured by Thaler using a new anamorphic lens, the Hawk V-Lite with a lightweight 16mm camera. This must have been easier to use in the desert than 35mm or digital film and the cost of stock is one third of the cost of 35mm. I’m frankly amazed at the quality achieved – Nowar has described the filming process as very difficult because of the desert environment. The music too, by British composer Jerry Lane, works well in conveying a sense of place and using Bedouin songs as inspiration. It’s Lane’s first feature credit after work on various documentary series with strong landscape elements. Rupert Lloyd, the film’s producer-editor is revealed in interviews to be very hands-on as an old friend of the director. This was clearly a close-knit crew working with non-actors from one of the few traditional Bedouin communities still in Jordan. I strongly recommend the film’s press pack (and more) on the New Wave website in which the director explains a great deal about how the film was made and what various aspects of the narrative ‘mean’ in terms of Bedouin culture. Apart from one British actor, all the cast are Bedouin non-actors. Theeb is played by Jacir Eid the Bedouin co-producer’s son and Hussein by the boy’s cousin, Hussein Salameh. Because Bedouin culture is primarily oral, a written script was not appropriate and the actors responded to the situations described to them.

After reading these comments about the production I was struck by the similarities between this film and Ten Canoes (Australia 2006) another film made by an outsider committed to helping a community represent itself as far as possible (and the subject of discussion in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book). In practical terms this means that when the film was released across the Arab world earlier this year (a rare achievement for a non-Egyptian film) it had to be subtitled in classical Arabic because local audiences would not necessarily understand the Bedouin dialects. What does this mean in terms of storytelling? Without spoiling the narrative I can say that the film ends with an action that poses a question for the audience: “Why did he do that?” The narrative is like the best psychological Westerns – how do people act and react in dangerous situations? What has their culture taught them about survival and the ‘right’ thing to do. Theeb, the wolf is an important symbol in Bedouin culture – a pack animal and part of a family, but also able to survive on its own. Naming a son Theeb is a strong statement and as the boy is told, the strong will always defeat the weak.

This film is a must see on the biggest cinema screen you can find (see the New Wave website for future screenings).

UK trailer:

When I Saw You (Palestine-Jordan-UAE-Greece 2012)

Tarek (Mustafa A and his mother Gayheeda (Ruba at the refugee camp

Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) at the refugee camp

When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.

The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?

I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.

When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:

Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)

Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.

When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.

Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:

Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.

Resources:

Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2012)

Wadjda and the object of her desire

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and the object of her desire. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Undoubtedly one of the most important global films of the last twelve months, Wadjda is highly entertaining and very well-made but also raises a number of questions for film culture and film studies.

Viewed simply as a ‘festival film’ that has ‘broken out’ into wider distribution, Wadjda comes across as a familiar feelgood narrative utilising a neo-realist approach – i.e. taking a simple narrative premise familiar to audiences the world over and locating it in a recognisable ‘real world’ setting. The writer-director is also canny enough to pick up on the success of other recent films in terms of specific story elements. Wadjda is a ten (or possibly twelve) year-old girl who decides that the only way to compete with her neighbour Abdullah is to get hold of a bicycle and race him. Spotting a new bicycle being delivered to a local store in her neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh she quickly determines that she must somehow acquire the 800 ryals (about £140 or $215) to buy it. Although her family is relatively wealthy, problems between her parents means that they are unlikely to produce the money for her, so she ends up entering a ‘religious competition’ at school in the hope of winning the prize which would be just enough for the purchase. Even though she has no obvious interest in her religion she applies herself to learning to read and recite sura (chapters) of the Koran.

Any story about young people and bicycles has already got a headstart on the opposition. The bicycle offers that sense of freedom for a young person without the means to ride taxis (Riyadh being seemingly without public transport). There are few scenes in cinema as liberating as those featuring boys and girls on bicycles, whether they are Truffaut’s Les Mistons, the messenger in Beijing Bicycle or the Dardennes Brothers’ Kid With a Bike. Wadjda has the two essential ingredients to exploit the the story potential – a winning performance by Waad Mohammed as the girl and a talented creative team with a skilled crew to fully utilise the location and settings. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour then fills out the story with two main sub-plots that arguably act metaphorically to reveal the social conditions and opportunities that face Wadjda (and all other Saudi girls) in the future.

The first of the two sub-plots involves Wadjda’s mother Reema who was married as a schoolgirl but whose husband is now looking for a second wife because Reema is unable to provide him with a son. At the same time, Reema faces problems as a working woman (in a society where women are not supposed to drive cars or be ‘exposed’ to men outside the home). The second sub-plot involves Ms Mussa, the principal of the school, an attractive younger woman (just like Reema) who appears to be a hard disciplinarian with a softer interior and who at one point tells Wadjda that she reminds her of her younger self.

The combination of the three narratives is reminiscent of another film featuring a young woman and a bicycle – Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000). The school/home axis also refers to the first half of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France/US 2006). These are both films featuring girls and women growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is not an Arab country but girls and women in Saudi Arabia face similar problems created by the restrictions of a highly conservative form of Islam. Herein lies the problem for Western film critics and scholars who have little exposure to the range of Arab film production. Popular Arab films from Egypt are not easily accessible. The films that do reach the West from Lebanon and Palestine often have different concerns with the effects of war and occupation often displacing the kinds of cultural issues central to Wadjda. Missing also is production coming from the affluent Gulf States where film culture in terms of consumption of mainly American movies in new multiplexes is growing quickly.

Director Haifaa Al Mansour  on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Director Haifaa Al Mansour on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

The result is that a film like Wadjda is singled out and praised as the first Saudi feature film – and a notable film by an Arab woman. The film narrative is then examined primarily in terms of its resistance to the representation of women in Saudi Arabian society. My feeling is that this in fact misrepresents the film itself and the filmmaker – who carries ‘the burden of representation’, being expected to fulfil the role assigned to her by Western media. Wadjda is properly described as a global film. Ironically, its Saudi base is the media company Rotana, arguably the biggest media corporation in the Middle East, which is majority owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal with an 18% stake held by News Corporation. Rotana is the biggest music company in the region and also produces television series for the Arab world. Reem Abdullah who plays the mother is a leading star of Saudi television. The film is officially a Saudi-German co-production. The department heads and the producers are from the German industry. Haifaa Al Mansour herself was born in Saudi Arabia but educated at the American University in Cairo and then completed a Masters in Film at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Bahrain. This background is important in placing the film’s production in context. It does mean that there is a contradiction between the image of the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ who had to hide from view as she directed scenes on the streets of Riyadh (so as not to offend religious sensibilities) and a production backed by one of the most powerful media interests in the region.

Wadjda's father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries

Wadjda’s father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Much of the coverage of the film’s appearance at festivals and now on release in the West focuses on the idea that this is the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was directed by a woman is then taken to be even more astounding. My point here is not intended as an attempt to downgrade the achievement of the director, but instead to expose the rather simplistic view of film and TV in the region as taken by many in the West. I’m not sure if the film is genuinely a ‘first’. I’ve seen claims that as many as 300 films have been identified in some way with Saudi Arabia and in his useful Guardian piece, Phil Hoad cites two recent examples. Since the 1980s cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they existed for a shortish period before the 1980s and cinema is accessible via satellite and DVD in homes – or over the border in the Emirates or Qatar. In 2009 Rotana did manage to screen one of their films in several Saudi cities. Does it really matter where the film is shot, who financed it or whether it is a co-production? The important point, as Hoad insists, is for Arab filmmakers generally and Saudis in particular, to create stories about themselves and to circulate them so that they can contribute to the creation of identities for Arabs and by Arabs – rather than through a lens controlled by Hollywood studios or constructed by Western critics.

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Haifaa Al Mansour has created an entertaining and engaging story which contributes towards the ongoing debate about how women can gain more control over their lives under a regime informed by conservative religious interests. In this sense, the film is similar to those family melodramas that have delved into the changing mores of societies in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. Here’s the director in the Press Notes commenting on the gender representations:

“Maybe it is a women‘s film! But I really didn‘t intend it that way. I wanted to make a film about things I know and experienced. A story that spoke to my experiences, but also to average Saudis. It was important for me that the male characters in the film were not portrayed just as simple stereotypes or villains. Both the men and the women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and behave in certain ways, and then forced to deal with the system’s consequences for whatever action they take. I do really like the scenes of the mother and the daughter together, and I think that a lot of love and emotion comes through in their relationship, when they are cooking or singing together, there is something very beautiful about it.”

This is certainly how I read the film. The performances are very good and the narrative is very accessible. I hope it gets the wider audiences it deserves. In the UK it is still showing in some cinemas and will appear on DVD in January 2014. Here’s an extract on the Doha Film Institute site:

http://www.dohafilminstitute.com/videos/wadjda-trailer#ooid=oweHNrNzqXY-QlWF1lucf7LkTMgzcY-l

And here are some useful links:

http://auteusetheory.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-2013.html

http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/jul/14/haifaa-mansour-wadjda-saudi-arabia

http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie-news/907541/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-interview

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-wadjda

http://www.arabnews.com/news/455973

Five Broken Cameras (Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands 2012)

The 'no-man's land' where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

The ‘no-man’s land’ where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

Five Broken Cameras is an engaging and well-made documentary. It’s affective in making us feel the emotions of the filmmaker who was compelled to complete it and it deserves the praise it has received and the audience interest it has attracted. The events it portrays are shocking and in a civilised world they would be one of the catalysts for change. But we don’t live in a civilised world and as yet there seems little sign that enough people in a position to change things have the courage to carry out changes.

Five Broken Cameras is a certain kind of documentary and that may also be part of the problem – though it shouldn’t necessarily be so. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The cameras of the title were each used by a Palestinian farmer to document the theft of his land by Israeli settlers illegally occupying territory in the West Bank to the west of Ramallah from 2005 onwards. The film doesn’t attempt to fill in all the history or to run through all the questions surrounding the Occupation of Palestine and the building of settlements which contravene international law as well as being (as in this case) illegal under Israeli law. Instead, it appeals directly to the viewer in terms of the obvious suffering of the Palestinians when they try to resist the bulldozers which uproot their olive trees and the Israeli soldiers and police who attack them with tear gas, arrest them and occasionally kill them during attempts to squash their protests.

Emad Burnat, the farmer at the centre of the film and the co-director (as well as the principal cinematographer, using the five cameras) was himself wounded and arrested and recorded the arrest of each of his brothers and the death of one of his comrades in the village during their protests. The co-director, writer and co-editor of the film is Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who trained partly in Paris and who lived in the Palestinian village of Bil’in for three months in 2005 when Emad began filming. But just as the film doesn’t elaborate on the history and politics of the situation, it also doesn’t explain/explore the Israeli support for the village protests – i.e. the Israeli activists who fight against the Occupation. They are shown and occasionally referenced but not in any detail. The same goes for the international supporters who travelled out to the West Bank to show solidarity. I’m not suggesting that there is anything sinister in this, but that it adds to the overall feeling that this is a very ‘personal’ film about a man and five cameras (each of which is damaged during the filming or deliberately smashed by Israeli soldiers). I suspect that this ‘personal’ approach has helped the film reach a wider audience, especially in North America, and it has been nominated for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Oscars. What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.

Emad states at the beginning of the film that he is a ‘fella’ – a peasant attached to his land. The rough land which supports only olive trees and a few sheep/goats has been the property of the families in the village since before anyone can remember. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees or the sheer vandalism of setting the trees on fire, even before the barbed wire has staked out the land grab by the settlers, is contrasted with the almost comical tree-hugging of one of the villagers. This is one of the most affecting shots in the film. The destruction of Palestinian olive groves is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Occupation alongside the Dividing Wall.

The one absolute plus of the film is that it celebrates the resistance over five years of the whole community in Bil’in. I’m sure that’s what stayed with the sizeable audience in the cinema. I hope the film wins the Oscar, if only because that will help more people to see the film. The more exposure that these stories get, the more chance we have of putting pressure on the Israeli government. There is one scene in the film in which we watch someone from the Israeli security forces deliberately shoot a protestor in the leg from only a few yards away. I wonder if the offender was brought to justice?

LFF 2012 #3: El taaib (The Repentant/Le repenti, Algeria-France 2012)

Rachid meets his father in his home village after deciding to ‘repent’

By the time of my third film of the day, I was very tired and this was a demanding film in the circumstances. This interesting review from Cine-Vue suggests that the film was well-chosen as part of the ‘Debate’ strand of the festival (a slide on-screen announces this after you’ve sat through the rather tedious festival filmed introduction sequence of a young woman watching films and stuffing herself with popcorn). I’m not sure that simply giving us ‘Debate’ – almost as a command – works for me, but having an Algerian filmmaker or critic present to introduce the film would have been good. LFF is actually quite good at this kind of thing.

Merzak Allouache is a veteran Algerian director (born in 1944) and I remember with pleasure his 1996 film Salut Cousin! about a North African visitor’s sometimes comic adventures in Paris while staying with his cousin. This new film is very different. A statement during the credits tells us that a ‘Repentant’ is the official term used by the Algerian authorities for ex-soldiers from the Islamist guerrilla groups who fought in the Algerian Civil War and who were prepared to come down from the mountains and forests, hand in their weapons and report to the police before resuming ‘normal’ life. One such is Rachid, whose appearance at the beginning of the film in his parent’s village creates a local stir with some villagers attacking him as the only available possible murderer of their family members. I didn’t pick up the precise time period for the action in the film but historically the story would fit in the period around 1999-2000 following the passing of legislation about ‘civil concord’.

Rachid reports to the police in the neighbouring town. He is offered a job in a café-bar arranged via the police and expected to start naming names. But when he discovers the identity of the local pharmacist, he feels compelled to act without telling the police. I won’t spoil the narrative. Suffice to say, we don’t know at first why the pharmacist is so important or where the story is going to go. Narrative information is given to us sparingly and there is a palpable sense of unease. The film is quite short (87 mins) and it ends rather abruptly. I think I agree with the Cine-Vue reviewer that some of the characters such as the (very reluctant) café owner and the local police chief who set up Rachid in his new identity need more time on screen.

The Algerian Civil War was brutal in many ways and it clearly isn’t ‘over’ yet. I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t succumb to over-optimistic outcomes. When I reflected on the narrative afterwards I thought this was a restrained and powerful little story. Having said that, I’m not sure what there is to debate. It’s a neglected war in terms of histories and contemporary media coverage, especially in the UK and it shouldn’t be – especially given recent events in the rest of the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world. The film doesn’t take sides or explain why the characters behave as they do, it just shows us some of the terrible consequences of civil war. Allouache himself says that he wanted to “question the amnesia” about the war in Algeria itself. He lives in France and made the film on location in just 20 days with little co-operation (but no banning restriction) from the Algerian cultural authorities. (See his statements in this Euromed Audio-Visual report – including some interesting comments about film culture in Algeria.)

The film was another to be screened in Cannes in Directors Fortnight and it was given a prize by Europa Cinema distributors. I hope it does get a wide release but I think, unfortunately, that it will be a hard sell in the international market. All the more reason then to be grateful to the LFF for bringing it over.

Another new Palestinian cinema

Great news, Palestinians in East Jerusalem now have the opportunity to go to the cinema again. The old al-Quds cinema, which was closed down a quarter of a century ago during the first intifada from 1987-1993 has re-opened as the Yabous Cultural Centre which includes a cinema. The opening programme included a ‘Freedoms Film Week’. Read the whole story here. And visit the ‘Electronic Intifada’ report here. The new 81-seat cinema is programmed by Rima Essa who has made some strong statements about trying to show Arab films as well as other international titles previously only available in cinemas in West Jerusalem at high prices for Palestinians.

I’m sorry we are a few weeks late reporting this one but it’s great to add a third cinema opening after those in Nablus and Jenin.