Extras, special: Moroccan comedy 'Waiting for Pasolini,' at the Arab Film Festival this year, turns townspeople into actors. (Photo by Daoud Aoulad-Syad, director of 'Waiting for Pasolini')

12th Arab Film Festival

Robert Avila October 20, 2008

Attendance at the San Francisco-based Arab Film Festival has grown steadily over the years. Currently celebrating its 12th season, the country’s first and now largest independent exhibitor of Arab cinema has gotten to be one of the bigger small fests the Bay Area spawns year-round with such cheerful abandon. Certainly AFF’s impressive growth has something to do with the general and increasing quality of the films it manages to procure from across the Arab world and its global diaspora—whether from formidable fonts of production like Egypt, expanding ones like Morocco and Algeria, or newer and heretofore untapped springs like Jordan (from whence two very different but equally acclaimed full-length films hail this year: the polished, poignant family feature Captain Abu Raed and the insightful and quietly potent doc Recycle).

Just as certainly AFF’s popularity has something to do with a public thirst for an alternate picture, some truer understanding of the vast Arab world beyond the dusty, dismaying stereotypes still pushed by mainstream media despite (because of?) the growing political urgency at stake in the matter. Indeed, as incoming executive director Michel Shehadeh noted in an interview with Michael Fox for SF360, Arab Americans make up a respectable but modest 25 percent of AFF’s audience. For a wide variety of Bay Area residents, the 12th Arab Film Festival—which opened last Thursday at the Castro Theatre with a screening of the Moroccan comedy Waiting for Pasolini and presentation of the second annual juried Noor ("light") Awards—provides an all too rare opportunity for cinematic adventure coupled with insight into a broad and vibrant section of humanity with which we are all to some degree connected. Who could be surprised if attendance again rises over last year?

The 70-plus films in the 2008 lineup (running through Oct 28 in three Bay Area cities and Los Angeles) cover the widest geographical spectrum so far, ranging over at least 16 countries. This includes such still under-charted territory as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (which offers one of its very first features ever in a 2006 psychological thriller about state thought-control, The Shadow of Silence), Yemen (proffering the eye-opening and harrowing doc Amina, about a young mother on death row), and Iraq (represented by several Iraqi-made short documentaries as well as one intimate long-form doc, After the Fall, worthy winner of the Noor Award for best full-length documentary). (The full list of offerings as well as related programs and attending guests appear on the festival’s website.)

Meanwhile, mainstays of Arab film production continue to offer much worth seeking out. North Africa, in particular, has been a dependable source of intriguing and skillful work in years past, with full-length fare encompassing a surprising breadth of styles and subjects. (Just consider the spectrum defined by two Tunisian films from AFF 2007: the politically and formally daring feature drama Making Of by internationally recognized craftsman Nouri Bouzid; and Nejib Belkadhi’s fascinatingly offbeat doc about an indefatigable, extremely low-budge filmmaker in a small hard-luck town—the eponymous (and unforgettable) housepainter turned self-styled action hero of VHS Kahloucha.) This year the trend in variety and quality continues, though with some interesting echoes in the realm of film contemplating itself as a politically complex medium of intercultural negotiation. Indeed, opening night’s comedy Waiting for Pasolini is shadowed thematically later on in the festival by a satire from Tunisia, Moncef Dhouib’s The TV Is Coming, which is another astute (and highly recommended) comedy about a small Arab town transformed by the expected arrival of a German television crew.

also offers a second chance to catch Moroccan director Ahmed El Maanouni’s Burned Hearts, recently screened as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. A supple rendering of deep-seated tensions in Moroccan society, Burned Hearts is the story of a young Parisian architect who returns to his hometown of Fez to reconnect with his dying uncle, an ironsmith to whom he was apprenticed as a child. The ancient artisanal quarter of the city, however, calls up painful memories (in flashback sequences) of the abuse the younger man suffered at his uncle’s hands—a familial and generational dynamic that is varyingly mirrored in other relationships woven into the involving plotline, and an integral part of this (beautifully shot) black-and-white film’s larger study in some essential modern contrasts.

Another engrossing feature is Algerian filmmaker Amor Hakkar’s The Yellow House (which took an honorable mention at Thursday night’s Noor Awards ceremony, with an ebullient Hakkar on hand to dole out kisses of gratitude to jurors and audience alike). Hakkar’s straightforward but subtly rendered story concerns a father who sets out from his family’s humble countryside abode to retrieve the body of his grown son, who has been killed in an auto accident while training in the army. The journey leads through various obstacles as well as ordinary acts of kindness and compassion until, finally home again, he faces the further challenge of helping to lift his wife out of her debilitating grief. Wistful, charming, and visually enchanting, The Yellow House paints a quiet and affecting tale of loss and renewal.

AFF’s window on the world also again includes a number of important and provoking documentaries. The previously mentioned Recycle (which screened to wide acclaim at this year’s San Francisco International) is Jordanian-Palestinian filmmaker Mahmoud Al Massad’s intimate and revelatory look at the roots of fundamentalist thought and political violence in the region. His focus is the fascinating Abu Ammar, a former mujahdeen soldier in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan now turned father and scrap cardboard peddler in Zarqa, Jordan’s second-largest city—hometown to both the filmmaker and, more notoriously, onetime al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Beirut-based Palestinian filmmaker and SF State alum Mai Masri’s 33 Days, meanwhile, is one of the best documentaries so far to come out of the massive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. That many have probably already forgotten this short but brutal war amid the rush of new and ongoing crises is only more reason to seek out this exceptional film. While following four Beirut residents through the course of the conflict—a theater director working with a group of suddenly traumatized children; a TV news reporter, a new director and new mother, and a graphic designer turned relief worker—Masri tellingly captures the grief, anxiety, and sorely tested stamina of an embattled population (one million of whom were displaced by the bombing). At the same time, 33 Days, while adept at channeling the horrors and fraying nerves of a modern city suddenly transformed into a war zone, emphasizes not despair but hope. Laying proper emphasis on the lives of ordinary people who are the overwhelming and innocent victims of warfare, it also highlights the compassion and heroism people call forth on behalf of one another in times of catastrophe.

Of the several docs from Iraq this year, the feature-length Noor Award-winner After the Fall is a must-see by director and Iraqi ex-pat, Kasim Abid, who returns to Iraq in 2003 in the wake of the American invasion, after many years in the West. "Three generations of my large family were there to welcome me," he recalls in voiceover to footage of the homecoming. "They were close, and yet they were strangers." Abid’s consequent interviews with family, shot against a background littered with the mangled remains of one regime and the omnipresent but uncertain signs of another, brilliantly serves as a way both he and the audience come to understand many central and subtle things about life both before and after the fall. Two short docs, meanwhile—A Candle for the Shabandar Café and Out of the Frame—are separately inspired by the communal memory and cohesion to be found among the denizens of Iraq’s café culture. Out of the Frame, which last night took the Noor Award for best short documentary, concentrates on the eccentric proprietor of a teashop who compulsively collects and hangs photographs of his town of As Samawah’s past on the wall.

A particularly exciting choice among AFF’s documentary lineup this year is Slingshot Hip Hop, Jackie Salloum’s look inside the burgeoning Palestinian hip-hop movement (which was also an official selection at Sundance this year). Palestinian hip-hop? As the film ably shows, it makes more sense than you might think. One member of DAM (a three-man group from the Arab-Jewish town of Al-Lyd in Israel, and the instigators of Arabic rap in Palestine) explains its genesis succinctly as a sum of ready parts: one part African American hip-hop and its globally resonant lyrics and beats; one part homegrown words of resistance from the likes of Edward Said and (the just recently deceased) Mahmoud Darwish; and the last part he sums up wordlessly (by pointing out the window).

A fresh and enlightening angle on the conditions of Palestinians both inside Israel and under Israeli occupation, the doc mingles forthcoming interviews with male and female rappers, studio and concert footage, words of family members, revealing glimpses of daily life, archival footage and even animated sequences to chart a fascinating and inspiring story: the rise of a generational movement harnessing the power of words, music and a global culture of resistance to transcend social, political and physical borders of all kinds.

Transcending borders is what great films are known to do too, and it’s made AFF one of the more vital festivals around.

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