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Anti-colonial films at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

Posted by keith1942 on August 1, 2016

memories poster

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato featured  more restorations from The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. These included an important title from anti-colonial cinema, Memorias del Subdesarollo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). The film is a key example of the new and revolutionary cinema in Cuba after the liberation. It was directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and scripted by him with Emundo Desnoes, who wrote the source novel. The filmmaker Walter Salles is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on his memories of first seeing the film:

“… watching it was alike a shock to me. The film navigated between different states – fiction and documentary, past and present, Africa and Europe. The dialectic narrative took the form of a collage, crafted with uncommon conceptual and cinematographic rigour. Scenes from  newsreels, historical fragments and magazine headlines mixed and collided. In Memories of Underdevelopment, Alea proved that filmic precision and radical experimentation could go hand in hand. Nothing was random. Each image echoing in the following image, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

The film was restored at L’Immagine Ritrovato laboratories in association with ICAIC.


Another restoration at the Festival was Adieu Bonaparte (1985) written and directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. The film was  French-Egyptian production. But it got an extremely unsympathetic reception at the Cannes Film Festival.

“… the film received a lukewarm, if not downright hostile, reception: several journalists judged the project ‘anti-French’…” Frédéric Bonnaud in the Festival Catalogue.

This is not surprising since the film deals with the ultimately ill-fated Napoleonic invasion against Egypt in 1798. This is a key event in Edward Said’s great study of Orientalise (1978). This provides one of those opportunities one finds in Chahine’s films, where history as a past and the present as unfolding illuminate the complexities of his country and of the wider Arabia.

“Chahine is simultaneously a historian and a prophet. … he multiples the characters and points-of-view so that none of them is ever completely wrong or completely right.” (Festival Catalogue).

Both films originated on celluloid but were screened at Il Ritrovato from DCPs with English subtitles. One advantage of this format is the greater ease of circulation. Let us hope these two major works get a wide and varied release.

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Al Momia / The Night of Counting the Years, Egypt 1969

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016


This is a classic Egyptian film that was restored by the World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna and screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. It was the only feature film to be made by the writer and director Shadi Abdel Salam, though he did make a few short documentaries. The film credits bear the title ‘sponsor Roberto Rossellini’. Apparently Salam visited Rossellini and asked him to direct the film, but Rossellini persuaded Salam to direct it himself.

The film dramatises events that occurred in 1881, when it was discovered that precious archaeological treasures from one of the tomb of an ancient Pharaoh were being sold to foreign collectors. This was the Deir el-Bahri cache, a tomb shaft that contained over 50 mummies, unusually, from five separate dynasties. These had originally been moved and secreted by priests to prevent looting as the Egyptian Empire collapsed. The cache was sited in cliffs away from the famous Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile. It is worth noting that 1881 was the year that a nationalist rebellion broke out against the colonial domination of Egypt. In 1882 the British fleet first bombarded Alexandria and then occupied the country.

Salam turned the events surrounding the hidden cache into an evocative and haunting tale. In the film a local tribe, the Horabat, are secretly raiding a lost tomb near Thebes. The Egyptian Archaeological Society sets out to disrupt this illegal trading and find the actual location. However, the bulk of the film focuses on the activities of the Horabat tribe and dissension amongst its members.

The film is slowly paced and has a poetic feel. Martin Scorsese writes:

Frequently an event seems disconnected from its predecessor. The film often uses tracking shots, mainly forward or reverse, which are grimly slow. The colours are mut

“Al Momia has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.” [Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2009).

The scenes are presented one by one, without transition shots. ed and many scenes are fairly dark. Daylight is opaque and night-time or interiors have great blocks of darkness. The use of classical Arabic is unusual, even in Egyptian films. There is an almost dreamlike quality, appropriate to the themes of death, memory and the past.

The English language title of the film is set out in the first scene at a meeting at the Cairo Museum. Professor Raspére presents a quotation to his colleagues from the 3,000 year old ‘Book of the Dead’. He offers an incantation that:

“. . . restores to the dead the power to remember his name. A spirit without name is doomed to wander in perpetual anguish.”

This sets up the major themes of the film, names and identity, memory and the past. It is worth noting that a number of key characters in the film are not identified by name. These include the leader of the Society’s expedition: one of the brothers in the tribe, his mother and the elders: and the officer of the Egyptian militia.

Professor Raspére also shows his colleagues a parchment that has been illegally trafficked to the West and which relates to an unknown tomb of a Pharaoh. This leads to the Archaeological Society visiting the valley near Thebes, out of season, hoping to catch the grave robbers unprepared. The only support for these effendi [as the locals call them], after a steam journey up the Nile, is a group of the Guards of the Mount of the Dead.

The viewer’s first encounter with the Horabat tribe is the funeral procession for the dead leader, Selim. The procession ends at a circle of white funeral obelisks. Here, Selim’s two sons are taken apart by tribal Elders and informed that they must take responsibility for a secret held by their father. This is the secret cache, which is regularly raided for valuables that are sold to a middleman, Ayoub. The sales appear to be the main source of income for the tribe.


The stealthy journey to the cache leads us through a chain of mazes and labyrinths. Such labyrinths recur throughout the film, in rock defiles, caves, and ruined palaces. At the end of these is the treasure. However, there is also a monster – desecration of the dead motivated by greed – which leads to the death of the elder brother.

This brother had told the elders that they should ‘leave the dead in peace’, and refuses to continue the robberies. The younger brother, Wannis, is confused and uncertain. But their mother sides with the elders, and tells the older brother, ‘I no longer have a name to give you.’ This brother attempts to leave Thebes, but is killed on a boat, which bears a mysterious sign, ‘two hands in the shape of a butterfly’. This probably has some meaning in Egyptian culture, but certainly for foreign audiences it feeds into the overall ambiguity that envelops the film.

For much of the film the younger brother Wannis is torn between loyalty to his tribe and his revulsion at the grave robbing. He is subjected to a series of temptations, by the elders, and by Mourad, an accessory of Ayoub, who wants to take up dealing himself.

Finally Wannis visits the Society’s steamer and discloses the site of the cache. Guarded by the guards the 40 odd mummies are transported to the steamer, which then sets off to Cairo and the museum. The ending resolves the problem of the film in one sense; the cultural treasures are passed into safekeeping. And it resolves one problem regarding names and identity.

“Rise you will not die out. You will be called by your name. You are given new life.”

However, the film’s ending has a desolate tone. Still bruised from an attack Wannis wanders away along the banks of the Nile. And the gulf between the tribe and their desolate area and the elite in their metropolitan city appears as wide as ever.

In colour. Arabic with English subtitles.



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The Idol / Ya Tayr El Tayer Palestine 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2016


This film was screened at the Leeds Young Film Festival. It does not have a UK release and the only other screening in Britain was at the London International Film Festival. It really deserves wider exhibition, both because it is a very well-done biopic and because it deals with the major contradiction in the Middle East, Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The central character is Mohammad Assaf, born and bought up in Gaza, in 2013 he was the winner of a major Arabic Television competition, ‘Arab Idol’. He has since become a popular singer across the Arab world and also have been made a UN ‘goodwill’ ambassador.

The film opens with Mohammed in 2005. Mohammed, along with his sister Nour and two male friends, has an amateur band with him as lead singer. Scrimping and saving they buy second hand musical equipment and start to perform at local weddings. Their budding career is interrupted when Nour develops a failing kidney and has to undergo Kino therapy. The alternative of a kidney transplant is beyond the family’s scarce means. They and Mohammed are distraught when Nour dies.

The film moves forward to 2012 when Mohammed is working as a taxi driver in order to fund his University studies. With the help of friends and Gazans involved in illicit smuggling he is able to leave Gaza for Cairo and enter the prestigious competition. The film ends with his success, the start of a popular career and the celebrations among people in Gaza at his victory.

The film presupposes some acquaintance with the popular culture in the region. So I had to look up ‘Arab Idol’ after seeing the film. The programme, ‘Arab Idol : Mahboub El Arab’, was based on the British TV programme ‘Pop Idol’. It commenced in 2011, following on from an earlier set of programmes, ‘Super Star’. Mohammed’s audition was in Cairo but the actual contest takes place in Lebanon. Applicants who passed the auditions compete over a series of weeks as, one by one, some are eliminated through audience voting. The finale presents the winner. Mohammed was successful in the second series in 2013.

Effectively the film falls into three parts. Mohammed’s early life in Gaza in 2005. Then his adult life in Gaza around 2012. And finally the television competition. In the 2005 sequences Mohammed is played by Qais Attallah.  I found the first part the most interesting and affecting. This is very much down to the character of Nour (Hiba Attahllah). She is the most dynamic character and something of a tomboy. And she is at this point in the film enjoys equal attention with Mohammed. The memory of her remains an important motivation for Mohammed later on.

The 2012 Gaza sequences emphasise the effects of the Israeli blockades and attacks. There is equal emphasis on the effects of Hamas rule. One of Mohammed’s erstwhile friends and band members is now a convinced member of the Islamic organisation, The film does generate a sense of Mohammed (Tawfeek Barhom) caught between the Israelis and Hamas. There is a despairing quality about his attempts to leave Gaza, very different from the élan of the youthful band seven years earlier. There is also a slight romantic interest in the character of Amal (Dima Awawdeh) who he met in the hospital where she received the same treatment as Nour.


The third sequence commences in 2012 as Mohammed manages to leave Gaza and arrives in Cairo for the ‘Arab Idol’ auditions at the city’s Opera House. He has to overcome a succession of obstacles but succeeds and we then watch the succeeding stages of the competition. As Screen International commented this is the most ‘formulaic’ part of the film. There is intensive parallel cutting between the television auditorium, watching audiences in Gaza and elsewhere in Arabia and the situation of Mohammed, psychologically divided after his earlier travails. There are also several scenes on beaches or waterfronts, paralleling earlier scenes in  Gaza. In one of these we see a flashback montage to his early years, Nour and the band. It is now that he finds the resolve to carry on. As we view these final scenes and move into the end credits the actor of Mohammed is changed to the actual real-life singer.

The film is directed by Hany Abu-Assad who also wrote the screenplay together with Sameh Zoabi. Abu-Assad is a Palestinian director with an impressive output. His earlier films include Omar (2013), Paradise Now (2005) and Rana’s Wedding (2002). His films tend to dramatise the lives of ordinary Palestinians and this is true of The Idol. Whilst the focus is Mohammed, now a celebrity, much of the film presents the situation and settings of Palestinians in Gaza. Whilst the Israeli blockade and regular assaults are hardly mentioned in the dialogue, there are frequent references in the mise en scène. These include the security installations and fences that surround Gaza: the landscape full of destroyed buildings: and Palestinian victims like one man who has lost his legs.

Abu-Assad and his crew are also technically accomplished. The cinematography by Ehab Assal is well judged and impressively mobile. There are frequent tracks using a Steadicam. The film opens with a fast-paced race by Nour, Mohammed and their two friends across houses, constructions sites, balconies and walk-ways. [The sequence does look a little like the opening sequence of Skyfall (2012) where James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases down a character]. There are a number of repeat sequences of this type, including a delightful track along an underground  tunnel as a boy delivers food from Egypt’s WacDonalds. And when Mohammed arrives for the auditions in Cairo there is a similar sequence as he manages to ‘break in’ to the Opera House.

So this is a well-judged and very stylish portrait. The latter stages of the film are more conventional as the writing aims for the final ‘feel-good’ factor. We have the conventional plot point where a friend, now a member of Hams, waives his duty to help Mohammed. And this reduces the impact of the political side of the film. I felt that Abu-Assad was definitely criticising Hamas, and given this is Gaza there is no equivalent address of the problematic around Fatah. In the early part of the film the mise en scène frequently contrasts male dominated actions with watching women. We see this in the wedding sequences where it is the men who dance to the music and the women sit and watch. meanwhile Nour is hidden from the view of the audience as she plays in the band. And we see it again at Nour’s funeral where the coffin in followed by a male cortege. There is a contrast late in the film during ‘Arab Idol’ where the westernised audience and staff of both sexes mingle easily.

The oblique style of the references to the Israeli occupation are effective. But the final success of Mohammed and the response among Palestinians suggest a cultural avenue which seems unlikely to succeed. Mohamed does state at the finale of ‘Arab Idol’ that that he entered the contest because he wanted the Palestine’s voice to be heard. This stance is somewhat belied by the his expressed motivation in the days before when he was planning his ‘escape’ from Gaza. And the competition, a copy of that in neo-colonial Britain, emphasises individualism rather than community. Something which the frequent cutaways to celebrating Palestinians fails to counter. And the idea of UN ‘goodwill ambassador’ hardly seems to address the ferocity of the regular assaults on Gaza.

Audience, Idol

Abu-Assad’ s films tend to treat the armed struggle as problematic, witness Paradise Now and Omar. His work can be seen as part of a movement to build a Palestinian Cinema, in other words a ‘second cinema’ for the Palestinians with a touch of the auteur. So the film lack the direct and powerful opposition of films that focus primarily on the struggle, say Five Broken Cameras (2011). But they do, as with this film, offer powerful representations of Palestinians and they now offer the level of production values common across the world of ‘Festival’ cinema.


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Notes on Palestinian Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2016

Palestine film Fest1[1]

Leeds enjoyed the first Festival of Palestinian Film in the City in November and December 2015. In all seven films were screened at various venues round the city, opening with a screening of The Wanted Eighteen as part of the Leeds International Film Festival and closing on December 15th at the Hyde Park Picture House with Open Bethlehem.

Palestine is a frequent presence in film: both dramatic features and documentaries. There are of course those produced in Hollywood. There are the several inexorable dramatisations of events at Entebbe. Then there are the equally reactionary treatment in films like Exodus (1960) and Judith (1966). Spielberg’s more recent Munich (2005), despite the attempt at a critical ending, offers much the same.

A slightly more complex view is offered by Oliver Assayas; Carlos (2010). The fil recounts actual events with some attempt at veracity. However, it offers little sympathy or empathy for the Palestinian characters. Better are the growing number of documentaries financed and made by western filmmakers. A good example is Two Blue Lines (2015) by Tom Hayes. Here Israeli voices are seen and ehard commenting on the long struggle, going back to Al Nakba. Another documentary is Apples of the Golan (2012). Made by two Irish ` it studies the situation of a Druze villeage close to the Israeli/Syrian border.

I should also note films with an opposing political line such as One Day in September (1999), focusing on the Munich staging of the Olympic Games, it echoes the stereotypes of mainstream film.

The Palestinians also appear in films made by other countries in Arabia. An early example is The Dupes (Al-makhdu’un Syria, 1972). The film was produced by the Syrian National Film Organisation and directed by Tawfiq Saleh, who adapted the story from a well-known novel. Saleh was an Egyptian filmmaker but he had encountered continuing problems of censorship in his home country. The three main protagonists are Palestinians trying to smuggle themselves into Kuwait from Syria in order to find work. They are Abou Keïss (Abderrahman Alrahy), Assaad (Saleh Kholok) and Marouane (Thanaa Debsi). And there is the smuggler Abou Kheizarane (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala), who is also Palestinian. This is a bleak film, shot in black and white and Academy ratio. Much of the location work is in the desert, hot and desolate. But we also see the flashbacks of the Palestinians, recounting how they arrived at their situations. Here we see images of Al Nakba: in a montage of actual photographs. And we see recreations of the expulsion of the Palestinians by the Zionists and their life in refugee camps. This is a woeful rendering, made bleaker by the opportunism and greed that the refugees encounter from fellow Arabs.


There are films of the Palestinians and their struggles going back to before Al Nakba. These are rarely seen but much footage can be found in Al Nakba, made for Al Jazeera by Rawen Damen in 2008.  This is a 200 minutes documentary in four parts. There is footage shot by the occupying British, the Zionist Settlers and then the Israeli occupiers: but there is also film shot by Palestinians and by Arabs. Much of this is newsreel but there were also documentary film and even a feature made, but lost during Al Nakba. In a demonstration of the effects of occupation the Zionist film has its own special archive, The Stephen Spielberg Jewish Archive, whereas Palestinian film is either scattered or lost.

Following the Israeli occupation of much of Palestine Palestinians either lived under Israeli occupation or became refugees. Some Palestinians worked on films made by Arab filmmakers. With the development of an active resistance represented by Palestine Liberation Organisation there were attempts to produce Palestinian film. There was a Festival in Beirut and a film team set up by the PLO. The latter developed an archive of film which was lost when the Israeli’s invaded Lebanon in order to expel the PLO. By now the Israeli’s had extended their occupation to cover the whole of the West Bank.

It was in this situation that the first surviving Palestinian feature film was made. This was Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-jalil 1987), produced by Israel, France, Belgium, and Palestine. The film was in standard widescreen and colour and in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish. Intriguingly the version released in Israel was about thirteen minutes shorter than that released internationally.


The film is set in a Palestinian village as the headman seeks permission from the Israeli Governor for permission to celebrate his son’s wedding. The Governor attends with aides and as the day progresses the contradictions heighten. The director and writer, Michel Khleifi, was born in Nazareth but lived in exile in Belgium, He had already made a documentary and short film: and all three films have a central focus on Palestinian women, whose situation and conduct is an important aspect of the story.

In the 1990s another Palestinian filmmaker made a documentary, Chronicle of a Elia Disappearance (1996). Suleiman is also from Nazareth comes from the Greek Orthodox community. He lived in New York for a time then returned to Ramallah in the West Bank. Suleiman is an ironic director with a taste for the absurd and surreal. This documentary offers a very distinct and unconventional journey through occupied Palestine. Importantly, the film won an Award at the Venice Film Festival.

In 2002 Suleiman made the feature Divine Intervention / Yadon ilaheyya. The film was produced with funds from France, Morocco, Germany and Palestine. This was after the Oslo Accords and the film therefore was made under the remit of the Palestinian Authority. Following on the film was then submitted for the Best Foreign Language Category at the Hollywood Academy Awards. There appear to be different versions of what occurred: but an argument against its inclusion was that the Palestinian Authority did not qualify as a state. Clearly that argument was cover to more political objections. Interestingly the film was resubmitted in 2003 by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and accepted by the Academy.

The film again has an oddball narrative. The threads that bind it together are the declining health of Suleiman’s father and a relationship with a woman from the other side of the barriers surrounding Palestinian controlled territory. The trysts of the couple take place alongside an Israeli checkpoint: and there are a variety of sometimes-bizarre sometimes-oppressive scenes here. One glorious sequence has the Israeli soldiers perplexed when a balloon bearing the visage of Yasser Arafat floats threateningly towards their control tower. Another depicts the conflict between Palestinian and Israeli as a variant on the Hong Kong martial arts conventions.


Since then several films produced by some combination of Palestinian and other state funding have been submitted by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and included and accepted for the Academy Award listings.

In 2004 there was The Olive Harvest, written and directed by Hanna Elias. In this film two friends, one of whom has been in an Israeli prison, are in love with the same woman. The film dramatises the different political trajectories they follow.

In 2005 it was Paradise Now (Palestine, France, Germany, Netherlands, Israel 2005), written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Two childhood friends are recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv: Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). Their mission goes wrong and the film tends towards a critique of this type of action. In 2013 another film by Abu-Assad was submitted to the Academy, Omar (Palestine 2013). A young Palestinian freedom fighter agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing. There is an Israeli film with a similar plot.These are the only two films that made it through the Acedmy process to Nomination.

In 2008 the film submitted was Salt of the Sea (Milh Hadha al-Bah) written and directed by Annemarie Jacir. Soraya (Suheir Hammad), raised in the USA, returns to Palestine in an attempt to reclaim her family’s lost heritage. More recently Jacir wrote and directed When I Saw You (Lamma shoftak). This film treats the same issues but is set in 1967. Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) is forced into exile in Jordan with his mother. He becomes friends with a group of Palestinian freedom fighter. This film was submitted in 2012.


The Wanted 18 (Canada, Palestine, France 2014) was the most recent submission in 2015. This film was made jointly by Paul Cowan, a Canadian filmmaker, and Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist. During the First Intifada small Palestinian village bought 18 cows and stopped buying Israeli milk. The film uses a variety of animation techniques plus both recreated scenes and original footage. The latter, in a nice exception too much recent filmmaking, are shown in the original aspect ratio. The animation techniques, using stop-frame motion and models, are excellent. And the films script offers both very funny moments but also very moving moments. The events dramatised here date back to the first Intifada: and the film makes the point that this was before the Oslo Accords. The struggle of the village is collective and with a remarkable degree of autonomy.

Most of these filmmakers have made other works, including short films, documentaries and other features. And there are other Palestinian films, some co-productions with Israeli filmmakers. Five Broken Cameras (Palestine, France, Israel, Netherlands 2011) is essentially a Palestinian film made with the assistance of an Israeli filmmaker and funded by companies in nine different countries, developed through a European media project. The actual footage was filmed on domestic camcorders, recording the Israeli enforcement of a Palestinian village overlooked by a settlement and the Palestinian resistance.

And there are further film works on new digital formats and on the Internet. There are also documentaries involving Palestinians regularly on Al Jazeera. On Al Jazeera World Rawen Damen produced The Price of Oslo, and this film crosses over with some of the content of The Wanted 18.

Whatever the limitations of the present situation for Palestinians recent years have seen a ripening use of cinema as part of the struggle. The films range from work that aims to be part of a national cinema to works that are effectively ‘third cinema’. In this way they mirror the intense debates that continue with the struggle.

Wikipedia has pages on Cinema of Palestine and a List of Palestinian Submissions for the Academy Award.

See also The Palestine Film Foundation

And Palestine in film


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Theeb, Jordan / UK / United Arab Emirates / Qatar / Switzerland 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2015


This film was shot in anamorphic colour in Arabic with English subtitles. It was also shot on 16mm, which does not show on the big screen. The cinematography by Wolfgang Thaler is excellent and enjoys the at times breathtaking landscapes. The sound design by Dario Swade is also very fine, though I thought some of the music by Jerry Lane was, at times, intrusive. But the films also make good use of indigenous North African music and songs.

This is essentially a rite de passage and journey film. The protagonist, Theeb (Wolf) is a young Bedouin boy, not yet in his teens. He is played by the non-professional Jacir Eid and he is completely convincing in a role that has little dialogue. The rest of the cast, mainly non-professional, are also very good.

The journey arises when the Bedouin offer hospitality to a travelling English Officer and his guide. Theeb’s elder brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is to guide them to a well, the first post on their journey. Theeb accompanies them, but they are soon in bandit company and the travails of the journey start.

The plot line is deliberately sketchy. So it takes time to realise that we are in the middle of World War I. Also that Edward, the Englishman (Jack Fox), is journeying to meet Arab irregulars who are attacking the Ottoman railway. One aspect presented in the film is that this conflict predates the war, as the railway has disrupted the traditional ways and work of the Bedouin.

I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House and afterwards joined in the Film Club discussion on the film. The consensus was that this was essentially a genre film and much of the plot was immediately familiar. I did think the production and the acting generated a sense of the desert world in this period that was more authentic than the western equivalents.

What also struck me was that I was constantly reminded of that western epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Theeb was filmed in the Hejaz area of Jordan, where much of Lawrence was filmed. Many of the settings look familiar and hark back to the earlier film. A host of parallels: the Bedouin hospitality, the English officer, his revolver circulating amongst the characters, the explosive plunger in a box, the rocky defiles and valleys, the accentuated padding of the camels hooves, the wells, the Arab irregulars, the railway, and late on the Turkish officer and troops – all made me think that these were deliberate.

The director Naji abu Nowar, is a Jordanian, but born in the UK. Many of the production group are European film technicians. Whilst it is predominately a production from Arabia I felt that it was made with an eye both to local audiences but also to international audiences for foreign language films. It certainly has a sense of indigenous culture that is often lacking from western [or Dominant Cinema] films. But in terms of plot in particular, it is recognisable to western audiences. The director described it as a ‘Bedouin western’. One could categorise it as somewhere between a National [or First] Cinema and an auteur [or second] cinema. For me it was entertaining but lacked the dynamic of a film like Timbuktu (2014).

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Five Broken Cameras

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2013

5 cameras

This is essentially a Palestinian film made with the assistance of an Israeli filmmaker and funded by companies in nine different countries, developed through a European media project. It fits well into the concept of ‘Imperfect Cinema’. The film is constructed from the footage that the main protagonist, Emad Burnat, recorded on a series of domestic video cameras. Burnat lives in the Palestinian village of Bill’in. The village is over looked by the Zionist settlement of Modi’in Ilit and was a target of the so-called security wall which is encroaching and stealing Palestinian lands in the occupied territories. The film is similar in topic to the 2009 Budrus, another Palestinian village threatened by the wall. In fact, both were able to achieve some re-routing of this monstrosity. However, whilst Budrus tended to celebrate this as an unconditional victory, Five Broken Cameras is much clearer about the limitations of what was achieved.

Burnat has bought six cameras: the first five were smashed in confrontations with Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers. We get a very personal view of five years [2005 to 201] of protest and conflict as the Palestinians defend their lands, their rights and their livelihoods. Burnat’s film focuses on his experiences and that of his fellow Palestinians. These include his family and his two friends: Adeeb and Bassem. Both the later are active in the protests, which are supported by fellow Palestinians, international volunteers and the small minority of Israeli’s who oppose the state’s neo-colonial occupation.

What the film offers little of is the wider context: among Palestinian forces, of the larger Zionist project of Israel, or of the international aspects including the media. Such subjective limitations restrict any analytical discussion of the situation but it does present a powerful and emotive presentation of the conflict. We see repeated violence by the Israeli military, and also by Israeli settlers. Emad is arrested and jailed: Adeeb is shot in the leg and Bassem is killed by a gas grenade. And there are other Palestinian fatalities including children. This is emotive material, but only part of a much larger picture of a brutal occupation and expropriation.

The film has won wide praise and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 2013 Hollywood event. There has also been some interesting criticism: one can discount the ‘gnashing of teeth’ by Zionist supporters. On The Case for Global Film Roy Stafford expresses the following reservations:

“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.”

In part Roy appears to be arguing that Israelis, including settlers, should be given a voice in the film. This is a valid point in many cases: I have argued that a serious problem with Israeli films like Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Western films like One Day in September (1999) is that the Palestinians are mute victims in the films. However, I would argue that this is not a universal requirement. In Waltz with Bashir the lack of a ‘voice’ for the Palestinian s and Lebanese is part of the films refusal to confront the actual social actions taking place: the invasion which is not only illegal under the laws of bourgeois states but which is a blatant suppression of what are generally accepted as basic human rights. This is part of a general conventional approach in Israeli films and the mainstream films from Hollywood, which support Zionism.

It seems to me that Five Broken Cameras is a different case and needs to be judged somewhat differently. The film follows an artistic form which has resonated powerfully fore centuries: most notably in Goya’s great and famous painting: The Third of May 1808. These are agitational artworks which dramatise both the oppression and the resistance of a people. Emad’s narrative is presented as a ‘representative story’ for Palestinian resistance. Hence there is a clear awareness [absent in Budrus] of the need for the struggle to continue.

It is worth pointing out that the Israelis in Five Broken Cameras do have a voice, both the military and the settlers. They appear frequently on camera barking out orders, threats and insults. Their voice is as revealing of their standpoint as are their actions. And the ‘voice ‘ they present in this film is typical of the actions of the larger Israeli State. Juan García Espinosa writes:

“Should we ask for a cinema of denunciation? Yes and no.  … Yes, if the denunciation acts as information, testimony, as another combat weapon for those engaged in the struggle.”

My differences with Roy Stafford also turn in part on the language one uses. Rather than ‘less than human’ I would use ‘inhuman’. That is, ‘brutal, unfeeling, barbarous’. In fact, such actions treat the recipients as ‘less than human’.

One of the most positive aspects of this film is the extent to which Emad Burnat, as an ordinary working farmer, has been enabled to develop a cinematic voice.

“There is a widespread tendency in modern art to make the spectator participate even more fully. If he participates to a greater and greater degree, where will the process end up? Isn’t the logical outcome – or shouldn’t it in fact be – that he will cease being a spectator altogether?”

My more serious concern with the film’s lacunae is the absence of a larger contextual aspect. The policies of the Israeli State are absent: and more importantly, the complicated nature of the Palestinian forces and resistance is not presented.

“We maintain that imperfect cinema must above all show the process which generates the problems. …To show the process of a problem … is to submit to judgement whiteout pronouncing the verdict.” And, in fact, Five Broken Cameras ends with the historical verdict remaining open. But its powerful presentation of Palestinian struggle makes it a very effective agitational work. The film is definitely a key expression in the increasing catalogue of Palestinian film.

Quotations from For an Imperfect Cinema by Julio García Espinosa, translated by Julianne Burton.

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Films of Liberation, Palestinian films, Writers and theorists | 4 Comments »

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da

Posted by keith1942 on July 28, 2012

A friend identified this film [directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan] and the 2011 Iranian film Nader and Simin A separation as the outstanding releases of the last two years. I was so impressed with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that I saw it three times and I now think it is the outstanding film so far of the century. Like Nader and Simin it is a film about the human process: beautifully crafted and full of complexities that repay several visits. However I think Anatolia has the greater complexity of the two films, especially in its address of class. The film comes out of the director Ceylan Bilge own experiences in the area of Anatolia in modern Turkey. However, it is not actually set in the past [even if the time is indeterminate}: a misapprehension created by the UK trailer for the film.

The plot is simple: we follow a Prosecutor with a police team and army personnel as they drive round the countryside with two prisoners seeking the grave of a murdered man. The drive is interrupted at one point when the men stopped at a village for rest and refreshment. When the body is finally found the group return to the nearby town where the suspects are imprisoned and an autopsy is carried out on the body.

These events in the plot are the occasion for a close scrutiny of the main characters, who themselves offer a reflection on the larger Turkish society. They include Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), who has moved from larger city to work in this relatively remote area. He talks frequently with Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), the most important official here, and a man who we learn is haunted by the past. The Police Commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) also has a burden, a son with an unidentified but serious illness and disability. Naci has an assistant Arap Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), who has married a woman from the village that they visit. And there are the prisoners, two brothers, Kenan (Firat Tanis) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz): Ramazan is clearly slow-witted. There are several assistants and a jeep of Gendarmes. Finally there is the corpse Yasar (Erol Erarslan), about whom we learn quite a lot in the course of the search.

This group offers a cross-section of the local society – bourgeois, petty bourgeois entrepreneur, state functionaries, urban and rural proletariat. Class differences clearly impact on their relationships, though these are also affected by ethnic and regional factors. There is deference shown, but social antagonism also seep into actions. But parallels also cross the class divide: there is a potent shot of Kenan in the rear sit of the police car which is matched in framing and lighting by one of Prosecutor Nusret much later in the film.

And gender is another potent factor. For what is immediately apparent is that the main characters are all male. Women do appear, and in fact, they are central to the focus of the story. But they are always presented as subordinated to the men. In fact, the four important women in the narrative hardly speak at all. Almost the only words by a woman are from the wife of the murdered man, Gülnaz (Nihan Okutucu): a ‘yes’ and a couple ‘ah-hums’ in response to questions at the autopsy. In the village the Aunt responds to Ali and gives him bread. Cemille. the daughter in the village, appears but does not speak. All the other women are kept both completely silent and mainly hidden from view. Cemal’s love, from whom we learn he is now divorced, is seen only in some old photographs. Nusret’s wife appears merely in his reminiscences, though he tells Cemal [and us] what she said and did. And Naci’s wife is only an indistinct voice on the other end of a cell phone.

One woman that we actually see is Cemille (Cansu Demirci), the daughter of the Mayor or Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal) of the village where the team and their prisoners stop for refreshments. They [and we] see her only by the light of a lamp as she serves drinks: then briefly in the dark outside. She is beautiful but mysterious. She is in fact the first woman seen onscreen in the film. And her appearance launches and demonstrates how potent is the suppressed femininity of this society. Following her appearance Kenan sees an apparition of the murdered man. This is followed by a fuller confession by him to the Prosecutor and the Police Commissioner. A sort of motive emerges here for the crime, as Kenan claims that he is the father of the son born to Yasar’s wife. Ceylan’s film offers seemingly unrelated incidents that are full of allusions: during this sequence Arap sits by a fire, behind him a moth circles and then flies into the lamp previously held by the mayor’s daughter.

Similar opaque allusions occur during the drives and search for the corpse. At one point Cemal walks up a hillside as thunder and lighting crackle overhead. The flashes reveal a large carved headpiece on a small rock wall. All we learn is from Arap, who remarks that they are common in the area. At another point the convoy stops above a slope with several trees and a small stream running through them. After an important conversation between Cemal and Nusret [in term of the plot] the Prosecutor has to upbraid Naci who loses his temper with the prisoners. Meanwhile Arap surreptitiously picks apples from one of the trees. His actions cause several apples to fall to the ground: one slowly rolls down the slope and a little way along the stream. The camera carefully follows its roll: it is an exquisite shot, which seems to speak volumes on the protagonists and their activities.

Whilst the film is extremely serious, it also offers moment of humour and irony. Early in the drive Naci and the other policemen discuss the qualities of ‘buffalo yoghurt’. At the place where they finally find the corpse there is an argument over who has forgotten the body bag, resulting in it being wrapped in a car blanket. The team has a struggle to fit it into the boot of one of the cars. Then, Arap who has picked up some melons in the field nearby surreptitiously places these alongside the corpse in the boot.

The Sight &Sound review remarked that the film was more ‘talky’ than Ceylan’s earlier work. And the conversations between the characters are absorbing and extremely important in interpreting the film. However, Ceylan and his team also raise ambiguities about these. There is an extended conversation between Cemal and Arap at one of the sites searched. Cemal sits by a car door, Arap stand alongside the vehicle. When I saw the film again I realised from the camera angles that they do not actually appear to be talking to each other. Is this a reverie by one character: are there two separate internal monologues: or is Ceylan positioning us to have to rethink our response. There is a similar moment at the hospital. Cemal is waiting to commence the autopsy and he is remembering times past. Suddenly, with a cut to a new shot, he is talking with Nusret who sits opposite him. Is this an ellipsis? Is Cemal really talking to Nusret? By the end of the film it is the past that haunts Nusret that seems to figure largely in the film’s resolution. However, it is clear from the sequence where Cemal looks at old photographs that he is too haunted by a past. The line that elides the memories of Cemal and Nusret seems rather ambiguous.

This is not to suggest that Ceylan’s film offers a resolution that can be read innumerable ways. During the autopsy there is a discovery by the technician Sakir (Kubilay Tunçer) and Cemal that alters their [and our] perception of the crime and the perpetrators. Yet this is followed by a series of relatively long takes as Yasar’s widow and her son leave the hospital and return home. Whatever the men have decided has to be seen against the context provided by gender and class. This ending has all the resonance that was also created in the final long take of Nader and Simin: an ending that positions the viewer to consider carefully the story and characters they have watched over two hours.

The film is also graced by exceptionably fine anamorphic cinematography and sound design: Gökhan Tiryaki and Thomas Robert respectively. The films open with a pre-credit sequence, the only scene where we see Yasar alive, drinking and socialising with Kenan and Ramazan.  The sequence of shots shows us the trio through a window, then an interior mid-shot, and then exterior long shots. The dark gloomy atmosphere is depicted in shadowy twilight images with the ever-present thunder rumbling on the soundtrack. A passing lorry on the road effects a cut as the credits roll. Then the main narrative opens as the headlights of the convoy are picked out in a dusky road and darkened landscape. The effect is luminous. The film is shot on 35mm though some reviews suggest digital: in fact the film has circulated on DCP in the UK.

If the style of the film illuminates the landscape and setting’s then the scripting illuminates the characters and their situations. The screenplay was written by Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the latter’s wife Ebru Ceylan. I find it difficult to believe that the film could deal so directly but deftly with gender without her input. All the major characters face a crisis of emotion and conscience in the film: in particular Nusret and Cemal find that the past is inextricably connected to their actions in the presence. Ceylan in interviews has mentioned his admiration for the writer Anton Chehkov. In fact, whilst watching the film I was reminded once or twice of one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, The Seagull. Late in that play Kosta tells Nina “You have found your right path, you know which way you are going – but I’m still floating about in a chaotic world of dreams and images, without knowing what use it all is …” [translation by Elisaveta Fen].  One feels that several of Ceylan’s characters could utter this line, though by the resolution there is a suggestion that one or more has found [like Nina] the ‘right path’. The reviews of this and earlier films clearly place Ceylan as an auteur. However, it should be noted that his films cross over strongly with other work from Turkish cinema. Kosmos [2010] shares the terrain with Ceylan’s earlier Climates (2007): and there are parallels in it exploration of region, class, gender and ethnicity. Both these films also seem to reference the work of Yilmaz Güney, in particular his 1982 film Yol. Turkey is a society involved in rapid change and development where social contradictions and social values are thrown up in the air: I feel sure that this is one factor in the quality of much of its recent cinema.

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Auteur cinema | Leave a Comment »

The Silences of the Palace / Saimt el qusur

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2012


I want to discuss this Tunisian film with some comparisons with a Senegalese film. Moufida Tlatli’s film appeared 20 years after Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. The changed context is clearly responsible for many of the differences. Silences is a French / Tunisian co-production and has circulated in the European and North American art cinema circuits. Tlatli herself studied at the IDHEC, the Paris film school. In her interview [see Sight & Sound, March 1995], whilst the film is obviously seen a part of Arab cinema there is also a concern with the western audience. The last is a funding factor. From critical responses it would appear that many people have perceived it not as a Third Cinema film but as a feminist text.

Ella Shoat writes; “Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace … break away from the earlier meta-narrative of anti-colonial national liberation. Rather than a unified, homogeneous entity, these films highlight the multiplicity of voices with the complex boundaries of the nation-state.” [In Givanni, 2000]

She goes on to draw critical comparisons with The Battle of Algiers. The exploration of feminist readings of the film is a fertile area, but other readings would equally address the national and class dimensions found in the film.

The film open with the main character, Alia, beset by professional and personal problems. She is living with, but not married to, a member of the nationalist elite, Lotfi: she is also pregnant. Her memories take us back to the 1950s, when Tunisia is still under French colonial rule, though this is exercised partly through the traditional ruling family of the Bey. The central narrative charts Alia’s exploration of her early life and the rediscovery of her mother’s. She was raised by her single mother, Khedija, in the Palace of the Beys. Khedija is a prime example of the double oppression of the Palace serving women, economic exploitation, in her case she was bought as a slave: and sexual oppression. It is clear in the film that Khedija co-operates, at least in the early stages, in her sexual exploitation. Alia herself is divided, as Lotfi points out, partly attracted and partly repelled by the world of the Beys: she thinks her father was Sidi Ali, head of the ruling family. The film evocatively uses sound and silence to chart the changing positions and relationships within the Palace. Likewise, mirrors provide visual metaphors for the two worlds, opposite but totally interlocked.

mother and daughter

These enclosed worlds are only faintly invaded by the turbulent events outside [a growing nationalist movement], but these contacts provide poetic comment. Lotfi’s, a nationalist and activist, hides out in the Palace where he provides a contact for Alia with powerful repercussions. It is his influence that causes her to launch into a banned nationalist song at an engagement function. Alia’s nationalist song provides a musical accompaniment to Khedija’s tragic end, resulting from an amateur abortion. The metaphor is clear? The liberation that should free her destroys her?

Khedija’s fate in the film stems from two contradictory impulses. Firstly her co-operation in her own exploitation, which would appear fuelled partly by the favours it produces, but also partly by the status she supposes it awards her. But the increasing likelihood of her daughter sharing this fate makes her conscious of the negative side of her situation. Desperate because of her new pregnancy, [possibly due to the rape by Si Béchir, brother of Sidi Ali] she resorts to traditional remedies. In one sense her estrangement from the liberation movement is her downfall. Walled up in the Palace, and in traditional mores, she has access to no other options.

Alia, in post-independent Tunisia, suffers from the same imprisonment. Her singing at the wedding reception which opens the film is a reprise of her position in the Palace. She is subject to the same condescension as then. And the insults that stem from her unmarried status replicate her mother’s experience. Notably, Lotfi appears not to suffer the same problem. And, finally, she is about to repeat the tragic experience of her mother in having an abortion. The sense of liberation at the end of the film is Alia’s decision to take a stand and change things.

The central thrust of the narrative posits the continuing problematic for women. Oppression under colonialism, oppression under independence. However, such a position leaves unanswered questions about the actual independence situation. Silences concentrates on the world of the women. The viewer’s portrait of the world of the Beys is the subjective view provided by Alia. We know even less about the nationalist world represented by Lotfi. Intriguingly, the reception that opens the film appears a mirror image of that which closes it. If Alia’s position appears to have little changed, neither has the world in which she moves. The parallel movement by the camera towards the viewing of Alia’s singing by both Sidi Ali and Lotfi at the engagement party are a part of this. Yet the film is clear about the class divide that exists between the Bey family and their servants. Just as vicariously we become aware of the gap between the colonialists and the nationalist Tunisians. To adequately read Alia’s position under independence we need a statement of the class alignments. This is only suggested by the parallel condescension by the two sets of guests for whom Alia’s sings and, by, for example, the fact that Lotfi has to wait outside in the car to take Alea home. In Xala Sembène also deals with gender politics. And in these, as in the class depiction’s, the film explores both worlds. So we, as viewers have a strong sense of the world of male and female: of bourgeois and proletarian. Sembène’s narrative is Brechtian in its invitation to the viewer to both understand and evaluate the conflict of these worlds. It is an ‘epic’ and symbolic cinema. Silences of the Palace is much more subjective film, and closer in its psychological portrayal to art cinema [auteur’s cinema].

This is apparent not only in the form and narrative of the film but also in its style. Whilst the characters and some of the mores the film are unfamiliar to a western viewer, the form is accessible. The film’s reliance on close-up, directed lighting and constructed mise en scène is most similar to art cinema conventions. The differences from these conventions, the editing and the soundtrack, both work to re-inforce the subjectivity of the narration and the linearity of the narrative.

Silences of the Palace does provide a critique of both post-independence Tunisia and gender discrimination. It certainly goes beyond the ‘content to recall’ category posited by Fanon. But it does share attributes with the first category posited by Solanas and Getino, auteur cinema and with the second or national cinema. I would suggest this is not to do with the film’s feminism, which makes point also made by Sembène [for example] in Xala. It is that this film is less clearly demarcated from the conventions of western art cinema, most especially in the subjectivity of its stance.

Some sense of this divide can be found in the interview taken from Sight & Sound. Most revealing is the comment by Laura Mulvey in the introduction to the Tlatli interview,

“The polarisations of gender, which had formerly co-existed with a world divided by class, have once more risen to the surface.” [Though Mulvey’s stance in the interview is not neutral, she awards herself a final comment after Tlatli].

This would appear to suggest an expectation that class is not relevant in the neo-colonial society. Whereas, as Sembène clearly shows, neo-colonialism restructures class divides, it does not rise above them. Silences of the Palace would appear to adhere to the western feminists’ aphorism, ‘the personal is political’. Xala illustrates the converse, the political is personal. And this is Lotfi’s failure in the film, the political has not become personal.

father and daughter



There is no doubt that both Xala and Silences of the Palace are challenging films. They confront dominant ideologies and their manifestations, and at the same time [to different degrees] they work against the conventions of the dominant cinemas.  So, how do they fit into the systematic and worked out model offered by Teshombe Gabriel in his study of Third Cinema [Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films in Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, 1989].

Gabriel’s model is complex and multifaceted. It really requires a hologram so that the different ways of regarding Third Cinema are clear. He posits several interlocking sets of concepts, including:

Film / text                     Production                    Audience

Assimilationist.          Remembrance.              Combative. 

Whilst the film text, Xala, can be placed under combative in an unqualified manner, the positions of Production and Audience are more contradictory. Xala was produced in a period when Senegalese cinema was unusually productive. This was due to the introduction by the state of the Société de Cinéma. However, whilst his providing funding, it did not develop production resources and the increase in films was short-lived. This meant, that as was the norm, Xala was dependent on production support from the French Aid, the Ministère Coopération. Equally, as Senegal had not taken control of exhibition and distribution, the film relied on foreign control to circulate to an audience. Ad additional barrier was the censorship imposed on the film by the State: a later film Ceddo was banned. Sembène himself has been involved in rural screening so some of these films, which seem to include discussions with the audience. But in the early 1990s he was still meeting young people who had not heard of Xala until then.

Silences of the Palace is one of those films dependent on western finance and the western system. It is clear that even now, Africa has not been able to develop a self-sufficient cinematic apparatus, and Tlatli relied on the same Paris-based film school, as did the pioneer African filmmakers in the 1950s. The production itself was reliant on the French Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Culture, Canal and Channel 4. Canal, in particular, is increasing dominant in that sector of the art cinema market where ‘Third World’ films circulate. Like Channel 4, through Canal-plus, it is a major consumer of such films for its television channel. The increasing range of Film Festivals provides a circulation for such films. The varied awards a marketing device for such as Canal. It can be argued that films in this situation, whilst critical in the way that western independent films often are, lacks the direct and combative stance found in directors such as Sembène.

Unlike the situation in Cuba [for example] the African arena appears to rely heavily on the individual artist. Senegal cinema’s own development would appear to be disproportionately influenced by individuals. The question need to be put as to wherewith the combative phase has been achieved in the arena s of production and audience. Certainly despite the work of FEPACI and the collective work at the Festivals, African cinema still appears in the west as a cinema of auteurs.

The Silences of the Palace Les Silences du palais Saimt el qusur 1994.

Direction, screenplay and editing by Moufida Tlatli, who earlier had worked as an editor. Adaptation and dialogue Nouri Bouzid. Director of Photography Youssef Ben Youssef. Music Anouar Brahem. 127 minutes, in colour, with English subtitles.

Cast: Ali – Ghalia Lacroix and Hend Sabri as her younger self. Khedija – Ahmel Hedhill. Lotfi – Sami Bouajila. Sidi Ali – Kamel Fazaa, Si Béchir – Hichem Rostom.

Posted in African Cinema, Arab Cinemas | 2 Comments »