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Tunis - Carthage fest rediscovers the 'love of cinema'

Predictably, films highlight political themes but with a few surprises

The 20th edition of the biennial Carthage Film Festival drew to a close last weekend with "Casablanca, Where the Angels Don't Fly" taking home the Gold Tanit for best film. By Moroccan director Mohammed Asli, the film is a visually lyrical if decidedly downbeat tale of three migrant Berber workers attempting to forge a living in the bustling city of Casablanca.

It was one of the better works offered in the week-long program, which bought together a variety of Arab and African cinema produced over the last two years.

With countries as diverse as Bahrain, Lebanon, Angola and South Africa represented, there was a suitably eclectic range of films being screened. The styles and storylines differed wildly yet common themes abounded. Most obvious was the filmmakers' shared and inherent mistrust of the two regions' often corrupt authorities, and the ensuing hardships faced by the long suffering citizens of the Arab and African worlds. Oppression and civil war, as if a reminder were needed, is as likely to be found on the streets of Beirut and Damascus as they are in the jungles of Burkina Faso and Cameroon.

Following July's Biennale of Arab Cinema held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Carthage is one of the more important showcases for Arab cinema on the international film festival calendar. Opening with a glittering ceremony that boasted appearances by such legendary luminaries of Arab cinema as Youssef Chahine, Omar Sharif and Yousra, Carthage offered a valuable window onto a new generation of Middle Eastern filmmakers. Included in this year's selection were debut works by Syrian director Waha Erraheb (with "Les visions chimeriques") Lebanese director Danielle Arbid (with "In the Battlefields") and Iraqi director Amer Alwan (with "Zaman, Man of the Reeds").

While Arbid's film has already been justly feted around the world, Alwan's was a revelation. A deceptively simple tale of an elderly man forced to travel from his house in southern Iraq, "Zaman" traces his journey along the Tigris to Baghdad, where he must buy medicine for his ailing wife and return home. The film takes place on the eve of the US-led invasion, ominously present with the distant sound of planes and news reports. Alwan nevertheless keeps the film's politics in the background, preferring instead to focus on his native country's beauty. The man's lingering journey across the vast river is filmed with a panoramic beauty that suggests the best works of Terrence Malick and Iranian cinema.

Speaking during the festival in Carthage, Alwan reflected: "I wanted to make a film that was about humanity; that had a universal appeal and feel. The first film I ever saw when I was eight in Iraq was Vittorio Di Sica's 'The Bicycle Thief.' To this day I still remember that film."

Having lived much of the last two decades in France, Alwan's return to his homeland in 2003 was an emotional one. Thus his film can be seen as elegiac love letter to a country which continues to hit the world's front pages for the most tragic of reasons.

"I wanted to keep the politics of the film in the background," he said. "I wanted to make a story about this man, a good, decent, honorable man. He reminded me of my grandfather and that generation of Iraqi men who later suffered so much."

Unfortunately, Alwan's subtlety was a rare exception amongst the plethora of Arab films seeking to tackle - sometimes alternately; other times simultaneously - the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of women in society, endemically repressive regimes and a host of other issues.

Erraheb's film, which won the Bronze Tanit, was weighed down by an over abundance of social commentary. At times this threatened to overshadow the intriguing central storyline about a young girl, possessed with haunting visions, who decides to run away from her family in Damascus to fight against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Similarly, Moroccan film "The Black Room," by Hassan Ben Jelloun, and the Lebanese civil war set piece "Belt of Fire," by Bahij Hojeij, centralized interesting concepts: the former looked at the illegal clampdown on communist student activists; the latter explored one man's mental disintegration in the wake of the ongoing violence in war-torn Beirut. But "Belt of Fire" was unnecessarily burdened with a surfeit of attempted commentary, often at the expense of dramatic clarity. Hojeij's feature film debut also earned the unique, if unfortunate, distinction of showcasing the most unwieldy facial hair ever presented on celluloid, with central protagonist Chafic's lustrous mustache distracting viewers from an otherwise compelling tale of a city wracked by psychosis and lawlessness.

The shortcomings of these films offered potential answers to the perennial question, "What is Arab cinema?" The evidence presented at Carthage suggests that the region's emerging film scene is dominated by directors who are ready to tackle the "big issues" of contemporary Arab society. Yet they are too often hampered by an over-eagerness to tick all the relevant boxes, and in doing so, they have often created overlong films that - most frustratingly - refuse to deliver satisfactory endings. And they sacrifice the poetic vision that remains the prerogative of the artist.

Part of the problem is the lack of support so many filmmakers receive from their national institutions. As Erraheb noted, "It took me eight years to get my script approved by the National Board of Cinema in Syria. As soon as I changed a problem they had found, they would tell me about another one." A Syrian journalist attending the festival confided, "You end up either dying, getting bored and frustrated, or leaving the country and then they call you a traitor."

Another lingering problem is the lack of distribution for Arab films throughout the region. As Mohammed Malas, president of the Carthage jury, asked: "What's the point of producing and making the film if there's no distribution and no one gets to see it?" Indeed, it is lamentable that despite all the obvious abundance of talent and ideas that continue to beat the odds across the Middle East, the golden age of Arab cinema remains the 1950's and 1960's and the classical realism of Chahine, Henri Barakat and Salah Abu Seif.

With this in mind it was refreshing to see a new Egyptian film, "I Love Cinema," by Oussama Faouzi, lauded as one of the biggest hits at the festival. Essentially a simple tale of a young boy's love for movies set against his strict, religious father, the film played hard and fast with the sacred cows of sex, politics and religion. By choosing to focus on the wonderment that persists when the lights go down, the curtains part and that celestial beam from the projector is allowed to simply entertain its audiences, Faouzi reminded all the cineastes in the international crowd of why they had traveled to Carthage in the first place. It was not to overthrow a regime, overcome an occupation or overstate a case. It was simply and yet most profoundly for the love of cinema.

Beirut,10 18 2004
Ali Jaafar
The Daily Star
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