Two Middle Eastern Films from the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival
There aren’t many films from the Middle East to be found in Toronto movie theatres. The best place to see them is at the film festival. Of course, there aren’t that many in total: economics and political concerns put a damper on film production in that region.
Iran is a wonderful exception. Iranian films premiered at the Toronto festival can sometimes be seen at various art houses throughout the city. Two of the non-Iranian films I saw, both of which are worthy of theatrical release, are Paradise Now and Narock.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, Paradise Now is a co-production between Palestine, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. It even had some Israeli input.
The film tries to shed some light on one of the burning questions of our time: What makes someone a suicide bomber? It takes place in the Palestinian city of Nablus, where Israeli roadblocks to and from the town are a constant reminder of their lack of independence.
There are three main characters who agree on the necessity of a self-governing Palestinian state but differ as to how that should be achieved.
Suha is and educated, sophisticated woman who has spent time abroad. She is committed to making changes through legal and political channels.
Said is an auto mechanic who feels he is at a dead end. He spends a lot of his spare time smoking a hookah and hanging out with his friends. He has little access to international culture (books, film) and perhaps little inclination to partake of it. His working-class alienation amid the tensions of the Israeli presence makes him susceptible to extremist ideologies. The third main character, his best friend – call him Jamal -- shares his views.
But really, how do such people think their lives will change once independence is attained? Tradesmen will remain tradesmen, as they do the world over. For most people on the planet, including those in North America, have jobs, not careers, and must enhance their lives in the hours after work.
Even if he were so inclined, Said could not go to the movies because as a teenager he was involved in a terrorist action which blew up the town’s only cinema.
But there are lots of disaffected workers around the world. Most of them do not become suicide bombers. There has to be something else involved in the process.
In Said’s case it was childhood trauma. His father, rightly or wrongly, was accused of being an Israeli collaborator and was therefore assassinated. After that, Said’s family became social pariahs. This is a culture, remember, where honour is still a powerful concept, where women who are even suspected of sexual infractions are murdered and their killers set free.
Some of Said’s humanity was deadened by his childhood experiences. This is shown by the utter blankness of his eyes. That same blank quality was described by a Canadian journalist who, several years ago, had the misfortune of being held hostage in a Moscow theatre. There the suicide bombers were Chechen women, but the hollowness their eyes exposed is the same.
Before their mission, Said and his best friend, one who will accompany him on his deadly protest, make last statements which are videotaped by their handlers. Apparently such tapes are hot at the local video store.
The callousness of those in charge, the bosses who send young men out to certain death but do not put themselves in danger, is illustrated by the image of a handler stuffing his face with pita sandwiches while his two charges mull about their deaths.
The mission, not surprisingly, does not turn out as expected. It is temporarily aborted after the two men are spotted and chased away. Said remains determined to resume the operation another day, but the delay gives his friend time to reconsider. Sometimes second thoughts are wiser than initial impulses.
While the film is clearly on Suha’s side, it also wants people both inside and outside of Palestine to think about how and why people turn to such extreme measures.
The film was shot for the most part in Nablus, despite the dangers of nearby rocket and rifle fire as well as threats from various Palestinian factions wary of the filmmakers’ intentions. At one point they had to ask Yasser Arafat himself to intervene on their behalf. He did so even though it is claimed he had never seen a film.
There are not many Palestinian films in existence. Let’s hope that more will be made and will be seen in North America.
The other Middle Eastern film, Narock, is a France–Morocco co-production. It was directed by a woman, Laila Marrakchi, and takes place in Casablanca. This Casablanca bears little resemblance to the Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. But war, or at least the possibility of devastating change, is always in the background.
The story revolves around a group of 17-year-old upper-class girls. They are in their last year of high school, and most hope to go on to university in Paris.
In some ways their lives are not that much different from any such girls in Greater Toronto. They are not particularly religious and don’t wear the habib. They listen to pop music, smoke marijuana, go to clubs where they may dance and flirt (but certainly do not have sex).
Life has a habit of throwing curves at us all. One girl finds out she can’t go abroad to study because her family is experiencing severe financial problems. Another has her career dreams shattered when her family forces her into an arranged marriage.
The central character, Rifa, encounters unexpected tension at home when her beloved brother comes back from a long stay in France. She finds he has changed – become more strictly Muslim. He now frequently harasses her about her lifestyle. It is evident he has become less tolerant of different ideas.
To make matters more difficult, Rifa is having a platonic romance with the high school hunk. They truly love each other, but it’s a Romeo and Juliet situation: she’s Muslim and he’s Jewish. Neither family would ever accept the other. It’s a state of affairs that can only end badly. While she plans to study in Paris, his parents are planning to move to America.
Except for Rifa’s brother, who one suspects is only beginning his journey into religiosity, most of the wealthy people portrayed here are relatively secular, although they do observe holidays such as Ramadan. Their servants cling to a more rigid and perhaps more confident view of Islam.
The film is haunted by the opening moments where two impoverished street vendors talk about their lack of opportunity and justice in their lives. In their desperation they may be ripe for conversion to extremism.
The bubble has not yet burst for the upper classes in places like Morocco, but if social problems are not addressed, it may well do so, destroying opportunities and perhaps even justice for many a young woman.
Also it is important that we in the West realize that groups of educated, open-minded people do exist in such countries as Morocco. Seeing people in monochrome is never a good idea.
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