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Arab Film Fest Features: "The City of Life" and "The Wedding Song"

Films reviewed by Gregory Burke
posted October 9, 2010

The San Francisco Arab Film Festival now in its fourteenth year takes place between October 14 and October 24, this year. Films will be shown in San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley and Los Angeles. This year over forty feature films, shorts and documentaries about the Middle East will be shown. The entries are from the United States, Canada, Italy, France, Germany and Greece as well as North Africa – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Many of the entries are feature films that will be shown in local movie theaters here and abroad or may eventually be offered in Amazon.com or Netflix. Two such films in this year’s festival have been reviewed below.

  • The City of Life – United Arab Emirates – directed by Ali Mostafa – feature film 2009, 97 min.
  • Wedding Song – France/Tunisia – directed by Karin Albou – feature film 2008, 100 min.

The City of Life

Dubai 2009

As the first major motion picture to ever be made in Dubai, this film had huge expectations, a certain leverage of fear and the financial disaster factor hanging over its head. No one would know that better than the director, Ali Mostafa, age 28, a native Dubai Emirati. Mostafa, a recent graduate from film school in England knew that it was going to be tough, he just didn’t know how tough. First, to get the multimillion dollar budget together and then to get the film approved by the censors.

Dubai has lots of extra money, but it is known for placing money in safe investments. Motion pictures are not safe investments. It has been noted that the script had to be taken to the hereditary ruler of Dubai for a go-ahead on the production. Most films made in Dubai have been damning documentaries on a country that is run more like Enron than a nation.

We note Dubai is the key to the seven UAE Emirates. In Dubai about 11-17% is Emirati, most from the founding tribes. They have the big slice of the pie. The other 83% of the population are workers from other countries. Selected groups of highly skilled technical people like the English team that shot much of this film, and the architects that were chosen and brought in to build Dubai’s amazing Palm Islands and great skyscrapers. These skilled workers are highly paid and privileged. The other 81% are simply workers doing the jobs the average Emirati would not choose to do. It is among this diverse group, primarily from India, the Eastern European nations and Asia that this story is crafted. Alas, these folks have a much smaller slice of the pie, in fact, barely a crumb. They are dispensable, like tissues after one use. One of criticisms of this film is that the workers are portrayed living in apartments when in reality they live in much lower dwellings.

The leading players are an Indian taxi driver who lusts after a career in Bollywood films, a Romanian flight attendant looking for love and security, and an Emirati upper-class young man whose love of slumming is an embarrassment to his family. In reality, that seems to be the big family problem throughout the newly-rich Arabian nations, that certain young people would rather jump into their Ferrari and go the Mall or a Night Club and party, than select a career.

This story is woven with multiple threads as these people and others like them meet, exploit each other and cross paths again. It is a world in which 17% of the people are human, a few are visitors with a visa for a project, and all the rest are robots with interchangeable muscles and orifices that are easily replaced.

What is not touched upon in the film are the private lives of the Emirati themselves. How do these people live within the pressures of a simultaneously expanding and an eerie collapsing world? Dubai has dwindling oil reserves. It’s going to run dry in your lifetime, depending how old you are and who you choose to believe. They have selected to be a country with no taxes, attracting money and industry, lax rules on bank accounts, with no accounting on money deposits. It is a paradise for the storage of Blood Diamonds and gold, mountains of gold that has no legal reported origin. To the US, it is a major friend. To Iran, it is also a major friend.
It is the template of the new age in digital bookkeeping law: everything is permitted, as long as it is not admitted. Frankly speaking, there can be no corruption when you dwell in heaven.

We know the true lives of ancient Rome through the eyes of its slaves, and this is the eye-opener value of this film. It is a first-time film, a clumsy film, shallow in places, but it exhibits a brilliant vision that hints at the cruel truth.

Dubai is known for a glamorous yearly film festival which showcases Arabic films. It is the place to be and the place to be seen at this corner of our world. At this event, the film was a big hit and for good reason, the Middle Eastern audience is very aware of the concept of Dubai and is watching carefully the good and bad unfold. Among the 81% of the resident population who live in squalor outside of glittering city of light, there have been rumbling of unrest and riots. Crime is rampant. Hatreds between Indians and among the Arab sub-groups that have existed for hundreds of years are resurfacing among the workers and alarming the ruling caste, and that is the actual setting in which the film unfolds.

Against great odds, one has to appreciate what Mr. Mostafa has created and the questions to be asked by the implications of the film. Mark it to be seen, as it will give you days of thought. Sometimes ideas are much more powerful than entertainment.

Gregory’s Segway- World’s first gold vending machine unveiled in a hotel in Abu Dhabi

The Wedding Song

France/Tunisia 2008.

If it is catharsis you crave deep in your soul, this is the film for you. Director Karin Albou has crafted an arty tale from the dark days of World War II, when North Africa was under the polished heel of the German Army. Much has been written about this film.

If written by a man it seems to have a deconstructionist methodology, that is, to distance one’s self from attacking it and to seek refuge in effusive praise. If the review was generated by a woman, it mostly zeros in on the lesbian aspects of the principal relationship of the two leading characters.

I’m writing this review because I’d like you to see the film and to think about these people and the time in which they lived. In addition, also because no woman could be found on short notice who would touch this job from any perspective.

The French virtually pushed the art of cinema to greatness and along the way, wasted a lot of celluloid. However, there has never been a film anywhere close to "Wedding Song," so let us sing of it now. It is a bit complicated in as it is historically set in Algeria, but Algeria said "non," to the filming, so that brings us to Tunisia as a stand-in. As the camera rarely leaves a medium close-up, it could have been shot in the alleys of Marseille.

Briefly, this is a story of two mopey adolescents; one is Muslim, Nour (Olmpe Bonval) and one is Jewish, Myriam (Lizzie Brochere). They grow up together in an ultra-low budget, lower East Side type of tenement. They are typical pre-iPod young girls speculating on what the future may hold. Their mothers are hugging-close friends also. The director, Karin Albou plays Myriam’s mother.

Early on, the basics are established. The French are the colonial whipping dogs of German conquerors, who have promised the countries of North Africa their freedom, as declared by The Grand Mufti in Cairo. There really was a Grand Mufti who maintained he spoke for all true Muslims. Adolf Hitler made him an honorary Aryan so that he would not be picked up and sent off to a soap rendering factory.

Because both young girls confide in each other, place their heads on each other shoulders and occasionally have sleep-overs, some reviewers have maintained that they have lesbian tendencies. In the big picture of what is happening around them that should not be anyone’s concern. Both girls have been promised to be married. The Muslim girl to an unemployed young man who in addition to lacking a shirt lacks any moral judgment whatsoever. The Jewish girl has been bargained off to an older yet compassionate Jewish doctor. Both girls are far too young to marry, but it’s another culture and another time.

The Germans are the good guys, as they are polite and blonde. The American are bad guys because they are bombing the hell out of Tunis. Apparently we as a nation are extremely good at bombing the hell out of foreign lands, especially Muslim lands.

The Jews are bad because they started the war by trying to take over the world with help of their friends, The Allies. The girls and their families have no way in which a rational discussion of politics can be heard out. Life is simpler; it is a struggle to stay fed and alive.

There are tasty scenes which offer key insights to the world in which the girls live. In the opening premise, the bacheorette party for Nour, the testicles are cut off a sheep and worn in the Dancer-Performers costume as she mimes the stupidity of men.

Nour who is shy naturally declines to play with them, perhaps saving them for another day. There are delicious scenes in the hammam in which girls and women alike mingle, cleanse themselves and gossip. And yes, the woman are fairly naked. My suggestion that the film be premiered in Tunis was turned down by the film’s distributors.

Myriam’s wide eyed gaze carries us through the film. If it seems I’m talking around the film rather than plunging into a synopsis, that is correct. The reason is this is not a film in the normal sense, but a slice of life carried by the strength of each individual actor, all of which are excellent. Perhaps the acting is a bit overdone, like my Grandmother’s pot-roast, but excellent.

I believe when a film hinges on so little story to tell it is a shame to give it away in a sentence or two. I believe the director does have genitals on her mind, if not laced into her belt. Much has been written about the preparation of Myriam for her wedding as her husband-to-be requests she be prepared in the  in the "Oriental" style: the meaning of which sinks in as a mass of goo is used to graphically rip her short and curly from her body bringing her into the world of womanhood. Curiously enough this will have unforeseen but easily guessed results later in the film.

Nour’s husband, needing a shirt even to qualify to be married, finds a job with the Germans turning in all the Jews in the neighborhood. Myiam’s husband is rounded up and sent off to a labor camp. There are disagreements and a falling out between the two friends over cultural differences only to reconcile when they realize that in a world gone mad, they do perhaps have only themselves to rely upon. I’d say it was the prophecy of the ram’s balls that came true.

In closing, if possible, make the San Francisco premier. The audiences’ reaction to certain scenes will be priceless. In a nutshell, this film has wonderful actors pushed into an impossible wedge of history. The Tunisian colonial flag could as easily have been a towel with a bloodstain on it.

If there really were people like this, acting in real life as they do in this film, it would have been an honor to have known them. The soundtrack is wonderful; hear it and weep.

The film wins the Gaspar Noe Prize for throwing caution to the wind. See it and whether you are a Muslim, a Jew or a lapsed Christian, and then clean up your act because the goo of sacred love may come for you.

Resources:
  • For further information: http://www.arabfilmfestival.org;
    The Wedding Song will be shown at the Embarcadero Theatre in San Francisco on Ocotober 16 at 5pm, in Los Angeles at the Writers Guild of America Theater on October 23, at 3:30pm
    The City of Light will be shown at the Embaracadero Theare in San Francisco on October 17 at 7 pm, in San Jose at the Camera 12 Cinemas on October 16 at 9:15 pm

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