While the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues and a military confrontation with Iran seems like a very real possibility, the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival opens Thursday with a large, diverse selection of titles from the Middle East. Over the past few years, Tribeca's Middle Eastern programming has been one of its strengths: The festival has showcased first-rate narrative films and documentaries like Mani Haghighi's Men at Work and Amir Hamz and Mark Lazarz's Sounds of Silence, as well as the work of Syrian director Omar Amiralay and Abbas Kiarostami's son Bahran. Emerging from the trauma of 9/11, Tribeca's exhibition of Middle Eastern films is an important gesture of goodwill and cosmopolitan openness.
"I believe it's the primary function of film festivals," said Peter Scarlet, the festival's executive director. "I've said that many times. I think that the only chance we have of somehow getting ourselves out of the mess we're in is to understand each other better in a way that film often makes possible. People who may wonder, 'Who are these people on the other side of the world?' or, 'Who moved in next door?' are more likely to come to an understanding of them by watching films than watching TV or reading newspapers."
Since the Western "discovery" of the elder Kiarostami in the late '80s, Iranian cinema in particular has been popular on the festival circuit. This year, the country is represented by several films at Tribeca, including Bahman Ghobadi's remarkable Half Moon. More than any other, its cinema offers an alternative point-of-view to the mainstream American media, with films like Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman and Jafar Panahi's recent Offside demonstrating that Iranian feminism is no oxymoron. More concerned with mortality and music than politics, Half Moon still reflects on the cruel absurdities of national borders and the Iranian government's ban on women singing in public. A convoluted road movie, it follows an elderly Kurdish musician and his 12 sons on an ill-fated bus trip to perform in Iraqi Kurdistan. Departing from his customary naturalism with a few fantasy sequences, Ghobadi suggests a Middle Eastern version of magic realism.
Scarlet also praised Reha Erdem's Times and Winds as one of the best films he's seen in the past year. A visual delight, it's an episodic portrait of life in a remote Turkish village, seen through the eyes of three 12-year-olds. But while gorgeous cinematography and Arvo Part's dramatic score sustain the viewer's attention admirably, the narrative seems halfhearted. Dramatic events including a baby's fall and a boy's beating by his father never add up to much, but Times and Winds actually has more drive the less it concerns itself with plot. Still, it demonstrates the wide range of Middle Eastern cinema; as Scarlet said, "It's important to show that not every film made in the Middle East is political."
Asked about trends in films from the Muslim world, however, Scarlet replied that he sees grappling with terrorism as a major tendency. He was particularly proud of last year's screenings of The Yacoubian Building. "In the press conference," Scarlet told me, "the producer, who had funded the most expensive film ever made in Egypt, and the stars, who are some of the most popular in Egypt, said they stuck their necks out to make a film against terrorism. It was very important for them to come to America, to show to Americans that they were fighting terrorism too." This year, Scarlet points to Nouri Bouzid's Making Of and Ozer Kizitan's Takva -- A Man's Fear of God as examples of the same kind of engagement.
This year's selections don't just challenge stereotypes about the Muslim world. Israeli director Eytan Fox's The Bubble depicts Tel Aviv as his country's Williamsburg - with the crucial difference that its hipsters are subject to compulsory military service and the threat of suicide bombers. The Bubble's characters -- who listen to indie rock, stage a "rave for peace" and try to sustain relationships with Arabs -- have been absent from American TV news about Israel and even from the Israeli films we've had a chance to see. While the film goes downhill in its violent finale, it may be most valuable simply for documenting life inside certain Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
Strand Releasing plans to distribute The Bubble as well as Half Moon. "The Bubble doesn't preach, but it certainly has the capacity to move people with its romantic storyline," said Strand president Marcus Hu in an e-mail to The Reeler, adding that in general, "the exposure the film festivals give to such stories will help give audiences a feel for the country and its people."
And although much coverage of Tribeca tends to focus on its premieres of blockbusters like Spider-Man 3, Scarlet emphasized that in 2007, one-sixth of the festival's program is either from or about the Islamic world. "The presence of films like that helps draw a broader audience here, and sometimes they stick around for other films," he said. "Not even the most ardent film buff was born a film buff."
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