With Asghar Fashidi’s recent (and second) triumph at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film with The Salesman (which I have yet to watch), I thought it would be a nicety nice idea to check out some of the great movies that have come out from that troubled land – The Middle East (and no, Argo does not count). It is with little surprise for some of you to learn that there have been many great films produced in this part of the world over the years, despite a reputation of many of the countries there being oppressive and restrictive on creative freedoms. I am happy to say that I have watched some great Middle Eastern movies that have been released into the Western mainstream or semi-mainstream over the last number of years and thanks to a friend of mine who spent several years living in Tehran, I was recently opened up to the many brilliant films that have been made in Iran as an example (Through the Olive Trees, The Blue-Veiled, The White Balloon and Low Heights) but I have yet to unearth cinematic gems from other countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or even Iraq. Please comment below if you have any suggestions!
Alas, this is a quest for another day and so here I present only a delicate selection, which reflect upon my favourites from Middle Eastern cinema…so far.
Wedding in Galilee (1987 Michel Khleifi)
From the late 1980s, this little gem popped into the Cannes Film Festival and left with the International Critics Prize. With curious biblical connotations in the title, there is a lot to read into this film. It swelters with eroticism and symbolism and although appearing very timid at times it is actually fairly political. Restricted no doubt by the times and the dangers in being too controversial, there is still much to admire in Wedding in Galilee particularly in its approach to sexuality and nudity.
The scene is set sometime after the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, when a wedding is to take place in an Arab/Palestinian village that is under the military control of the Israeli Army. It is the desire of the groom’s father to have a memorable cultural wedding amongst the olive trees but the Army General of the village insists that a military presence be at the wedding, so that his men can have free food and wine. Thus, you can imagine that tensions run very high throughout the whole event.
In short, the film is an exploration of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the eyes of an exiled Arab director (Khleifi lived in Belgium when he made this). Although there could have been a deep bias against Israel in this drama, what is offered here is more than just sympathy towards the Palestinians and a sentimentalisation of Arab culture but rather, the film gives us a glimpse of two opposing worlds coming together in a less chaotic and destructive fashion. Instead of a battlefield, we have a wedding, which makes the usual setting for conflict a whole level different. The soldiers must take off their uniforms to take part in the festivities and the Arabs show restraint, albeit barely concealed, and tolerance of their presence. It is what simmers underneath that makes this film most remarkable – the sexual liberation of the bride plays a huge part as does the sexual impotence of the groom.
This is an intelligent film that requires a better summary than what I am providing here but you would be better off watching it yourself and then maybe checking out this brilliant essay on the film by Ella Shohat.
Taste of Cherry (1997 Abbas Kiarostami)
A strange but ethereal film. In every way, there is a sense of place that is familiar even if the lands look foreign and so removed from us. Here we have Iran, a country with a sense of itself but also a sense of repression. The great director Kiarostami collects the various moods of the populace around the city of Tehran with great care and subtly. For the first 10 minutes of the film, the camera does not leave the confines of a car (which we later find out to be a dreaded Range Rover) and instead peers out the window at a number of characters (whether actors or not, who knows?), who are compelled over to speak to the driver (the main character played by the Homayoun Ershadi).
Throughout the film, nothing is very clear about the driver’s purpose, only that he wants to commit suicide by next day’s dawn. Heavy stuff indeed. But in this, the dialogue never gives away enough for us to fully comprehend why this guy has decided to do it. There is just a quiet, meandering experience to be had for the viewer, metaphorically reflected in the mountain roads above Tehran, which the man drives around all day. Ersadi embodies the uncertain lead character to perfection and the various passengers he picks up are played by authentic men who lend a variety of perspectives from Middle Eastern cultures – a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan theologian and an Azeri taxidermist.
The tired old question of meaning and existence is at the forefront of this film and although this may be a bit off-putting for some, there is a finer point attuned here, which is more than just the sum of one part. Each of the passengers present a different and intriguing story about their background, which in turn evokes an unpredictable and ambiguous response from the driver each time. The brilliant Kiarostami, who single handedly hand-crafted a respectable film industry in Iran from the early 1970s onward, gives us so much to ponder over in this excellent film – the eerily, hazy views of Iran in which his cameras cast its gaze over is something to savour, even as our minds are encapsulated by the mysterious and sombre disposition of the lead character. Taste of Cherry is a must-see!
Waltz with Bashir (2008 Ari Folman)
The justifiably successful Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary that was written, narrated and directed by Ari Folman and animated by Yoni Goodman from the Bridgit Folman Film Gang in Israel. It is a remarkably unique and disturbing feature and is highly recommended if you have not yet seen it. Folman was a teenage soldier in the Israeli army during their war with Lebanon in the early 1980s but he suffers from amnesia and cannot recall this important period in his life. So he goes around the world interviewing people that he served with during that time in order to piece together what may have happened back then.
The result is this film. It is beautifully animated with sliced cut-outs to give an impression of continuous movement – the animation is primarily a substitute for non-existing documentary footage. It is scored by the supreme Max Richter to give resonance and there is a surreal blend of pop music such as OMD’s 1980s classic ‘Enola Gay’ to provide colourful context for the time. Folman presents his work impartially and attempts to communicate his actual journey as a person who cannot remember what the hell happened when he was a kid soldier through a natural progression of enlightenment. The fundamental thing is that in this whole exercise, he finds zero comfort in his quest, only a increasing sense of guilt, disgust and horror.
Just like Come and See, Platoon or The Thin Red Line, Waltz with Bashir is a deeply anti-war film (the title of which refers to the leader of the Lebanese forces during the war, Bachir Gemayel, and also acts as a metaphor for Folman’s part in the war). Some may criticise it for its high-art flirtations whilst dealing with the deeply troubling and layered subject of war and massacres in the Middle East (the film is still banned in Lebanon) but are not all war films like this? In the end, there is one simple prominent and justified message that Folman gives us: war, for whatever reason it intends to serve, is fucked up and we, as humans (and indeed the world’s environment), do not have the appropriate capacity to deal with its consequences. For that, I think he has made an admirable film.
A Separation (2011 Asghar Farhadi)
Here is a film that does not willfully attempt to expose the repressive nature of life in Iran but rather explores specific aspects of human fallibility that helps expedite it.
‘Woah now, come again?’ I hear you ask!
Well, I think this a brilliant, intellectual work of art that deserves its status as one of the great modern screen dramas about human relationships. This is due mainly to its quality of acting, direction and general cinematic pace. The opening scene is of an Iranian couple on the verge of separating and arguing over the custody of their teenage child – the dialogue is so quick that as a non-Farsi speaking person, I found it difficult to keep up with the reading of the subtitles. However, I assume that even if I spoke Farsi, it would be difficult to make sense of it as they are both talking over each other extremely frantically. This and many other scenes in the film are deeply emotive and highly charged. The actors, including Farhadi’s daughter Sarina, who plays the unfortunate teenager caught up in the messy affair, give their everything to each and every dramatic part of this magnificent film.
Indeed, the setting here could be anywhere in the world. Do not relationships crumble in ways similar to this everywhere? The heightened significance to this story is that we are witnessing it happening in modern-day Tehran. This is the city of general middle class freedoms in the Middle East, but it is also a city still slightly clinging to the fable that men should always have more power than women, and over them. A Separation provides this as a significant subtext to the narrative. Farhadi does not allow one gender to be a winner over the other and he does not just simply pitch the storyline as a ‘battle of the sexes’. In fact he makes its obvious that his characters do not submit to this religiously-motivated gender philosophy, mainly because they are educated and smart, but the world around them unfortunately is different and it still submits to this philosophy. One thing I noted is that the men in the film are stubborn and desperate and clearly at odds with what society expects of them – there is always a feeling at the back of their heads that they need not be such bastards but ‘it is written’ or some other shite seems to compel them to continue down this path.
Wadjda (2012 Haifaa al-Mansour)
This is a wonderfully courageous film that only a few years ago unexpectedly appeared out from Saudi Arabia – a disgraceful country that still officially treats women as slaves to men. In its subject matter, Wadjda appears as a simple story of a child finding her way in life. But this may be the Western reading of it. Acknowledging the fact that this is set in Riyadh, a city that centres on a vastly rich but deeply oppressive country, and realising the importance of the child’s gender to the narrative, it then becomes a much more profound film.
Doubtlessly a film made with a western audience in mind and with a director who vigorously criticises the abuses of human rights in her homeland, there is a straight-forward message presented here to the rest of the world but I also think the film manages to capture a promising cultural experience too i.e. it’s not all doom and gloom! To this end, I was able to indulge into a sense of Saudi Arabian culture throughout while watching this, mainly due to the authentic setting and the subtleties of life that is implied from living there. Indeed, life does not come across as very bad but I guess, just like A Separation, we are speaking about middle class folk. The more horrific struggles of the poor in the Middle East are reserved for the shackled silent majority I presume.
Of course the shackles of oppression clearly hangs over the world that the young girl called Wadjda and her mother inhabits. She simply dreams of owning a bicycle so that she can beat her male friend in a race after school but her mother will not agree to it due, one can only surmise, to the restrictions on what women are allowed to do in public in Riyadh. It is the resourcefulness and lateral thinking of the 11 year old girl in her quest to ‘beat the boy’ that provides the impetus for this delightful defiance tale. The middle class vibe to this may make things all warm and fuzzy and may well obscure the actual sinister gender-divided world of Saudi Arabia (regular public floggings and executions of troublesome women), but even as this could alternatively have been portrayed more negatively, I don’t think it would have been accessible to a wider audience. And this is the main point really. Films like this need to be distributed around the world in order to present the tribulations that young people face growing up in places like this to us lazy-ass lucky-fuckers from Western society. In Wadjda, the message is positive and why not? If we can reward human endevour, we will all be the better for it regardless of the issue I think.