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Arab cinema stamps its class on TIFF
by Saibal Chatterjee September 21, 2017
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With a healthy bunch of Arab films making it to the program, cinema from and about the Middle East had a wonderful run at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. Several of these titles – notably Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib,” Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” Nabil Ayouch’s “Razzia,” Amr Salama’s “Sheikh Jackson,” and American documentarian Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” – struck an instant chord with the audience here.

While reconciliation between nations, communities, cultures and individuals was the dominant thematic thread running through these wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking films, TIFF 2017 would also be remembered for premiering English-language films from two of the world’s best-known Arab directors – Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Mary Shelley,” starring Elle Fanning, and Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us,” featuring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet in stellar roles.

In the words of Kiva Reardon, TIFF programmer for Africa and the Middle East, Arab cinema is today in fine fettle today on account of its depth of quality, diversity of style and range of thematic concerns. “It is an amazingly dynamic cinema,” she says. 

“The Judge,” a cinema verite courtroom account, showcases and celebrates the life and work Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman appointed to a special court in the Middle East. Its maker, California-based Erika Cohn was working on a thesis on feminism at Hebrew University, Jerusalem in 2012 when she first met the remarkable judge. “I was at a meeting of legal luminaries. Judge Kholoud walked into the room. I was instantly captivated by her,” says the filmmaker.

The judge works within the Shari’a law to ensure women’s rights are protected in matters of the age of marriage, domestic violence and divorce settlements. “I try to focus on the loopholes in the law with a view to preventing the possibility of women getting a raw deal,” says Judge Kholoud. Cohn follows the judge as unobtrusively as possible as the latter goes about her work.

“Palestine is such a beautiful place. It has been through so much. It has had a strong feminist movement for centuries. I wanted to offer an intimate view of what is going on here,” says Cohn.

Another documentary, “Of Sheep and Men,” from Algeria’s Karim Sayad. In a style that is both direct and illuminating, the film highlights an impoverished community whose existence revolves around sheep trading and rearing. It zeroes in on 16-year-old Habib Halfaya and middle-aged Samir Meflah. The former dreams of training his sheep to become a champion fighter. The latter, a sheep merchant, just wants to sell enough of the animals he has before Eid to make ends meet.

On the fiction side, too, Arab cinema was well represented by films that figured on virtually everybody’s list of favourites at TIFF 2017. The Lebanese film “The Insult,” the story of a Christian car mechanic and a Palestinian construction company foreman who have a minor altercation that quickly escalates into a legal battle, appeals for the past to be not only put behind us, but also to be used as a lesson on how not to deal with each other, no matter what our differences may be.

“The Insult,” directed with marvelous skill and sensitivity by Ziad Doueiri, is driven entirely by a pacifist spirit that helps it connect with the audience at a simple, universal level even as its fractious theme leads into sensitive questions posed by the excesses of history perpetrated by all sides in the conflict.

Conflict is also at the heart of Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib,” this time between a father and his son, played by the real-life father-son duo of Mohammad Bakri and Saleh Bakri. The son, an architect, lives and works in Rome and has returned to his native town Nazareth for his sister’s wedding. With the father at the wheel, the two men go from door to door, as is the custom in Palestine, to hand out invitation cards to friends and acquaintances.

As the worldviews of the two men collide, the political fissures that are a daily reality in the region bubble to the surface, providing in the bargain a sharp portrait of Palestinian life and society in the shadow of occupation. But the gravitas of the film does not reduce Wajib to a dry, bitter cinematic tracts, Jacir suffuses it with wit, warmth and a whole lot of humanity. An absolute triumph.

Nabil Ayouch’s “Razzia” is a bravura pastiche of five stories that provide the audience a clear view of life and politics in contemporary Morocco. The characters the film deals with – a teacher, a Freddie Mercury fan, a Jewish café owner in Casablanca, a teenage girl with raging hormones and a humble housemaid – are etched out with empathy and impressive exactitude. That makes Razzia a multi-layered film that is both entertaining and subversive.

Also much feted in Toronto this year where the Egyptian film “Sheikh Jackson,” an Amr Salama-directed tale about a man of religion who is also an inveterate fan of the King of Pop Michael Jackson and is moved to distraction by the latter’s death; and Iraqi-Dutch filmmaker Mohamed Jabarah al-Daradji’s “The Journey,” set in Baghdad’s central station where the paths of a woman who is about to detonate a bomb and flirtatious man cross.

The Arab films in TIFF 2017 may be probing the clash of opposites to drive home the many tensions that the world is in the grip of today, but they leave absolutely no room for doubt over the fact that the cinema of the region is moving in the right direction.

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