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By Saibal Chatterjee September 07, 2018
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Diverse Arab voices at TIFF 2018

A slew of new titles that cut a wide swathe in terms of themes, concerns and styles represents Arab cinema in the 43rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF, Sept.6 to 16), testifying to the sustained dynamism and depth of filmmaking in the region. At one end of the spectrum, veteran Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache’s latest work world premieres in the festival’s Masters sidebar; at the other, Palestinian writer-director Bassam Jarbawi will bring the curtains down on the Discovery section with his debut feature.

What is particularly encouraging is that Jarbawi has two other Arab filmmakers — Syria’s Soudade Kaadan and Israeli-Palestinian Sameh Zoabi — for company in the Discovery selection, which, as the name suggests, is aimed at unearthing and promoting fresh cinematic voices. In fact, most of the Arab directors in the TIFF program this year are in their 30s or 40s and have several productive decades of filmmaking ahead of them.

High on every list of must-watch TIFF 2018 films will be Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum. This naturalistic, deeply felt exploration of the lives of marginalised children eking out a precarious existence on the streets of Beirut will play as a Special Presentation. Capernaum premiered in the Cannes Competition earlier this year and won the Jury Prize. In 2011, Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? earned the TIFF People’s Choice Award.  

Merzak Allouache, 73, is one of the Arab world’s most celebrated filmmakers. His new film, Divine Wind, shot in striking black and white, is about a young man and woman who are assigned the task of blowing up a petroleum extraction site in the North African desert. Allouache once again explores the dangers of radicalisation.

While both are completely indoctrinated, the two jihadists in Divine Wind have nothing in common. The man is a new recruit and is assailed by doubts; the enigmatic woman is a more hardened soul. But thrown as they are into a secret mission that could be their last, they are drawn ever closer to each other, which puts their plans at risk.

Bassam Jarbawi, who made an international splash with the short film Chicken Heads about a decade ago, will be in Toronto with Mafak (Screwdriver), about a man who, after spending more than a decade in an Israeli jail for a failed attack on a settler, struggles to adjust to life after imprisonment. On his return to his home in Ramallah, he does not feel like the hero he is made out to be.

Shot entirely on location on the West Bank, the film has been produced by New York-based Shrihari Sathe and actress-producer Yasmine Qaddumi, who also stars in the film alongside lead actor Ziad Bakri and Areen Omari, Jameel Khoury and Mariam Basha. Significantly, Mafak has been named the closing film of TIFF’s Discovery section.

On the exciting Arab menu in TIFF is another anticipated debut narrative feature — French-born Syrian documentarian Soudade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, also part of Discovery. She is known for the feature-length documentary Obscure, in which she focused on the trauma of a 6-year-old silent boy in a refugee camp in Lebanon.    

Set amidst the chaos of the war in Syria, her new film revolves around a young mother who tries everything she can to ensure normalcy for her son even as life is thrown out of gear by power outages, gas shortages, water supply disruptions and, of course, the sporadic shelling a few blocks away. A seemingly innocuous errand that the woman undertakes with a brother and sister duo goes awry and sucks her into the conflict that is raging around her.

Also in Discovery is writer-director Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire, a lively satire that takes a defiantly cross-eyed look at the Israeli-Palestinian face-off. Raised in a village near the city of Nazareth, Zoabi is best known for the 2010 comedy Man Without a Cell Phone, which he directed, and Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol (2015), which he scripted.

In Tel Aviv on Fire, set in present-day Jerusalem, Zoabi tells the story of a middle-aged slacker who lands a job as a production assistant on a popular Palestinian evening soap only to find himself having to contend with more than he bargained for. The film’s comic vein couches the complexities of the Palestinian situation and seeks to elicit laughter in ways that are both startling and dripping with irony.

Toronto audiences will also be watching another comedic take on the complexities of life — EXT. Night, a film by Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla, a TIFF regular. His new film homes in on the tribulations of an embattled Egyptian director grappling with a range of off-the-sets issues as he scrambles to complete his film. Abdalla probes the themes of class and gender as his meta-fictional protagonist negotiates the obstacles, unforeseen and yet inevitable, that he faces.

Four of Abdalla’s previous films — Heliopolis (his 2009 debut), Microphone (2010), 18 Days (2011) and Rags & Tatters (2013) — were screened in TIFF in a span of five years. He returns to his favourite hunting ground after a five-year hiatus. EXT. Night is in the festival’s Contemporary World Cinema section.

Another returning TIFF filmmaker is Tunisia’s Nejib Belkadhi, who last featured in the festival in 2013 with Bastardo. His new film, Look At Me, part of Contemporary World Cinema, tells the story of a man who is torn between the life he thought he left behind in his home country and the new life he has built in Marseille. The lead role in the film is played by Nidhal Saadi, known in France and North Africa for his stand-up acts.

Two remarkable documentaries — Libyan-English director Naziha Arebi’s Freedom Fields and Moroccan filmmaker Jawad Rhalib’s When Arabs Danced — add weight to TIFF 2018’s Arab selection. These films delve into aspects of Arab life that aren’t often portrayed on the big screen.  

TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers puts When Arabs Danced in perspective: “A bold corrective to narrow notions about what it means to be Muslim, director Jawad Rhalib’s When Arabs Danced is also a stirring testament to the power of art to reconfigure identity. Beginning with Rhalib’s memories of childhood shame regarding his mother’s belly dancing, the film quickly expands its purview from personal essay to cultural investigation.”

Powers further writes in his introduction to the film: “Our media is plagued with images and rhetoric that reduce Muslim culture to terror and tragedy. Rhalib’s passionate work… remedies this with scene after scene in which that same culture is shown to be infused with expressions of beauty, provocation, and movement... and could not feel more fiercely alive.”

Freedom Fields, in the words of TIFF’s Arab cinema programmer Kiva Reardon, “offers an intimate look at post-revolution Libya through the eyes of an aspiring all-female soccer team whose struggle to gain mainstream acceptance mirrors the broader challenges facing women in contemporary Libyan society.”

One of the most striking titles in TIFF’s Arab line-up is Lebanese director and animator Ghassan Halwani’s debut feature, Erased, Ascent of the Invisible. Part of Wavelengths, a section devoted to experimental, boundary-pushing films, it spotlights stories of the thousands of people who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war and whose absence haunts their loved ones to this day.

Two short fiction films — A Wedding Day by Algeria’s Elias Belkeddar and Brotherhood by Montreal-based Tunisian director Meryam Joobeur — round off the formidable Arab presence in TIFF 2018.  
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