Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jason goes to the Arab Film Festival--Saturday, Oct 20

3 programs on Saturday, and despite a few technical glitches, I had a good time.

First up was a music program, starting with "Heart and Spirit". It's a documentary about a popular Tunisian group that performs a traditional Islamic chant called Hezb Al-latif. The Hezb Al-latif is traditionally performed to dedicate any new project (a new home, etc.). So when a new recording studio wanted to dedicate their space, they brought in sheik Ahmed Jelman to perform the chant with his group. And hey, why not record it? That recording became incredibly popular, and so did the group. And Ahmed is a fine example of staying grounded while balancing his faith, his art, and his success.

Next up was "Qater al Nada", about a Palestinian Dabka dance group. They live in the only remaining Palestinian neighborhood in West Jerusalem, and while other dance groups compete internationally under the Israeli flag, they are adamant about being Palestinian, not Israeli. I'll just skip over the politics and say they're really good dancers.

And the third movie was "El Tanbura, Capturing a Vanishing Spirit", and unfortunately this one was plagued with technical problems. It's the story of a group reviving traditional music and folklore in Port Said, Egypt. Unfortunately, there were multiple audio glitches and the DVD froze up a few times. I could still follow the story somewhat through the subtitles, but when the real draw is the music, audio glitches are very bad. It was a shame.


Anyway, the next show was the children's program, starting with "Carthage Castaways". It was obviously originally a TV cartoon show, about a group of time-travelling adventurers from Carthage. The movie version was three half-hour episodes crammed awkwardly together, but if you consider it a sampler of the show rather than a 90 minute narrative film, it's okay. Actually, the show looks pretty good, although much heavier on history than would appeal to American kids. But that's not a bad thing. Most Americans wouldn't get a reference to the library of Alexandria, but I really, really wish they would. And of course shows like this could change that.

Then the next technical glitch was that they couldn't get the short "The Magic Crop" to play, so they replaced it with "Kemo Sabe", the story of an Arab-American kid who really wants to play on the cowboy side in the game of cowboys and Indians (of course, all the ethnic kids are the Indians). It's a touching story with no easy happy ending.


And then the third program of the night, featuring the first ever Lebanese vampire movie. But first the excellent short, "Garbage". It's a story of sexual obsession and frustration, as the hero steals the neighbor woman's garbage and uses it to learn all about her, having a surrogate relationship with her. And for those who think Arabs culture is all conservative, this movie has a man humping a bag of garbage. There's something I haven't seen in an American movie.

Then finally the movie I was most eager to see, "The Last Man" is billed as the first Lebanese vampire movie, and is a very strange vampire movie at that. It opens with a shot of waves crashing against a sea wall shot in a manner that makes Beirut look really Gothic. In fact, the camera work throughout the movie does an excellent job of portraying the city as a mysterious, foreboding force. It then launches into a fragmented, non-linear story of a murderous monster killing people and sucking their blood. Mild-mannered doctor and scuba enthusiast Khalil Shams (Carlos Chahine) is afraid he might be the vampire, as his eyes become increasingly sensitive to sunlight. The movie jumps around in time and place, with no scene flowing directly into the next. The overall effect is jarring and surreal, and over time the visual echoes give a sense of history continuously repeating itself. I can appreciate the movie for these elements, but I fear I'm missing the key knowledge needed--an understanding of what it's like to live in Beirut. I feel this is very much a Beirut film, about Beirut and for residents of Beirut. And as much as I liked this movie, it certainly doesn't make Beirut look inviting enough for me to spend time there to understand the movie better.

And that was my day at the Arab Film Festival.
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