Movies of the Middle East

Middle Eastern cinema provides a rich and complex look at a region that has suddenly moved to center stage.

Published October 9, 2001 7:15PM (EDT)

As our government performs a delicate political ballet in the Middle East -- with a generous role for cruise missiles -- Americans struggle to take in the dimly-lit setting. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, basic questions -- Who are these people? How do they live? What is Islam? Why do they hate us? -- have remained largely unanswered, in part because the only satisfying explanations will come from other average citizens, struggling with their own traumas, halfway around the world.

We have information about the Middle East, but we lack stories. There are stacks of books, reams of newspaper articles, hours of Christiane Amanpour to be devoured, but these resources rarely tend to the minutiae; they fail to bring any visceral understanding of life in places whose politics confuse or frighten us.

There is, however, a well of information about the people, culture and history of the Middle East, related in what is arguably the most immediate form: film. The cinema of this region is extraordinarily rich, with intelligent, beautiful, heartbreaking and terrifying films from countries like Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Israel.

These movies tell the stories of these places, shed light on private life -- in the street and under the mantle of Islam -- despite heavy government censorship and restricted distribution. A recurring theme is the division between the characters in the films and the often restrictive governments and religious regimes under which they live -- a rupture that is crucial to understanding the human undercurrent of our current crisis.

"What's missing with all the reports we get on TV, is that yes, there's turmoil and anger, but there's also so much sweetness and innocence and beauty in the culture," says John Sinno, president of Arab Film Distribution. "Arab cinema is really a great way to understand the complexities and subtleties of the Middle East. Arab filmmakers have tried very hard to raise issues -- they are there, but they haven't really gotten the distribution they deserve."

Some of the best Middle Eastern cinema comes from Iran, Israel and Egypt, all of which have a long histories of filmmaking. Countries with strong French influences, such as Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, also stand out. Films from these countries have been winning awards at international film festivals like Cannes for years, but they get little recognition in the United States. In the rest of the Middle East, though, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, filmmaking is rare, often because of economic or religious reasons.

"Arabian countries are suffering from extreme poverty; filmmaking is not a possibility in Afghanistan or Iraq because of economic restriction," Jamsheed Akrami, a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and director of the documentary "Friendly Persuasion," about the history of Iranian cinema. "In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait you have a different set of restrictions -- Islamic-based moral restrictions, [which prevent] filmmaking. In Syria, there is filmmaking talent, but because the Syrian people are more interested in foreign films than Syrian films, you don't see domestic films becoming popular."

Even films that do get made and enjoy some film festival successes lack a significant or diverse audience. Not only are they missing from the shelves of the local Blockbuster, they are not widely shown in their home countries. "I'm sure that films are made, that great films are even made there. The problem is that there is a very tenuous and difficult network to navigate to see films from and about the Middle East," says Ray Privett, coordinator of Facets Video Collection. "Connections between people in these countries are complicated, and filmmakers have to go through rigorous censorship processes that vary from country to country."

It is not at all unusual for prominent filmmakers from countries like Iran and Egypt to have their films banned at home. In Iran, for example, most films are funded by the state; and while the nation has had a thriving independent film movement since the 1970s, filmmakers still endure a strict censorship process at the hands of their government patrons. Men and women aren't supposed to even touch hands on celluloid, which effectively silences the romance genre; violence and profanity are forbidden; and women in film must wear a veil at all times. This means that some of the best Iranian films -- "The Circle," "Banoo" and "The Hidden Half" -- have been banned by the government on ideological or moral grounds.

Still, Iranian filmmakers have found ways to work around the censorship process, tailoring their plots or characters but still producing social commentary that is thoughtful and critical. Film has become, in fact, perhaps the strongest medium for independent political voices in the Middle East, who use the subtleties of their medium to convey critical messages.

"Film can be an indirect medium -- you have a message of protest in the film without being too direct," says Akrami. "It offers more opportunities, a wider expanse of creative freedom because of the nature of the medium. Iranian artists are taking advantage of that."

To evade the ban on depiction of adult relationships, many filmmakers have made films about children. "The White Balloon," which won the Camera D'Or at Cannes in 1995, is one such film. It follows the escapades of 7-year-old Razieh, who wants to buy a goldfish for New Years but loses the money her mother gave her to do so. "Children of Heaven," which was nominated for an Oscar in 1999, is a similar story: Young Ali loses his sister Zahra's shoes, and in order to hide the loss from their impoverished parents, the siblings decide to share Ali's ratty tennis shoes. Both "Children of Heaven" and "The White Balloon" are films with superficial charm and uplifting tone, but both manage to convey quiet but strong commentary on tolerance and poverty in their countries.

In fact, some critics argue that the restrictions on content have worked to enrich Iranian cinema, forcing filmmakers to be more attentive to the craft and narrative and find compelling and subversive ways to communicate large or complex themes without melodrama. "Before the revolution, when Iranian cinema was permissive, there were heavy doses of sex and violence. Those movies and some of the filmmakers were banned after the revolution," says Akrami. "The filmmakers decided to focus on humanitarian issues. But when filmmakers were deprived of commercial elements like sex and violence, they had to concentrate more of a decent story line and credible characters."

In treading lightly and using benign sources for storytelling, Middle Eastern filmmakers have made movies that are especially enlightening about the small nuances and overwhelming challenges of everyday life in their countries. The films yield details that lead to greater revelations about the culture and lifestyle in remote countries like Morocco, Lebanon or Afghanistan. The films, despite their avoidance of blatant political rhetoric, take American viewers beyond -- or behind -- the headlines and political analysis generated at home..

Director Elia Suleimans' 1996 film "Chronicle of a Disappearance," for example, is a blackly comical depiction of daily life in Jerusalem, from a Palestinian point of view. The movie is essentially a plot-free autobiographical film about Suleiman's return to Jerusalem after a self-imposed exile in the United States. Abstract and deeply ironic, it offers snapshots of a city where souvenir vendors sell "holy water" that they bottle themselves, while squadrons of military police race around the city in useless circles.

Similarly, Michel Khleifi's more traditional film "Wedding In Galilee" (1988) looks at the strained relationship between Palestinians and Israelis from the viewpoint of those living the conflict every day. In "Wedding In Galilee," the elder of an occupied Palestinian village in the West Bank convinces the Israeli governor to lift a curfew so that he can throw a wedding for his son; the condition is that the governor and his staff are guests of honor at the ceremony. Between this film and "Chronicle of a Disappearance," it's possible to understand the mundane details and enormous personal conflicts of life in a country battered by decades of violence and religious warfare.

Iran's strong film industry also has produced a number of films that illuminate the humanity of people that many Americans once regarded as enemies. Iran's most famous director, Abbas Kiarostami, produces films that are slowly paced and simple meditations on Iranian adult life, such as "Through the Olive Trees" and the award-winning "A Taste of Cherry." The latter is about a man who wants to commit suicide and is looking for someone to bury him after he's dead. As he drives around the hills of Tehran, he picks up a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan semininarian and a taxidermist. The conversations they have give life and complexity to the vast ethnic mix of a country packed with refugees from various Middle Eastern conflicts, while offering universal commentary on the value of human life.

Kiarostami's films depict Iran as the scene of universal tumult, a place where people puzzle over the same kinds of human dilemmas everyone else does. Other films, such as the documentary "The English Sheik and the Yemeni Gentlemen" (2000), attempt to capture the vast differences between West and East. This film documents life in one of the least-known and most exotic countries in the Middle East: Yemen, a coastal outpost of conservatism beneath Saudi Arabia. The film follows Bader Ben Hirsi, a 27-year-old British filmmaker of Yemeni descent, as he travels back to his father's homeland and meets a British expatriate who has been living in Yemen for years. The two roam the breathtakingly beautiful country -- lush, jagged mountains, medieval mud-brick and alabaster cities, brilliant white-sand beaches. The film is a thoughtful meditation on the notion of "belonging" to a place, as the English expatriate happily tears into meals of roasted sheepshead and chews gat leaf (an intoxicating local plant) like a native, while his Yemeni visitor gazes awkwardly on.

Despite a seemingly relentless struggle with censorship, some Middle Eastern filmmakers have produced work that addresses -- often directly -- the issues of politics, war and religion; their films represent those who support extremist governments as well as those who quietly rebel against them. These films frequently personify an intense anger directed at the United States, but they also convey the mixed emotions about fanaticism that often plague the weary inhabitants of the region.

"The Gulf War, What Next?" (1991), for example, is a collection of five short films by Arab directors addressing the war in Kuwait from the point of view of those living in the region. The series was commissioned by British television, and demonstrates how events in Kuwait rippled through Islamic countries as far away as Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon. "Research of Shaima," a short documentary by filmmaker Nejia Ben Makbrouk, is particularly striking: Makbrouk travels to bombed-out Baghdad in search of a girl she saw in a television report. Her film juxtaposes footage of the widespread destruction and death she finds in Iraq -- dead children, charred bodies -- with films of American soldiers chanting "I'm going to kill me an Arabian" to a chilling effect.

Not surprisingly, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has long been the focus of the lion's share of Middle Eastern films. The most recent film from the lauded Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, "Kippur," is a portrait of the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Syria and Israel, in which Gitai fought, from the perspective of a soldier who is skeptical about the issues at stake. "Kippur" is a kind of Israeli "Saving Private Ryan," and helps humanize the decades-old conflict.

Another stunning film about the ravages of war in the Middle East is "West Beirut," (1998), which was directed by Ziad Doueiri and scored by Stewart Copeland (the former drummer of the Police). "West Beirut" follows teenagers Tarek and Omar during the beginnings of the civil war between Christians and Muslims that devastated Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 and turned cosmopolitan Beirut into a bombed-out ruin. As MiGs fly overhead and terrorists machine-gun city buses outside their high school, the two teens try to live a normal life.

Religion, and religious intolerance, are constant themes in Middle Eastern film -- a fact which makes them incredibly useful to Western non-Muslims as they attempt to understand Islam. Arab and Islamic cinema demonstrate with brilliant detail how religion pervades most aspects of everyday life -- and politics -- in the region; it also considers the roots of the extremism that we currently find so hard to fathom.

"Destiny," by the famed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, examines the historic battle between Islamic fundamentalists and liberals through the story of the enlightened 12th century Andalusian philosopher and Quranic scholar Averroes. Averroes serves as the high judge to the Caliph, who rules Muslim Spain and is battling the Christians to the north. The fundamentalists, however, are struggling for power, and want Averroes' writings burned. It's a terrific quick study on historical religious tensions within the Islamic world, as well as a primer on how fanaticism is viewed by Islamic moderates.

For a more contemporary perspective on fundamentalism, "The Closed Doors" -- another Egyptian film -- offers the story of a young boy in Egypt who adopts a violent strain of fundamentalism during the Gulf War. He finds religion to be a salve for his poverty, sexual frustration and inability to express himself; but the close-minded nature of his new beliefs leads him to murder. "The Closed Doors" resonates with today's current events, giving a personal view on the confluence of youth and extremism in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, an entire genre of feminist Middle Eastern cinema has emerged -- a body of work that graphically depicts womens' struggle against the strict rules of Islam, as well as their rebellion against it. Iran, in particular, has a strong feminist filmmaking movement, which has produced films like "The Day I Became a Woman," "The Hidden Half" and "The Circle."

"These films are probably a direct byproduct of the restrictions that women are subject to in Iranian society, as well as the restrictions that are imposed on their representation in Iranian media," says Akrami. "Iranian filmmakers, men and women, are basically fighting back and making these moving films about women's situation."

"The Circle," which was released earlier this year, tracks the hopeless situation of a half dozen Iranian women, including three who have escaped from jail. One woman desperately wants an abortion but isn't allowed to get one without a man's permission; another mother abandons her daughter because she can't afford to keep her; and a prostitute is arrested for simply being in a car with a strange man. "The Circle," which was banned in Iran, offers a heartbreaking and intimate view of oppression in culture in which a woman can't even buy a bus ticket without a male guardian's help.

The most oppressive Islamic regimes are in countries where there is no film industry whatsoever, such as Afghanistan. Nonetheless, there are numerous documentaries which depict how women fight back when oppressed: "Beneath the Veil" and "Beneath the Borqa," for example, both examine the treatment of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they are forbidden to hold jobs, get an education, or speak to men who are not blood relatives. These films not only manage to show the extent and brutality of the various forms of oppression; they demonstrate how women rebel against the burqa, and use it to conceal anti-government activities -- secretly filming public executions, for example, or running underground women's schools.

Other films explore the choice of some women to embrace fundamentalism. "A Door to the Sky" (1989) by Moroccan feminist director Farida Ben Lyzaid, is a leisurely portrait of Nadia, a Moroccan woman whose father's death forces her to return from her expatriate life in Paris to the buttoned up Muslim customs of her homeland. Nadia returns to Fez with pink hair but is soon wearing a nun-like djellabah, reading the Quran, and turning her father's palace into a Muslim women's shelter. "A Door to the Sky" is a slow-paced meditation on the battle between modernity and the conservative religious roots of the Islamic world's younger generations; unlike the Iranian or Afghan feminist films, however, a women's decision to adopt conservative customs is depicted as her own religious choice.

Films out of the Middle East, like films made in America, cannot be expected to yield the gospel truth about the region or the lives of its citizens. Whether they are fiction or documentaries, the films will always convey the subjective views of the filmmakers, as well as their own versions of life in their home countries. Taken together, however, the work goes a great -- and entertaining -- distance to educate us about a place that looms, confuses and now frightens us.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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