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Picturing the Middle East 

Taking a look at movies that shed light on the region, its culture and conflicts.

Last summer I was invited to the Jerusalem Film Festival to speak about Iranian cinema, as part of a discussion about national cinemas worldwide. Afterward, a friend told me that every time I mentioned Iran, some audience members squirmed.

Given that this occurred in the context of a very cosmopolitan, secular and beautifully run festival, that note of visceral discomfort stayed with me, since it seemed to offer proof of something I am more and more aware of: The bridges of understanding between divided cultures that cinema can construct are by definition very slight and tenuous--but important.

When The Independent asked me to supply a list of 10 movies useful for understanding the Middle East, I first thought of how inadequate movies are to such a task. Yet understanding and education have to begin somewhere, and movies are a place that everyone goes--a place that, whether it tries to or not, shapes our ideas of the world.

The list below is a place to start. It is confined to fictional films that are widely available. While the titles mentioned can be found at better video stores and the likes of Amazon.com, I'll take the opportunity to mention two sales-rental services that can help readers extend their knowledge of Middle Eastern film: Chicago's Facets Multimedia (www.facets.org) and California's Arab Film Distribution (www.arabfilm.com).

Warning: Some of the movies mentioned below contain sympathetic portrayals of Islam and Muslims. It is hoped that the N.C. Legislature will not close down any UNC schools where the films may be screened or discussed.

The Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy, 1965). One of the defining political films of the 1960s, Gillo Pontecorvo's stirring account of Algeria's struggle for independence from France, remains the single most electrifying and illuminating movie about a people (Arab, Islamic or otherwise) trying to break the stranglehold of colonialism. A model for later works such as Costa-Gavras' Z, it was shot with lightweight cameras for a documentary feel that retains its power and freshness even today. Although the filmmakers' liberationist sympathies are unmistakable, the film is most remarkable for its nuance and balance: It refuses either to romanticize the Algerians or to demonize the French. A seminal work; highly recommended.

Chronicle of a Disappearance (Palestine-France, 1996). Born in Palestine in 1960, filmmaker Elia Suleiman lived abroad--including 12 years in New York--before returning home to make this wry postmodern meditation on the Palestinian soul and its erosion by recent history. Suggesting an improbable combination of Buster Keaton, David Lynch and Samuel Beckett, the film registers the director's quiet despair and gnawing sense of displacement while memorably limning the look of Palestine (the crystalline light, the shimmering olive trees) and the absurdist, black-comedy lives of people trapped in the suspended animation of occupation. While Suleiman's latest, Divine Intervention (upcoming at some Triangle art house, we hope), made it onto my 2002 10-best list, I think I prefer his strikingly original debut.

Destiny (Egypt-France, 1998). For ecumenical culturephiles, the word "Andalusia" conjures a peak of Western civilization: The medieval epoch when Islamic art, science and philosophy reached their apogee, and Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmonious interaction in southern Spain. Yet there was a serpent in the garden--religious fanaticism. Drawing from the life of the Islamic philosopher Averroes, this fascinating film by Egypt's Youssef Chahine is a politically charged plea for tolerance that's also an example of cinematic eclecticism at its most delightful. It's a high-spirited adventure-comedy-drama that also, in tribute to MGM of the '40s, takes the occasional pause for a splashy, gay-friendly musical number! You don't get much more ecumenical than that.

Exodus (U.S.A., 1960). Built to win Oscars and rally support for Israel, this three-and-a-half hour Technicolor saga is Hollywood epic-making at its most expansive and expert. The story begins with Paul Newman as Israeli commando Ben Canaan, whose Palestine-bound boat has been stopped at Cyprus by the British, on his way to rescue 600 Jews from Holocaust-stricken Europe. Although like every epic that subsumes historical fact in the sweep and self-justification of myth (not to mention the romantic and action formulas of Hollywood), the film does a cracking good job at conveying the mythic version of Israel's founding, thanks in part to Otto Preminger's superb direction, Ernest Gold's Oscar-winning score, and a cast that also includes Eva Marie Saint and Sal Mineo.

Lawrence of Arabia (Great Britain, 1962). Movie epics don't get any better than Sir David Lean's masterpiece, which won several Oscars including best picture, director, cinematography, score, editing and art direction. Anchored by a brilliant script (by Robert Bolt and Michael Howard) and Peter O'Toole's blazing performance as the charismatic and tortured T.E. Lawrence, the film is less about the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule that accompanied World War I, than it is about the romantic attraction that the Arabian desert and its age-old culture holds for many Westerners (as it similarly does for city-bound Arabs). While the story's latter portion does deal (somewhat awkwardly) with the Western political impositions that paved the way for the current crisis in the Middle East, the film is best at conveying Lawrence's intoxication with Arabia's sea of shining dunes and camel-riding warriors.

The Message (Lebanon, 1976). Another wide-screen, three hour-plus epic, Moustapha Akkad's account of the founding of Islam is most easily described as the Muslim equivalent to Hollywood biblical epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings. And that's precisely why it's worth recommending. Embraced by Muslims the world over, the movie gives us Islamic culture's origins as seen by that culture itself. And that's not to suggest that there's nothing of interest cinematically here. Emphasizing Islam's debts and ties to Judaism and Christianity, the film is as assured as it is grand, with a score by Lawrence's Maurice Jarre, some spectacular desert battle scenes, and a topnotch cast that includes Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas. In keeping with Muslim tradition, Mohammad himself remains an unseen presence throughout. (Also known as Mohammad, Messenger of God.)

Secret Ballot (Iran, 2001). From the galaxy of Iranian films that might be recommended, including masterpieces by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I've chosen this subtly deadpan comedy because it's a) recent, b) slyly political, c) less well-known than it deserves to be, and d) indicative of the general quality and intelligence of Iranian art films even from newer directors. In Babak Payami's film, a determined young female election official arrives on a desert island aiming to collect the vote with the help of a recalcitrant soldier she recruits. Critics have likened the battle of nerves that ensues to that of Hepburn and Bogie in The African Queen. But what the film most strikingly conveys is present-day democracy's ambiguous hold on the imagination of back-country Iran.

Yol (Turkey-Switzerland, 1982). As magisterial and moving today as it was when it arrived 21 years ago, Yilmaz Guney's film suggests a Turkish combination of Lawrence of Arabia's commanding scale with the compassionate humanism of the Italian Neorealists. Following five prisoners who span the vast human and geographic distances of Turkey when they are let loose on a week's parole, the movie captures the exhilarating lure of freedom as surely as it does the repression and horrors its protagonists encounter. Guney himself was in prison when he wrote the film and directed it through a surrogate; it went on to win the Cannes Film Festival. I'm surely not the only one here who considers it the most affecting and revelatory movie about the Middle East that includes a look at Turkey's still-repressed minority, the Kurds.

Wedding in Galilee (Belgium-France, 1987). In this debut by Palestinian director Michel Khleifi, the mayor of a village in the occupied territories wants to have his son married in the traditional Arab manner, but is faced with the local Israeli commander's demand that he be allowed to attend the ceremony. A mix of understated comedy and shrewd social observation, Khleifi's sensuous, sharply crafted film avoids both sentimentality and polemics in probing the cultural distances that separate two peoples as surely as political divisions do. It's a sad commentary on recent history that this movie's lack of rancor and quiet plea for mutual understanding can barely be imagined in a similar film today.

West Beirut (Lebanon-France, 1998). No city symbolizes the violence that has ripped through the modern Middle East more than Beirut. And no movie better the captures the strange challenge of growing up under such factional fire than this extraordinary debut by Ziad Doueiri. Though the young director served as Quentin Tarantino's camera operator on Pulp Fiction before returning to Beirut to make his own movie, the influence suggested by this fictionalized memoir isn't of Tarantino, but Truffaut of The 400 Blows. Following three teenagers through their coming of age in a war-torn city, Doueiri's film is equally lyrical and clear-eyed, and as alert to the evolving tensions between Muslim and Christian as it is to the confusions of first love. Hilarious at times, the film's cinematic promise offers a note of hope for the traumatized culture it depicts. EndBlock

  • Taking a look at movies that shed light on the region, its culture and conflicts.

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