In the enlightening, if mildly patronizing, tradition of alt-film programming of third-world movies that are more exotic cultural expressions than they are socko art, the Walter Reade’s Arab series begins with pioneering Egyptian workhorse Salah Abou Seif, who began toiling in his nation’s callow film industry in his teens, and directed the first film of a 46-year career in 1945. From the evidence we have to go on, Abou Seif was no stylist, or much of a formal thinker, but he comprised a kind of front-guard norm in mainstream Egyptian filmmaking, leaping from genre to genre with ease and making a consistent effort to steer the cinematic colloquy away from opulent-yet-pious nonsense and toward a social consciousness. (Always officially censorial, Egypt still struggles to entwine Islamist astringency with belly-dancing traditionalism.) In sharp contrast to the bulk of Egyptian cinema, Abou Seif’s dealt with poor people and the issues of conflicted propriety and injustice that dominate life in a realm struggling with extremist conservatism.
You could think of him as Cairo’s answer to Stanley Kramer, except that Abou Seif’s visual tact is, characteristically for an ancient culture still “developing,” essentially flaccid—rarely more eloquent than Asian soap opera. A Woman’s Youth (1956) and I Am Free (1958) are both landmarks in pre-feminist character exploration, but their reconnoitering narratives seem tame outside of North Africa. The Water Bearer Is Dead (1977) is similarly trad, focusing on the friendship between a sullen widower and a hedonistic freelance mortician, and burdened by fidgety zooms, flat TV lighting, and amateurish performances. The Trial 68 (1968) stands out by way of its Poe-esque central metaphor: An ominous crack in a Cairo apartment house becomes a figurative fissure as responsibility and blame are fought over in the country’s corruption-blighted legal system.
The more current Arab films on view—a selection that scrupulously avoids the Iranian wave still landing meteors around the world—are naturally savvier, and imply not so delicately that monotheistic piety and cinema don’t mix well. Egyptian first-timer Atef Hetata’s The Closed Doors (1999) begins modestly enough, but its confused-teen scenario quickly becomes a gimlet-eyed vision of Islamic severity throwing down with the titanic forces of pubertal horniness—the Iman-rapt, Peeping Tom hero’s life becomes unglued as even his own widowed mother becomes a raging object of desire. (“Times like these,” she says innocently as they cuddle, “I wish I could take you back inside me.”) The zealous obsess on the forbidden, and Hetata’s movie is a web of hypocrisy critiques, with room even for a sweetly defiant homage to Vigo.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Rana’s Wedding (2002), a Palestinian misfire about a marriage-minded debutante frustrated by gunfire and checkpoints, and Mohamed Zineddaine’s Awakening (2003), a narcissistic Moroccan indie documenting its narration-crazed maker’s sojourn in the desert, may be maddening, but the popular Tunisian menopausal-belly-dancing romance Satin Rouge (2002), released here last year, remains warmly secular, and Marianne Khoury’s The Women Who Loved Cinema (2002) is as luxuriously addictive a film-history doc as Peter Delpeut’s Diva Dolorosa.
Better still, Faouzi Bensaidi’s A Thousand Months (2003), probably the first Moroccan film to find its way into the New York Film Festival, is the only breakaway “art film” in the series—meaning Bensaidi, an ex-Téchiné associate, has absorbed the brine of Kiarostami and Hou, and composes his little-village satire in long, distanced, obliquely composed shots that allow you to occupy the dusty space on your own cognizance, and discover the characters (a boy cursed with caretaking his teacher’s chair 24-7, a technician who covertly pulls the plug on the town’s one TV every night so he can regale his girlfriend with the shows’ unseen climaxes, an appointed official subject to self-destructive satyrdom, etc.) at your leisure. Even so, my favorite may be Nadir Mokneche’s Viva Laldjerie (2003), an unpredictable, naturalistic drama about a cosmopolitan 27-year-old (the lovely Lubna Azabal) wasting herself on a married womanizer; her vain, campy ex-cabaret-dancer mother (Biyouna); and the Algiers around them, still reeling from the Islamic-terrorism-ravaged ’90s, and still on the edge of ideology-versus-humanism warfare. By turns farcical, personality-rich, and profoundly observant, Mokneche’s film has all of the ambivalence of a day in an Algerian Starbucks.