So it’s a round world after all. Still, one need not be a technological determinist to acknowledge its impact on the rate of global film production, not to mention critical notions about what constitutes “world cinema.” The sheer number of films being produced and exhibited these days makes it impossible to keep track even of what’s going on in New York, rendering some amount of specialization inevitable for critics and viewers alike. The latest instance of geographical festival narrowcasting, the first annual CinemaEast Film Festival collects movies from the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.
Set during the waning years of the Nasser era, opening-night film I Love Cinema filters a tumultuous period in Egyptian history through the chaotic family life of seven-year-old film fanatic Na whose strict Coptic father considers moviegoing a sin—a designation that also covers singing and non-procreative sex with his increasingly frustrated wife, a repressed painter contemplating infidelity with a local artist. Not without some irksome comic crutches, I Love Cinema gets better as it goes along, partly because director Oussama Fawzi is unafraid to depict his young protagonist as a little shit, tormenting his grandmother and pissing in the face of a doctor. What first appears to be a nostalgic crowd-pleaser shades into something darker, our sympathies shifting from Na to his harried mother. The movie pursues its central metaphor of cinema as surrogate religion to its logical conclusion—and the disquieting final scene suggests a faith no less problematic than his father’s hellfire-and-brimstone orthodoxy.
Far more devout in spirit, the Iranian A Piece of Bread follows an aging mullah and a young soldier as they travel to a remote village to investigate an alleged miracle. Maintaining a mystical, even reverential tone all the way to the enigmatic finale, director Kamal Tabrizi unexpectedly posits government meddling as an enemy of true piety. Religion is the elephant in the room in Two Bows, which profiles a pair of 50-year-old Iranian musicians: Reza Derakhshani, who continues to pursue a successful career abroad, and Bahram Berdikor, who has remained at home. Avoiding the pitfall of superfluous narration and surprisingly light on interviews, this 47-minute documentary by Bahman Kiarostami bears more than a passing resemblance to the DV work of father Abbas. Music and montage deconstruct the oppositions that the movie’s seemingly built around—tradition/modernity, censorship/freedom, East/West—with Kiarostami lingering on seemingly incongruous sights like a Coca-Cola advertisement in Farsi.
More resonant still with contemporary life in the Middle East (and here in the States), the Turkish Toss-Up tells the interlocking stories of two military veterans who fall on hard times following injury in battle—one loses a leg and the other suffers hearing loss in one ear. The moody material isn’t particularly well suited to the transparency of video, and actor-turned- director Yucel’s stylistic tricks (slo-mo, audio flashbacks) do little to compensate for the lack of atmosphere. But particularly after a natural disaster prompts the sudden reappearance of one soldier’s gay (and part-Greek) half brother, Toss-Up productively ponders the unsustainable tension between deep cultural prejudices and our increasingly interdependent world.