Ghostface Killah rhyming over sped-up images of a city in decay. A mockumentary on urban ills. A comedy about a small town in a media-fueled uproar. A slick, violent thriller about a cop and a killer falling in love.
Films from the Middle East? Not very likely.
Those familiar with Iran’s cinematic renaissance of the mid-1990s know Middle Eastern films as being brilliant but minimally crowd-pleasing—it would be hard to picture Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the two pre-eminent directors of the Iranian New Wave, featuring any gunplay or hip-hop in their movies. And those unfamiliar with the cinematic history of the region might find it difficult to picture movies from the Middle East at all.
The CinemaEast Film Festival—which runs November 8 to 15 at the IFC Center—wants to combat such stereotyping by presenting a fuller-bodied portrait of the region’s films. It also aims to nurture a new generation of Middle Eastern filmmakers, whose movie-making is made immeasurably more difficult by the region’s instability and violence. This requires highlighting the silly as well as the high-minded, the crowd-pleasing as well as the brain-stimulating.
Perhaps no entrant in this year’s festival—which includes 52 features, docs, and shorts—better encapsulates the new direction of the Middle East film than Faouzi Bensaidi’s What a Wonderful World. Bensaidi, last seen in New York in 2003, when his tender A Thousand Months screened at the New York Film Festival, has been poring over his Tarantino and has produced a Moroccan cover version of a mid-’90s American crime film; call it Things to Do in Rabat When You’re Dead. Contract killers, prostitutes, police officers, and migrant workers meet and mingle in contemporary Morocco, with elements of crime drama giving way to sweet-natured romantic fantasy, then reversing course. Bensaidi combines his clear affection for Tarantino with slapstick comic elements borrowed from the work of Jacques Tati and Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman.
The Middle East has become part of the global cinematic marketplace, and CinemaEast is its moment in the New York spotlight. “They are doing a great service to our community, enriching our cinematic culture by films we would otherwise not see,” says Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University, a scholar of Middle Eastern film.
The festival is sponsored by ArteEast, an international collective of arts professionals founded in 2002 dedicated to supporting the culture of the Middle East—which, for their purposes, encompasses the Arab world, North Africa, Iran, and Turkey. Putting a film festival together requires building relationships with filmmakers around the region. “We have a real network,” says the festival’s director, Rasha Salti. “Not only with filmmakers, but with small production houses, with filmmakers’ collectives, with small, nonprofit, independent spaces that showcase independent films—and I think this is very much reflected in our program.”
Salti, who began as a volunteer with the organization after attending a New York screening, grew up in Lebanon and remains plugged into the Lebanese filmmaking scene, trading gossip about the latest doings of directors with remarkable fluency. Traveling the length and breadth of the Middle East, she attends all the major regional festivals—Cairo, Tunisia, Beirut, Istanbul—while also making sure to look beyond festivals for worthwhile work. “You don’t want to become embedded in a network of festivals,” she says. “You become embedded in the story of independent production.”
Every country has its own story, its own means of production, and its own quirks. Where the Moroccan government liberally funds film production and engages in no censorship, Egypt’s will marginalize filmmakers, especially for the cardinal sin of insults to Islam. There are still holdovers from an earlier, pre-globalization Middle East, too: The Tunisian film The TV Is Coming toured with a truck and projector, sidestepping the country’s lack of movie theaters (an unlikely journey documented in the short Cine-bus, also screening at CinemaEast). Another Tunisian film, the wonderful VHS Kahloucha, details the picaresque adventures of a homegrown auteur whose films are produced in entertainingly slapdash fashion, seemingly patched together with his own sweat and blood.
In addition to mounting the festival, ArteEast has poured its resources into a most unlikely project: the opening of a film school in Baghdad. While it’s difficult to imagine a film school flourishing amid the endless violence that defines the post-invasion city, the Independent Film & Television College, Baghdad (founded by filmmakers Maysoon Pachachi and Kasim Abid) has offered an array of courses intended to lay the groundwork for a degree-granting program. “These initiatives aim to build a full-fledged program with a full curriculum,” says Salti.
Potential donors required proof of a functioning institution before giving money to the school, so it began as an in-depth workshop program in 2004. The school had intended to enroll a mix of women and men, Baghdadis and non-Baghdadis, but the unplanned Iraqi diaspora has meant that many students’ families now reside, at least temporarily, abroad. “Our students come from inside Iraq, but also from the big Iraqi refugee communities that have come into being since 2003, especially in Syria and Jordan,” says Pachachi.
The violence that rocks Baghdad daily has had its effect on the students. Iraqis are hesitant to be filmed, suspicious of the uses such footage might be put to. Explosions near the school blew out all its windows, and co-founder Abid’s brother was killed. Another mortar attack killed the wife and father of a student named Emad Ali. Ali’s documentary A Candle for the Shabandar Café recounted the history of the legendary bohemian hangout and literary gathering place—one of the few of its kind in Baghdad. In March of this year, the Shabandar was demolished in yet another attack. Ali filmed amid the rubble, interviewing the owner (whose sons had been killed) and capturing footage of the wreckage. As he was leaving the scene, Ali himself was ambushed on the street by two men, who shot him in the chest and leg and left him for dead. As a result of this daily onslaught of death and fear, the school moved to Damascus for the remainder of the school year, with enrolled students editing their projects in Syria.
“Cinema is cinema, and not an alternative to broadcast news, investigative journalism, sociology, anthropology, or political science,” Salti writes in the introduction to the festival catalog. “And yet, of all the contemporary arts, none rival cinema’s social dimension, whether films are regarded as mirrors of the historical moments and societies in which they are embedded, or in the social experience of watching a film in the company of strangers in a theater.” With the world’s eyes firmly locked on the region, and unlikely to lose their focus anytime in the near future, the work of the Middle East’s filmmakers cannot help but be regarded as dispatches from the hot zone, filed for the edification and enlightenment of interested parties around the world. And the inevitable gap between events and their cinematic reflection means that the turmoil of the past few years has only begun to appear on-screen. As Columbia’s Dabashi notes, “In the aftermath of the Afghan and Iraq disaster, we will see more heart-wrenching cinema—wait until Afghans, Iraqis, and Lebanese begin to tell their stories.”