Tribeca’s MidEast Fixation


Arranged as a kind of Middle Eastern tasting menu, several Tribeca offerings begin not only to complement but to converse with one another. The best scene in Head Wind, an Iranian documentary, depicts two men in a dingy Tehran garage molding satellite dishes as though they were cooking up crystal meth; those men (along with their satisfied customers—quietly defiant faces aglow in the light of CNN and J. Lo’s waving rear) come to mind during a scene in My Marlon and Brando, when an Istanbulian woman in Iran compliments her taxi driver on his Turkish. He explains it as a product of 50-plus channels of Turkish TV, courtesy of his contraband satellite dish. With broadcast content strictly controlled by the Iranian government, Head Wind describes the various ways in which even the poorest Iranians try to circumvent the strictures of an Islamic Republic.

Actress Ayça Damgaci plays herself in My Marlon and Brando, and re-enacts the 2003 journey she made from Istanbul to the Iraqi border. Turned away, she heads for Iran, crossing dangerous lines in the hopes of meeting with her Kurdish lover, Hama Ali Kahn. The film features footage from the exuberant video letters that Kahn sent to Damgaci, and offers a rare look at rural and urban Iran, each forbidding in its own right. But the most haunting landscape is that of Damgaci’s face: stubborn, reckless, and lovesick to the point of madness.

Where Damgaci’s journey was willful, little Ramchand (Syed Fazal Hussain) wanders across the Pakistan-India border accidentally at the beginning of Ramchand Pakistani. The results are equally tragic. Based on events that began in 2002, the film depicts the years-long imprisonment of Ramchand and his father, Pakistani Hindus from the Dalit (untouchable) caste. While they are held in the one place ironically not ruled by the caste system—an Indian prison—Ramchand’s mother (radiant Nandita Das) struggles to survive without them. Stunning photography and a warm wit bear the film through its darker travesties of injustice.

With Lioness and Baghdad High, Iraq documentaries move beyond the more typical soldier stories and policy critiques and into more specific experiences of the war. Team Lioness was a group of female American soldiers created to join all-male combat units during house raids, ostensibly to calm the local women. Five of these soldiers describe what happened when they defied defense policy (which doesn’t allow women to engage in ground combat) and battled a horrific insurgent ambush in Ramadi. Another (though slightly less formal) team, the four boys who photographed Baghdad High may be amateur cameramen, but they’re naturals on-screen. When not studying for Arabic exams and memorizing Britney Spears lyrics, these high-school seniors dodge firefights and try to sleep through carpet-bombing campaigns. Shot over the course of their senior year, it’s a remarkable document of both normalcy in wartime—at times, the boys seem oddly sheltered, as if they could as easily be living in the Midwest as the Mideast—and harrowing circumstance.