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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (1/7/2023)

(An overview of the 8th Safar Film Festival)


The Safar Film Festival was founded by the Arab British Centre. It's the UK's largest event dedicated to Arab cinema and the 8th edition offers a journey through space and time that runs from 29 June to 9 July, with screenings in Birmingham, Cardiff, Chester, Glasgow, Hull, London, Manchester, Oxford, and Plymouth.


There are various strands to explore, with a City Tours triptych taking us to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria via Hala Galal's From Cairo and Cairo As Told By Chahine, Borhane Alaouié's Beirut: The Encounter (1981), and Mohamad Malas's Dreams of the City (1984). Meanwhile, Morocco is the focus of Adnane Baraka's Morocco: Fragments From Heaven, Fyzal Boulifa's The Damned Don't Cry, Leila Kilani's Birdland, and Maryam Touzani's The Blue Caftan.


This year sees the 75th anniversary of the Nakba and Palestinian film-makers mark the event with Firas Khoury's Alam, Khaled Jarrar's Notes on Displacement, and Jumana Manna's Foragers and Soup Over Bethlehem. Completing the programme are a raft of UK premieres that includes Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri's The Last Queen; Youssef Chebbi's Ashkal; Marya Zarif and André Kadi's Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo; Sara Suliman's Heroic Bodies and Neo Nadha; Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez's My Lost Country; Mohamed Al Salman's Raven Song; Ahmad Abdallah's 19B; Ameer Fakher Eldine's The Stranger; Mohanad Yaqubi's R21: Restoring Authority; and Ali Cherri's The Dam.


ALAM.


Having made a reputation with shorts like Seven Days in Deir Bulus (2007), Yellow Mums (2010), and Maradona's Legs (2019), Palestinian director Firas Khoury debuts with confidence and craft in Alam. Seven years in the making, this adroit drama tinkers playfully with the conventions of the cinematic rite of passage, while also commenting incisively on the strategies employed to oppress, intimidate, and provoke both Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of the Occupied Territories.


Tamer (Mahmood Bakri), a Palestinian teenager living in Israel, is forever getting into minor scrapes at school with pals Shekel (Mohammad Karaki) and Rida (Ahmad Zaghmouri). Rather than share the house occupied by his father (Amer Hlehel) and Uncle Naji (Saleh Bakri), the 17 year-old lives in the garden annex. Unlike classmate Safwat (Muhammad Abed Elrahman), he's so apathetic that he barely notices that the curriculum is pro-Israeli and marks Independence Day rather than Al-Nakba. But that changes when Maysaá (Sereen Khass), whose brother was a martyr for the cause, transfers to the school.


Cautioned by his father that he'll lose his privileges if he's expelled and warned not to antagonise the Israeli patrols, Tamer provides a hiding place for Adel (Riyad Sliman), an activist who is planning a Nakba protest. However, he thinks Safwat is crazy when he plans to remove the Israeli flag flying over the school and replace it with a Palestinian tricolor. On hearing that Maysaá thinks it's an audacious act of resistance, Tamer attends a meeting. But he's more interested in the nape of her neck than any political rhetoric.


Desperate to find some weed because their regular supplier is behind bars, the three friends call on Lenin (Khaled Battat), a middle-aged man who deals from a bedroom in his mother's house. His prices are exorbitant, however, and they come away empty handed. Tamer feels the world is conspiring against him, especially when the entire class walks out of a history lesson after Safwat challenges the Israeli version of 1948 given by the teacher (Monem Choueyet) and he is forced to stay because he's on two probation strikes with the headmaster (Moez Toumi).


Safwat and Maysaá appreciate his plight and invite him to participate in the nocturnal flag swap. They also witness a showdown between a guide and some Israeli tourists over the woods that were planted to cover the ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages. Maysaá even comes to check out Tamer's room and they kiss after getting the key to the school hall copied. She has to hide in a wardrobe while he gets a rollicking from his father, but she sympathises, as she gets a hard time from hers, too. They kiss again, as a mug she found in the wardrobe plays `The Internationale'.


As no one remembers to bring a flag, Shekel and Rida have to steal one from the bedroom of a classmate having a birthday party and head to the school with Tamer, Safwat, and Maysaá. They detour via a wedding party, where Rida gets so tipsy that he falls and breaks his arm. As Safwat is scared of heights and no one else is willing to hang the flag, they go to the ER with their revolt unravelled.


Safwat crashes at Tamer's and he admits to not being devoted to the Palestinian flag, as it's just a bit of cloth with colours on it. However, he remains dedicated to liberation and merely shrugs when Tamer reveals that he plans ducking the Nakba demonstration, as he'll lose his allowance and driving lessons. He also explains that Uncle Naji is so eccentric because his father had died on hearing that he'd been arrested and he lost his mind in grief.


Tamer does go on the protest, however, and raises a flag close to some soldiers who open fire with tear gas. Maysaá gets pulled along the ground by her hair, while Safwat is shot in the back of the head. Too stunned to run away, Tamer is beset by troops and savagely beaten. His father says nothing when he drives him home, but Maysaá comes to his room and they cling together sobbing. The following night, the quartet climb the ladder and hoist the Palestinian flag.


From the moment Tamer peers down the blouse of the head's assistant (Haithem Kokhon) as he receives a probation chit, it's clear that we're in hormonal teen territory. But, instead of going down the Lemon Popsicle route, Faris Khoury cannily reveals that there's still room in a young man's brain for ideas and ideals. Admittedly, it's wedged in there by the classmate he has a crush on, but once the shekel has dropped, Tamer becomes a convert, if maybe not a zealot.


Splendidly played by Mahmood Bakri (who is related to Palestinian acting icon Mohammed Bakri and the brother of Saleh Bakri, who plays Uncle Naji), Tamer responds to almost everything he hears with blank-page bemusement, whether it's the threats of his father and teachers, Safwat's firebrand rhetoric, or Maysaá's unexpected compliments. Tunisian cinematographer Frida Marzouk's camera catches the igniting glint in his eye, however, as the intimate discussions with Muhammad Abed Elrahman and Sereen Khass awaken him to the political reality of his everyday situation and change his perspective.


Editor Nadia Ben Rachid, composer Faraj Suleiman, and production designer Rabia Salifiti also deserve credit, with the latter slyly placing a still from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) among Tamer's grandfather's belongings. But it's Khoury's incisive screenplay and deft handling of the young leads that makes this so composedly authentic and craftily audacious. And he should know about doing anything for love, as he relocated to Tunisia because he wasn't allowed to live with producer wife producer Asma Chiboub in Israel. One can only hope that Safar screens his forthcoming Ramallah-set sophomore outing, Dear Tarkovsky, as well as the planned insight into Palestine's queer community, which draws on his short story collection, The Notes of a Phantom Sperm Flying in the Sky of Galilee.


ASHKAL.


The Tunisian Revolution was sparked in 2011 by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Consequently, the discovery of charred corpses in the abandoned Gardens of Carthage compound in Tunis risks having an emotive effect upon the population and detectives Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) are ordered to wrap the case up as speedily as possible. However, clues are hard to come by, while the truth commission being chaired by Fatma's father impacts upon her relationship with Batal, who worked for the toppled regime.


Making atmospheric use of the totemic setting, cinematographer Hazem Berrabah casts a noirish pall over proceedings that creep between the conspiratorial and the supernatural. The leads also ably convey the strain of dealing with the issues facing Fatma (misogyny and nepotism) and Batal (guilt and trepidation). Yet, for all the intrigue, sophomore director Youssef Chebbi and co-scenarist François-Michel Allegrini struggle to weave the disparate elements into a cogent mystery, particularly during a consciously unresolved, but over-hasty denouement.


THE BLUE CAFTAN.


Having studied journalism in London after taking her degree, Maryam Touzani returned to Morocco to direct the provocative childhood shorts, When They Slept (2012) and Aya Goes to the Beach (2015). In between, she made the prostitution documentary, Sous ma vieille peau (2014), which husband Nabil Ayouch turned into the drama, Much Loved (2015). The pair also collaborated on the screenplay for Ayouch's Razzia (2016), in which Touzani starred. Now, having made her feature bow with Adam (2019), she tackles the contentious issue of same sex desire in a notoriously homophobic society in The Blue Caftan.


Halim (Salem Bakri) is a maalem, or master tailor, with a shop in the medina of the north-western city of Salé. As the making of bespoke caftans takes time and intricate skill, the trade is dying out and Halim is unable to find an apprentice with the patience to learn. He works with his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), who has been battling breast cancer and is steadily becoming weaker. She is devoted to her husband, but she is also aware that he is gay and frequently slips out for anonymous encounters at the local hammam bathhouse.


Mina is concerned by the looks Halim gives new assistant Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) when he changes his shirt or shows him how to cut a pattern. However, he seems eager to learn and works diligently, whether winding threads or running errands. He even rises above Mina's accusation that he has stolen some pink fabric, as he has been working since he was eight and knows that money goes as easily as it comes.


When a customer (Mounia Lamkimel) commissions a blue caftan, Mina scolds her for suggesting that Halim uses a sewing machine to speed things along. She reminds her that her husband is a craftsman and that perfection takes time. He is amused by her snappishness and responds when she tries to arouse him in bed. Halim even takes her to the local café and laughs when she cheers a goal for the wrong team while smoking his pipe.


On the way home, however, Mina gets cross with Halim for kowtowing to a policeman who demands to see their papers. She has a relapse, but refuses to go to the hospital, as they have wasted enough money on tests and scans and she is now content to trust God. Halim opens the shop without her and annoys a woman by correcting her over the colour of the petroleum blue caftan and she storms out grumbling that he's not the only tailor in the medina.


Enjoying being alone with Youssef, Halim teaches him embroidery and needlecraft. He's almost disappointed to find Mina sufficiently recovered to have cooked rfissa as a treat and says nothing when she announces she is fit for work. While being pleased to be back, however, Mina is miffed when the fabric salesman informs her that she had returned some pink material by accident and she hides it rather than having to apologise to Youssef.


Left alone after dealing with an awkward customer, Youssef rests his head on Halim's shoulder and declares his love. However, the older man knows the risk they run and orders Youssef to pick up the threads on the floor. Hurt, he quits on the spot and Halim returns home to find Mina suffering. The doctor tells him that her fight is nearly over and Halim spends the next week nursing her. Eventually, Youssef comes to check up on them and he assures Mina that he is taking good care of the store and he exchanges a meaningful glance with Halim as he takes the keys to open up.


When he next calls, Youssef brings the caftan so Halim can keep working. He also buys Mina some tangerines and she says sorry for not having told him about the pink silk. Sitting up in bed and looking frail, she asks his forgiveness and he rushes out to sob in Halim's arms and Mina feels conflicted emotions, as she knows how lonely Halim has been because his father had never forgiven him for the fact that his mother had died giving birth.


As Youssef spends more time at the apartment, even cooking Mina's meals, she warms to him. She coaxes him into dancing with her to the radio blaring from a neighbour's shop and Halim joins in. They smile, as she entrusts Halim to Youssef's care. That night, he apologises for having been unable to control his urges and, as she rests her head on his shoulder, she assures him that he has always been a noble and dependable spouse. He washes her hair and feeds her peeled tangerine segments and she smiles gently at their sweetness and the tenderness of his gestures.


Next morning, with the caftan finished, Mina sends Halim and Youssef to the hammam. Their fingers touch, as they lie together in the steam and they kneel beside each other at the bedside after Mina passes away in the night. Having helped her undress and traced his finger along the scar on her left breast, Halim had sat with her making slight adjustments to the caftan.


He appals the mourners by dressing Mina in the magnificent garment before carrying her on a bier with Youssef through the empty streets to the vast cemetery. As the film ends, the camera roves around the café, where men of all ages are chatting. Some are holding sleeping children and, the middle of them all, Halim and Youssef drink their coffee with no one any the wiser about their friendship.


Impeccably played by Lubna Azabal and Salem Bakri, this is an intimate and deeply poignant portrait of a marriage that has survived its vicissitudes because it was firmly founded in respect. Mina takes pride in Halim's artistry and thrives on the status it bestows upon her in the community. He is grateful to her for providing the love he never experienced as a child and for turning a blind eye to those times he failed to suppress his need for male contact.


In the shop, they are a team and that's where Mina feels most threatened by Youssef, as he can assist Halim in ways she cannot. Moreover, as she begins to feel death encroaching, she craves closeness and fears that her husband is developing feelings for the handsome newcomer that go beyond the physical lust he satiates at the hammam. Such is her love, however, that she recognises that Halim will need Youssef once she's gone and gives him her blessing.


Touzani shows finesse in discussing underlying themes that she knows will raise hackles in her homeland and across the Islamic world. Halim is never seen praying, although Mina kneels each night to the service that echoes through the medina. Nassim El Mounabbih's excellent sound design captures the bustle of the enclave, as well as the silence in which Halim works under the watchful gaze of Virginie Surdej's camera, which also revels in the colours and textures of the fabrics, threads, and braids. Production designers Emmanuel De Meulemeester and Rachid El Youssfi deftly contrast the ambiance of the shop and the apartment, which is reinforced by the measured contributions of composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen and editor Nicolas Rumpl, as Touzani laments the passing of an ancient artform and advocates greater tolerance in a society edging back towards conservatism after the modernist surge provided by the Arab Spring.


MY LOST COUNTRY.


Born in Moscow in 1968 and raised in Chile and Costa Rica, Ishtar Yasin Gutiérrez has directed three features, El Camino (2008), Les Invisibles (2010), and Dos Fridas (2018), since graduating from the prestigious VGIK film school. She has also produced a number of documentaries, but My Lost Country is by far the most personal, as it chronicles the exiles of her Iraqi theatre director father, Mohsen Sadoon Yasin.


He had been based at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad prior to leaving for Chile, where he had witnessed the Pinochet coup that ousted Salvador Allende in 1973. But, even while resident in London in 2014, Yasin keeps hearing Iraqi folk songs in his head and it pains him that he will never return.


We see archive footage of country life and archaeological excavations from the 1920s, as the pair visit the British Museum. Songs accompany pages from picture books, photographs, and theatre posters, as Yasin Gutiérrez seeks to piece together her father's connection with his homeland from the fragments. We also hear recordings of father and daughter together, as she had to make do with doting on him from a distance after her mother, Elena, had remarried in Costa Rica and he had resumed his career in Baghdad.


Yasin Gutiérrez had managed to visit during the Gulf War, shortly after her uncle had been arrested by Saddam Hussein. She keeps in touch during her stay at VGIK, where she is interviewed in Russian about her views on the musicality of images and we see a clip from a student project. In 1991, after she marries and has a child, she reunites with her father in Denmark.


During her visit to London, Yasin Gutiérrez helps her father tidy his cluttered flat. Presumably, he died shortly afterwards and we see the white-masked goddess Inanna (the Sumerian name for Ishtar) wandering bereft through the ruins of an Iraqi city. But the film ends on a more hopeful note, as the director listens to a violinist and an oud player and plants a tree with a young girl.


Such moments of intimacy and tenderness abound in a homage memoir that is also marbled with pain and regret. Nothing is said about the reasons for Mohsen and Elena's divorce, but the impact on Ishtar is evident, as she clearly felt emotionally and intellectually closer to her father. She celebrates his creativity and courage here, while also lamenting American activities in Chile and Iraq. But, for all the humanist sincerity, the impressionistic imagery is likely to seem gnomic to those not au fait with the historical context of Yasin's life. Nevertheless, all should be able to agree with Yasin Gutiérrez's hope that the people can rise from the ashes and `build a free Iraq, where everyone have the same rights, where everyone is just Iraqi, without corruption, repression, and foreign occupation'.



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