EVENT REVIEW Middle Eastern Film Festival 2012
This event ran from 6th to 20th February 2012.
As part of the Edinburgh International Middle Eastern Spirituality And Peace Festival 2012, the Filmhouse was showcasing over twenty films from the Middle East. The Filmhouse, a not-for-profit arts and film venue, is the heart of the Edinburgh film industry, home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and hub of foreign and independent films.
In a time when Middle Eastern countries feature prominently on the news, it’s fantastic to see films that give these news stories a more personal and in-depth exposition. The Middle Eastern Film Festival took a retrospective look at films from the past decade. An outstanding line-up, new films included Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes 2011, and the infamous Goodbye, which was smuggled out of Iran to appear at Cannes, winning Best Director in its section.
Many films focused on the lives of women and cross-cultural issues, providing great insight into cultural taboos and giving voices to often overlooked characters, as the below films illustrate.
The festival started out with this light and entertaining comedy, a much needed frolic before the more gritty dramas that pervaded most of the programme. Almanya also made an appearance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011 and was released in the UK on 17th February 2012. The story follows three generations of a Turkish family living in Germany, kindly poking fun at both Turks and Germans. The film develops into a Little Miss Sunshine style escapade as the family travel to Turkey to visit their grandfather’s former home, the narrative floating from past to present to tell the stories of the characters.
Made by two Turkish/German sisters, based on their own experiences and those of their community, the story is told through the eyes of the youngest child, who is confused about his ‘real’ national identity. This is handled with gentle humour; his annoyance that his family’s homeland isn’t on the map at school, and he is unsure which football team to support.
A film about the positive aspects of immigration and multiculturalism is welcome when viewers are often inundated with xenophobic messages by the media. Warm and amusing, this film is a great little pick-me-up, although it verges on overly sentimental on occasions. The relationships between the generations is heartfelt and will give you the warm and fuzzies for the rest of the day.
Heart-breaking yet amusingly whimsical, Gitmek is based on the true story of Ayca Damgaci, a Turkish actress who is in love with an Iraqi actor she had a fling with on a movie shoot. Set in 2001, the film follows Ayca’s plight to be reunited with her lover, Hama Ali, as America invades Iraq.
The light-hearted tone of the film juxtaposes the devastating events, as Ayca and Hama Ali correspond with love letters and video-diaries. Their only common language is English and this can result in some comical turns of phrase. The film touches on cultural differences between the Turkish and Kurdish; Ayca’s forgetfulness about covering her hair when travelling in more religious areas, and she struggles to walk home alone at night in Iran – the local men assuming she is a prostitute because she is unaccompanied. She brushes them off with bravado and pursues Hama Ali, reversing traditional gender roles.
Ayca goes on anti-Bush protests and travels East, not West, to find happiness. So many films have been made about Americans fighting in the Middle East, it is refreshing to have the story told from the locals’ point of view. Shot with documentary style realism and resilient humour, the film is full of little local anecdotes and makes the viewer feel at home in Ayca’s world. The film examines the impacts of the war on the locals’ everyday lives, and the conditions immigrants to Turkey must face. While the main characters’ joie de vivre is infectious, the sad love story had the audience cowering in their seats by the end. A powerful film, uplifting and bittersweet, and the characters’ eternal optimism and strength is truly touching.
There was barely a spare seat in the cinema as the lights went down. The film was well received at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2011, and advertises itself as a modern Romeo And Juliet. Director Issawi says it is a love story, not a political story. But the filmmakers were denied a filming licence and they had to bribe police in order to shoot. The film seems to cover every Egyptian taboo in the book: interfaith love, premarital sex, abortion, prostitution, hymen restoration, and spousal abuse.
The story follows Amal, an 18-year-old Coptic Christian girl who is in a relationship with Tarek, a Muslim. Despite being hard working and educated, neither can get jobs other than delivering takeaways to rich people for pitiful wages. The class divide is made tangible as they go from their poverty-stricken lives to make deliveries at their customers’ mansions.
Both Amal and Tarek want to leave Egypt in search of a better life where they can be together without judgement, and Tarek announces that he is taking a boat to Italy. Although he asks her to go with him, Amal feels bound to stay by family obligations, as her elderly mother is married to an abusive thief. The two protagonists see the West as a solution to their troubles; Tarek is a Bob Marley fan and has movie posters in his room – another reason the Egyptian authorities probably tried to shut them down.
Most of the men in this film are portrayed as treacherous and predatory, unreliable and violent. The women are oppressed and desperate and do whatever they have to in order to survive. The resulting film is bleak and gritty, as the director explains he was aiming for realism, “Some Egyptian critics criticized me for having a grim image of Egypt and for not finding a solution to the characters’ social and economical situation. Well, my answer was that I couldn’t find solutions for them, because there were none under a brutal system. The anger and hopelessness of the characters are real.”
The characters do feel real, each have their own flaws and foibles, they all lie and manipulate. The film doesn’t judge them but illustrates the desperation in their lives, and they are shown in a sympathetic light. It isn’t surprising that the Egyptian authorities weren’t pleased. Let’s be grateful that Issawi overcame the obstacles to bring us this moving insight into everyday Egyptian life.
The festival closed with this Norwegian/Iraqi film about a Kurdish couple in Iraq, focusing on the challenges for women in Iraqi society. The story follows school girl Shirin, and her boyfriend, Soran, as they flirt and court each other with saccharine innocence. In a conservative and sexually restrained culture, they do not even hold hands. However, her father has other plans for her and forces her to marry the village idiot, under threats of death. Shirin and Soran run away together to the city, but they face ostracism and homelessness because they aren’t married. Soran is arrested and Shirin must fend for herself in a city where an unaccompanied woman is seen as a deserving victim for men to prey on.
While it is good that these issues are being addressed, the film lacks the emotional impact it could have achieved, swinging from ludicrous to melodramatic. Shirin is irritatingly naïve and Soran is temperamental and cocky, so it is difficult to feel appropriate sympathy as unfortunate events befall them. The characters don’t feel deep or developed, but are merely vehicles for political and social commentary.
There is a wealth of beautiful shots of the Kurdish landscapes, stunning mountains and dynamic shots of motorcycle rides in the countryside, creating a temporary sense of freedom before the film delves into a relentless darkness.
The Filmhouse puts on a Middle Eastern Film Festival each year and 2012 had the strongest line-up yet, with an even better one promised for 2013. Film enthusiasts in Scotland are urged to mark it in their diaries, or anyone who would like to support the Middle Eastern film industry.
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