1 of 3
"Rock the Casbah"
Rock the Casbah
2 of 3
A World Not Ours
3 of 3
Coming Forth by Day
Filmmakers who tackle the Middle Eastern scenario bear a special responsibility: reflecting a real and highly charged situation, showing quickly becomes telling – and is likely to stay with us far longer than Tom Friedman’s words of wisdom in last week’s New York Times. Two of a handful of films that step out into this minefield at this year’s Berlinale negotiate the territory particularly well, with a third providing a more intimately female look at contemporary life in Egypt.
Of two that take on the situation directly, Rock the Casbah is my personal favourite – but certainly not because it fulfills its titular promise of a music-based reconciliation across the divide. The music in this film comes mainly from a tinny radio on the cramped rooftop quarters of a Palestinian apartment house in 1989 Gaza, where a handful of Israeli soldiers has been ‘positioned’ for the weekend to keep an eye open for the Palestinian kid who killed one of their patrol by dropping a washing machine – the titular rock – on him from that roof.
The movie’s particular strength lies in the way it takes these opposing forces – and the bundled history of their antagonisms – and shows them as people, bringing them together over a brief period of time in a confined space of theatrical density. Resignation and boredom have taken their places at the lunch table of the Palestinian family. A grindingly hopeless stalemate sits with Israeli soldiers smoking a joint on the roof above. Both sides have heroes and villains. Formally constructed to reflect this unnatural deadlock, Israeli director Yariv Horowitz’ debut feature begins and ends with an act of violence. Who commits which act is interesting only for the movie’s narrative arc. In the end, we’ve come full circle, which, as Hotowitz suggests, is where we are in history: part of an endless loop in a very small space.
The refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh in Southern Lebanon is smaller yet – and yet, still home to 70,000 Palestinian refugees. How can such a camp be home? In much the same way as a film can be full of activity and still chronicle a vacuum: by reconciling opposites: lack of territory and need of home.
There are distinct and doubtless deliberate shades of Woody Allen as Mahdi Fleifel’s documentary A World Not Ours starts out, describing an early childhood in Dubai, marked by cartoons and Michael Jackson videos, before returning briefly to Ain with his family and then relocating to Denmark in 1988. Life was simple then, he says, describing the Allen-inspired preciousness of young boys watching movies in a local cinema. Fleifel’s father used home video to keep the family back in Ain el-Helweh posted on developments, and encouraged his son to do the same, so there’s plenty of footage of young Mahdi on holiday at the camp, messing around with semi-automatics and watching the 1994 World Cup.
Fleifel’s own refugee status expired long ago but he returns regularly for ‘holidays’. The film matches this personal trajectory, forsaking its early cheerful tone for the monotony of camp life: drawn in by the chipper tone of its opening sequences, we stick with Fleifel and his friends hoping for the best. Inevitably, there is no best. But it’s worth being reminded of.
Coming Forth by Day (read our Q&A with Egyptian director Hala Lotfy) takes a very different look at domestic matters in the Middle East. Already awarded the FIPRESCI award at the Abu Dhabi festival, Coming Forth by Day is Lotfy’s truly remarkable debut feature. With an austere style and contemplative pace, this portrait of a family burdened by an invalid patriarch is as touching as it is evocative, offering exactly the type of world cinema gem that one hopes to discover at a film festival.