Middle Eastern cinema is enjoying an unprecedented profile at this year's Venice film festival, with offerings from Egypt, Iran and Israel providing some of the highlights of the Biennale's official selection. Ali Jaafar takes a look at the region's entries, covering subjects ranging from war and political unrest to lost love and football.
Historically the centre of cinema in the Arab world, Egypt makes a particularly strong showing at the Venice film festival this month. Arguably the most keenly anticipated is Ahmed Maher's Al Mosafer (The Traveller), in which the legendary actor Omar Sharif makes a towering return to form with his highly personal performance as a man reflecting on a life of love lost. It spans 60 years, taking place in 1948 in Suez, 1973 in Alexandria and 2001 in Cairo - settings which will be familiar to students of Middle Eastern history. Maher, however, avoids any obvious political sermonising to create instead a poetic portrayal of innocence lost against a backdrop of social unrest. "This is a film about time, not history," the director says about his decision to avoid dealing directly with politics. "Even in the most important days in history, there are small things which happen to normal people. I wanted to play with this idea of history and see how small events in the wider context can change a person's life." Maher's script, which he began writing in 2001, was championed by two of Egypt's most powerful film critics, Ali Abou Shadi and Samir Farid, who convinced the country's culture minister Farouk Hosni to support the film. The result is the ministry of culture's first production in 38 years and a golden reminder of Egyptian cinema's halcyon days some half a century ago.
Maher's expansive treatment of Egyptian society is mirrored in Kamla Abou Zikry's Wahed-Sefr (One-Nil), which again harks back to the golden age of Egyptian cinema when sophisticated, intelligent dramas were the norm. It is set on the day of a big game for the Egyptian national football team, when a group of disparate Cairo residents - including an alcoholic TV presenter and a Christian woman barred from remarrying - find themselves inextricably drawn together. "These characters are part of the society I belong to, a society teeming with ignorance and passivity, bowed down with cares and burdens," says Abou Zekri of his film. "Yet it is also a society that embraces life. I wanted to look at my society and find out what has become of us."
Iranian cinema bears sharpened their teeth at this year's festival with a number of films that deal directly with the turmoil in the country. Hana Makhmalbaf, who, at 21, is the youngest member of the renowned Iranian family of filmmakers, comes to Venice with Green Days, a docudrama with first-hand footage from the recent unrest following the disputed presidential elections in the country.
Focusing on a depressed young woman caught up in the tumultuous events, the film mixes real footage with staged action. Makhmalbaf had to race against the clock to finish editing her film, which only began shooting in June. "I am not a sociologist but my film is sociological," she says. "My camera works like a mirror to show you Iranian society undergoing a revolution with all its hopes and doubts."
That examination of Iranian society at a crossroads is further continued by Nader Takmil Homayoun's Tehroun, a descent into a Tehran populated with prostitutes, beggars and gangsters. For Homayoun, who splits his time between Iran and France, the film was an attempt to portray what he sees as a lost generation of Iranian youths living under a repressive system. "I wanted to make a film about Iran under Ahmadinejad," he says. "Iranian society has changed a lot in the last three years. I wanted to show a side of the country that was different from normal Iranian films, which is why I chose to make a genre film. I feel that Iranians, especially younger generations, have been left on their own and feel cynical. It's this feeling which explains what happened after the elections."
Artist-turned-filmmaker Shirin Neshat makes her feature directorial debut with Women Without Men, a visually sumptuous feast set against the backdrop of the 1953 coup d'état that led to the overthrow of the prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. Neshat follows the destinies of four women who seek solace in a beautiful orchard, with a film that subtly revisits the events which would ultimately lead to the 1979 revolution.
Also making his directorial debut, and delving into a traumatic period in his country's recent history, is Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz with Lebanon. Based on Maoz's own experiences as a young soldier manning a tank's cannon, Lebanon once again finds an Israeli director - after Ari Folman and Waltz With Bashir and Joseph Cedar with Beaufort - analysing his country's ill-fated invasion of its northern neighbour. The film charts 24 hours in the life of a platoon of Israeli soldiers at the outset of the 1982 invasion, and Maoz ratchets up the tension by keeping the audience within the suffocating confines of the platoon's armoured tank.
Generally leaving the wider politics to one side, Maoz instead etches a human portrayal of the experience of both soldiers and civilians during the invasion. The horrors of modern urban warfare are made all the more visceral through the lens of a gun barrel as Maoz invokes a haunting examination of young men out of their depths in a situation they do not understand. Lebanon has had a tortuous journey to the big screen. It took Maoz, still haunted by his experiences in the war, nearly 20 years to summon the strength to write the script. The film's original producer, Uri Sabag, died midway through production last year, and Maoz has subsequently spent the last few months locked away in an editing room trying to complete his project.
"For me, there was a need to make and complete this film. Maybe it was the best treatment I could have," he says. "I wanted everyone to see the war as it was as naked and honest as possible. I felt a need to explain the war without the usual clichés. I was searching for forgiveness from myself but at the same time not trying to escape the responsibility. "Israel is full of people who have learnt to live with this feeling and repress it. I met a successful businessman who told me that he had also been in Lebanon. He still wasn't able to sleep at night and he had tears in his eyes.
Lebanon, which receives its world premiere at Venice, is likely to provoke great debate in Israel, and making it had a profound effect on the film's cast and crew. "When my editor saw the film, he said that he wasn't going to let his son join the army," says Maoz. "If this film can have that kind of influence, then maybe something good can come out of this trauma, or maybe I'm being too naive."