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Middle East films are a stronger presence than ever at Toronto

The Toronto International Film Festival this year features a bigger than ever contingent of Middle Eastern films and themes.
Amr Waked as Sheikh and Ewan McGregor as Fred in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a film by Lasse Hallström.
Amr Waked as Sheikh and Ewan McGregor as Fred in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a film by Lasse Hallström.

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival has its strongest yet line-up of films featuring characters appearing in or from the Gulf. Indeed, the Middle East as a whole features strongly in Hollywood blockbusters and documentaries, as well as small independent pictures and gallery films.

Having its world premiere is Mohamed and Atia Al Daradji's In My Mother's Arms, about an orphanage in war-torn Baghdad. It's the eagerly awaited second film from the Son of Babylon director, and it'll be interesting to see if Al Daradji manages to build upon the success of his first film or suffers from the difficult second album syndrome.

Another must see is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the latest from the prolific Swedish director Lasse Hallström. The adaptation of a book about a stuffy British fisheries scientist who is asked by a sheikh to introduce salmon to the highlands of Yemen stars Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

One of the most intriguing strands in Toronto this year will take place in a gallery, in which artist filmmakers show their wares in a studio context. Alongside Mr Brainwash, made famous last year as the protagonist in Banksy's excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop, is Road Movie by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky.

The series of short films will be presented on six double-sided walls examining the contemporary life of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Filmed in stop-motion animation, with a screen set-up suggesting the political wall surrounding Palestine, Road Movie is full of arresting and vibrant images, from the deserts of the Jordan valley to the perimeter of Jerusalem.

The relationship between the Arab world and Hollywood is explored in Ridha Behi's Always Brando. After meeting Anis Raache, a young Tunisian actor who bears a stunning resemblance to the young Marlon Brando, Béhi decided to write a film casting the two. Brando was interested, and the two met and reworked the script. Brando, however, died before shooting started and the film became a chronicle of their relationship.

Vimukthi Jayasundara's Mushrooms is about a Bengali architect who works in Dubai. Upon his return to Kolkata. he discovers that life is the same, but somehow different in this tale of estranged brothers.

Death For Sale is set on the northern edge of Morocco and is about a robbery that goes awry. Director Faouzi Bensaidi's noir features corrupt officials, smugglers and extremists.

One of the features of recent French cinema has been the reappraisal of the relationship between France and Algeria in the Second World War. Films such as Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory have led the way. Free Men, directed by Ismael Ferroukhi, is the latest addition and is set in German-occupied Paris in 1942. The story follows Younes, an Algerian black marketeer who agrees to spy on a mosque suspected of helping resistance fighters and Jews.

Paris also looms large in Tawfik Abu Wael's Last Days in Jerusalem, which is about a Palestinian couple who are about to leave Jerusalem for a new life in the French capital. Iyad is a surgeon and Nour a young actress with an intellectual bourgeois background - attractive, independent and whimsical. On the way to the airport, a news report of a terrible accident means Iyad must return to work, delaying their departure. Abandoned by her husband yet again, Nour starts to question the move and their marriage.

Escape from the Middle East is also a theme of Ghassan Salhab's The Mountain, which has its Canadian premiere in Toronto. It's about a 40-year-old Beiruti who sets out for the airport but then seemingly abandons his plans at the last moment to head to the mountains in the north of Lebanon.

The past catching up with the present is also a feature of Ozcan Alper's Future Lasts Forever. A young ethnomusicologist leaves Istanbul and heads to the south-east of Turkey to work on her master's thesis, gathering a collection of Anatolian elegies and stories. During her stay in Diyarbakir, she finds herself having to confront an agony from her own past in the middle of an continuing, unnamed war.

There are also two intriguing stories set in Morocco: Omar Killed Me by Roschdy Zem, about a gardener sentenced to death for the murder of a wealthy widow in Marseille, and Rough Hands, directed by Mohammed Asli, about an illiterate hairdresser who lives with his blind mother. He leads a double life as a middleman for criminals.

Also set partly in the Middle East is Killer Elite, an action film starring Jason Statham, Robert De Niro and Clive Owen. It sounds like unadulterated fun, as Statham is charged with saving his mentor De Niro from the clutches of the evil Owen.

Other American world premieres to look out for are Moneyball, a baseball drama starring Brad Pitt, Jim Field Smith's Butter, set in the world of competitive butter carving, Luc Besson's The Lady about the Burma/Myanmar democracy movement and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding starring Jane Fonda.

Also of major curiosity value is Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, set in contemporary India and starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, together with Breakaway, set in an Indo-Canadian community in Toronto, about a young Indian who wants to become an ice hockey star. The cast includes Rob Lowe, Camilla Belle and Akshay Kumar.

Two films that had their world premieres at the Venice Film Festival last week will also play in Toronto. Susan Youssef's modern retelling of the Majnun Layla love story Habibi Rasak Karban and Tahrir 101: The Good, the Bad and the Politician, the documentary on the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt.

Another fascinating strand at Toronto will be the talks scheduled. In addition to Francis Ford Coppola discussing his career and new movie Twixt, there will be a discussion between the director Deepa Mehta and the author Salman Rushdie. Mehta is currently adapting Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning second novel, Midnight's Children. The film has just finished shooting, so it's not ready to be shown, but the pair will show preview scenes of the forthcoming movie.


The Toronto International Film Festival opens today and will continue until September 18

Updated: September 7, 2011 04:00 AM



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