New films throw light on the Arab world
At the Sundance festival an Iraqi's road trip film, a New York-set mystery by an Arab-Bosnian and a satirical British comedy about suicide bombers have helped give new perspectives on the Arab world in film. Ali Jaafar reports from Utah on three different cinematic experiences. Arab filmmakers continue to make waves around the world, with the Iraqi Mohamed al Daradji and Arab-Bosnian Zeina Durra both enjoying warm receptions for their films, Son Of Babylon and The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, which ended on Sunday. It isn't only filmmakers from the region who are tapping into issues such as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The provocative British satirist Chris Morris has made his film directorial debut with Four Lions, a scathing black comedy about a hapless group of British Muslim wannabe terrorists planning a terror attack in the UK. That film, which received its world premiere at Sundance, is likely to be one of the most controversial films of the year with its non-judgemental and frequently funny depiction of the group of bumbling jihadists. The last time the Iraqi director al Daradji made a film, he found himself kidnapped and left for dead by insurgents as well as shot at and detained by American forces. That film was Ahlaam (Dreams) about three inmates of a mental asylum who wander Baghdad's burnt-out streets in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion. It was al Daradji's first feature and the culmination of a nightmarish three-year journey. While filming - at his insistence - on location in Baghdad in 2006 when the insurgency was at its most dangerous, he was twice captured and tortured by rival insurgents and his cast and crew came under fire from both militias and US troops. Filming became so dangerous that he took to carrying an AK-47 machine gun in one hand and his camera in the other. Now al Daradji is back with his second feature, Son Of Babylon, a film which, thankfully, proved less life-threatening to make, if just as stressful. The film, which had its world premiere at Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival last October, had its international premiere at Sundance. Its European premiere will take place at the prestigious Berlin film festival this week. It's a remarkable journey for al Daradji, particularly given the troubles of his first film. He has no regrets over the risks he took over Ahlaam, particularly when he remembers the experience of showing the film to his fellow Iraqis. "As Iraqi filmmakers, we must stay in our own country and make our films, even with all the dangers," he says. "We must show the Iraqi point of view. You don't know how important it is for us to tell our stories. Iraq is more than just these four provinces you hear about where there are problems. Iraq is made up of 18 provinces, many of which are fairly safe." Ahlaam was seen in his home country in April 2007, two years after its international premiere. That day nearly 200 people were killed following a surge of attacks across Baghdad. Despite that, more than 1,000 people made their way to Baghdad's National Theatre for a screening of what at the time was only the second Iraqi feature (after Oday Rasheed's Underexposure) produced since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Organising the premiere had already been pretty fraught. The 35mm print arrived only three days before the screening, leaving al Daradji just two days of dawn-to-dusk preparation with the theatre's out-of-practice projectionists to make the film reels work. He was unable to publicise the date of the premiere for fear it would be targeted by a terrorist attack and was warned by security forces not to attend a second screening the following day. In the event, the electricity cut out after 10 minutes and when it eventually came back on, al Daradji had only one mono speaker to fill the 1,000-seat auditorium. But it didn't dampen the audience's appreciation of a rare opportunity to watch a homegrown film. "I've been to more than 50 festivals around the world but I've never experienced a screening of my film like this one," says al Daradji. "I couldn't imagine how it would feel, but it was like a dream come true. People were crying throughout. This was the first time many of the cast and crew had seen the film and they couldn't believe what we'd achieved." Under the UN-sponsored sanctions of the 1990s, Iraqis were banned from importing celluloid, which meant the industry ground to a complete halt. Since the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi filmmakers have been unable to make much of an impact given the precarious security situation and lack of investment, but that hasn't stopped the likes of Rasheed and al Daradji from attempting to rebuild the country's film industry from scratch. Son Of Babylon fits directly into that long-term ambition. A black comedy set during the first days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the film follows an ageing Iraqi Kurdish woman in search of her son who years earlier was forcibly enlisted in the Iraqi army and subsequently imprisoned by the Ba'ath regime. Joining her for the journey is her loud-mouthed grandson, whom she hopes to reunite with his father after a decade of forced absence. While tragedy remains tantalisingly near as the odd couple embark on a ghoulish tour of unearthed mass graves, al Daradji fashions a poignant, surprisingly humorous, account of life in Iraq. He is helped immeasurably by the amazing visual backdrop of Iraq itself as we travel from the sweeping mountainous panoramas in the north of the country to the organised chaos of Baghdad itself. "It is personally important to me to close this chapter in my life," says al Daradji. "It has been an important part of my life, I have invested four years in this project and I have been sad, happy, crying and laughing throughout." Born in Baghdad, al Daradji, 31, studied theatre directing before his family fled Iraq in 1995. That decision was brought about by the conditions of living under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the debilitating United Nations sanctions regime, which crippled Iraq during the 1990's. He settled first in the Netherlands, where he learnt how to become a cameraman. From there, he moved to England where he gained a Masters degree in cinematography from Leeds University. He established his own production company, Human Film, in Leeds and the Netherlands before making the decision to return to Iraq following the fall of Saddam's regime. The experience of making Ahlaam on the streets of Baghdad, and the sights he saw of disarray and civil violence, saw the once party-loving al Daradji turn away from the frivolities of his student days in the West and embrace spirituality and faith. The different experience al Daradji faced making Son Of Babylon compared to Ahlaam a few years ago speaks volumes for the progress that Iraq has made recently. While he spent much of his time working on the first film in fear of his, and his crew's, life, with Son Of Babylon, the treacherous violence that previously plagued Iraq was no longer visible. Beginning in the relative security of northern Iraq, al Daradji was joined by British and French technicians, as well as a small group of Iraqis. "I was so proud to be making this film in my country with the full protection of the Iraqi army and police forces," says al Daradji. "Even though there are still big gaps in our infrastructure, things have improved on the situation since a few years ago. You no longer see American troops on the streets and at every checkpoint. This was a six-month journey for us all the way down the country and we received protection the whole way." Al Daradji's intrepid crew became smaller the further south they journeyed. His western crew members, fearing for their safety the closer they got to Baghdad and mindful of their director's previous experience, left the production in the hands of al Daradji's hand-picked local Iraqi technicians. It's a measure of the progress they have made that they were able to seamlessly pick up the pieces and help the director complete his vision. In fact, some of the biggest threats to the well-being of the film would come from technical and logistical issues. "We were in the middle of the desert near Basra and our camera broke. There was nowhere for us to repair it. We were literally miles from anywhere," says al Daradji. "At the same time, we had 300 Iraqi women who had never been in a film before but were going to be extras in Son Of Babylon. We had to wait for days for a new camera to be flown in to us but no one left or complained. There was this genuine feeling that we were all helping to rebuild Iraq. We were all encouraging and helping each other." With the film now successfully finished and gaining critical acclaim, al Daradji is particularly pleased at the reception he got at Sundance. "We were worried that maybe the American audience wouldn't like the jokes we made about the US army but it was amazing to see them enjoy the film and appreciate it," he says. "We connected with each other and they were able to see a different side of Iraq from the one they usually see." Al Daradji is using the film as a springboard to launch a campaign in Berlin to gain international recognition for the thousands of Iraqis still missing and unidentified in the 300 mass graves which have appeared around the country. The campaign, dubbed "Iraq's Missing", is intended to promote peace and reconciliation in the country. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights estimate that more than 1.5 million people have gone missing over the past 40 years in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime and that only 500,000 bodies have been recovered from the mass graves discovered so far. "I am hoping with our campaign that we can give answers to the families and people who have lost their loved ones, including our own lead actress, who lost her husband more than 21 years ago and never saw him again. To this day she still does not know where he is or what happened to him," says al Daradji. "My hope, with this film and the campaign, too, is to provide people with the answers and let her and everyone else know what happened to their loved one. Maybe knowing that can bring a smile back to her face." The question of missing people also offers the narrative backbone to Zeina Durra's feature debut, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! Set in New York's glamorously grainy art scene, the film follows Asya, an Arab-American artist who learns that her childhood sweetheart, Faisal, has disappeared. Faisal's fiancée, an Eastern European model called Tatiana, informs her that Faisal's family believes the CIA abducted him. That same night Asya meets Javier, a Mexican PhD student studying law. As their relationship blossoms into love, Asya continues to search for clues to Faisal's disappearance. The film also plays out against a backdrop of Beirut being bombed and Asya's friends' fears that they have been placed under surveillance by the department of homeland security. Durra's film, though uneven in places and defiantly independent in spirit, displays a real new talent. She seductively captures the twilight seediness of Manhattan's underground nightlife, the messy thrills of young love as well as poking fun at Arab-American elites. One standout scene features Asya being picked up in a chauffeur-driven luxury car of her privileged Arab friend's parents. The elderly ladies' furs and fears mix with charming ease as they discuss the possibility that their conversations are being recorded, all the while interspersing their conversation with what they want to eat later that day. "The main focus with this film is to tell a story from a perspective, which hasn't had the opportunity to be seen or expressed before on film," says Durra. "Partly because many people don't believe that these types of characters actually exist. We are the first generation from the Middle East like this. We're the Diaspora, whose families left the region, in large numbers, due to the instability there, whether the Palestinian displacement or Lebanon in 1975 or Iran in 1979. We were born and grew up outside of the Middle East in Europe or America. This story has not been told since we are only just coming into our voices, or reaching an age or maturity where we able to express this experience."
Durra's own origins are an exotic masala. The 32-year-old London-based artist-turned-filmmaker was born to a Jordanian father and a Palestinian-Bosnian mother. She went to study film in New York at NYU's respected Tisch School of the Arts and stayed on to complete her first film. It was while in New York that she witnessed first-hand the complexities of being neither western nor eastern and living in a city still haunted by the trauma of the September 11 attacks. Refreshingly, the film attempts to steer clear of the clichés about cultural identity, instead mining the more universal idea of trying to find a path in life not defined or determined by one's cultural and ethnic origins. The film - its somewhat extravagant title reveals Durra's own playful approach to the serious subject matter - is filled with a variety of accents and sensibilities. "The idea that Arabs or Muslims brought up in the West find themselves constantly torn between their roots and their 'western' lives, has always annoyed me since I have never related to that conflict," says Durra. "The milieu in which I grew up produced a different type of person; a wanderer, who views the world as their home and all the things that other people may view as contradictions are simply normality for them. "As a result the 'contradictions' in their lives lose meaning and are transformed into a synthesis of experience. This film is also told through the perspective of a woman. It's something I took for granted when I wrote it, being the product of a feminist education. I never thought twice about how different this character was to the normal portrayal of women on screen." Nowhere is Durra's feminist thinking more evident than in the film's striking opening scene. Asya, played by Elodie Bouchez, is seen addressing the camera completely nude, save for a keffiyeh cloaking her face and a replica of the iconic AK-47 machine gun held aloft in her arms. It is a daring, controversial opening and one which heralds Durra as a talent to watch. She is already writing the script for her second feature, which she describes as a road movie through Jordan. Controversy is nothing new to Chris Morris. Hailed by many in the UK as a genius for his biting social satire in TV shows such as The Day Today and Brass Eye, Morris has now added filmmaker to his list of achievements. His debut feature Four Lions, which received its world premiere at Sundance, looks certain to continue his fearless tackling of controversial subjects. Set in the north of England, the film follows a group of hapless wannabe terrorists looking to cause mayhem. Rather than simply mine the dark side of the topic of terrorism, Morris has improbably created a black comedy about suicide bombers. "I think people will be glad to be able to laugh at a subject matter that up to now has had three red rings around it and been scary," says Morris. "I hope there won't be a backlash, particularly when there hasn't been a frontlash or that people will even forget they have a lash." He may well be right. Morris's film is undeniably funny. One scene shows the jihadi crew blow up a bird in a test run for their batch of homemade explosives. Elsewhere, the absurd runs side by side with the frightening possibility of banal terror. We see two members of the gang set off to a militant training camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border only to be kicked out days later for their ineptitude and, in one instance, accidentally killing an al Qa'eda kingpin. In another, one of the characters attempts to pass himself off as a woman in a local DIY shop, despite the fact that he has a full-length beard. Four Lions finds itself unnervingly timely, following the failed Christmas Day bomb attack by Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab which thrust terrorism in the West back into the headlines. Morris, who spent three years researching the exploits of various terror cells around the world, could hardly believe it when he read the news of Abdulmutallab's attempts to blow up the transatlantic passenger jet with explosives stuffed in his underpants just as he was finishing the final edit of his film. "There is a dishonourable history of farcical failures of attempted anatomical incinerations," he says. "It actually fits into everything I was looking at. There are so many stories I read about which are unexpectedly ridiculous, like the cell that wanted to blow up a US ship on New Year's Eve in 1999. They loaded up their dinghy with all their explosives only to see it sink when they tried to launch it." The film is already generating heated debate, particularly in the US, following its premiere. "No one seems to want to take on the presumed trouble likely to follow in its wake," wrote the LA Times about the reticence of American buyers to acquire the film for distribution there. Regardless, Morris has fashioned a thought-provoking, troubling look at one of the great threats facing us today. At times it even recalls the mad genius of Stanley Kubrick's classic anti-nuclear war treatise Dr Strangelove. In fact, the latter film's alternative title acts as a perfect summation for Morris: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Several filmmakers have had their projects supported - and rescued - by Hani Farsi, the London-based Saudi businessman and movie mogul helping to safeguard the future of Arab cinema. Hani Farsi might just be the Arab film mogul you've never heard of - yet. The London-based Saudi businessman is fast developing a reputation for being the go-to guy for film executives in a crisis, as well as a keen supporter of Arab filmmakers. When the well-respected French distributor Jean Labadie found himself ousted as director general of Bac Films in November 2007, Farsi quickly stepped in as the main investor in his new sales, distribution and production outfit Le Pacte the following year. Le Pacte has since established itself as one of France's most successful independent distributors, releasing the Oscar-nominated likes of Italian mafia epic Gomorrah and Israeli animated film Waltz With Bashir. Similarly, when the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman saw the financing for his project The Time That Remains collapse only weeks before production was set to start, it was Farsi who put up US$1.7 million (Dh6.2 million) of the $5.6 million (Dh20.5 million) budget. Suleiman's film, an autobiographical tale about a Palestinian family spanning from 1948 through to the present day, eventually opened to near universal critical acclaim at the Cannes film festival and has spent the past few months touring festivals around the world, including the Middle East International Film Festival. "Elia's film was such an important story and I really wanted it to have a Middle Eastern backer," says Farsi. "We were introduced by a mutual friend, I read the script, loved it and went to Paris the next day to meet him and we made the deal." That direct approach to deal-making is one of the reasons Farsi is finding himself increasingly popular with filmmakers and producers from the Arab world and beyond. In addition to investing in the project, Farsi also acquired French rights from Gallic company Wild Bunch, which is handling worldwide sales, and released the film through Le Pacte. Now Farsi is expanding his film operations and becoming a real player. He invested in Zeina Durra's directorial debut The Imperialists Are Still Alive! when he discovered the young filmmaker did not have enough funds to complete her film. Without Farsi's financial involvement, the film would probably still be languishing on an editing room floor somewhere, rather than receiving its world premiere at Sundance. "I was really interested in the first place at the idea of working with an Arab woman director," says Farsi. "I loved that and wanted to be support her. I don't usually get involved with films in the post-production stage but I think she's a very interesting filmmaker and I really want to work with her on her next project." Born into a prominent Saudi family - his father was the mayor of Jeddah and a well-respected urban planner - the dapper 41-year-old Farsi initially moved to London in 1993 with a view to overseeing his family's investment company. Soon, however, he was indulging his appetite in all things cultural. He was a significant silent investor in the Donmar Theatre in the mid-1990s giving then-artistic director Sam Mendes the springboard to launch his own filmmaking career. "I could have gone back to Saudi Arabia and made a fortune in real estate but what would I have created," says Farsi, who has also invested in a number of restaurants and bars including the Soho House chain. "Sam and I were both fans of Arsenal football club and I had loved his production of Glengarry Glen Ross. I saw the Donmar donation as my gift to London." Farsi is now looking to expand his production company Corniche Pictures even further by holding talks with a number of UK distributors over a possible joint venture some time in the future. And while Middle East investors in the Gulf have vied to grab Hollywood's attention with promises of funding - witness Abu Dhabi's $1 billion production arm, Imagenation - Farsi is content to take a more boutique approach. "I can only speak for myself but I'm not a big fan of making film after film," he says. "I don't feel you create the best product that way. I only have a desire to make one or two specific films a year." The next project for Corniche Pictures is likely to be the Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman's The Futurological Congress, based on Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi novel about a man at a conference on global overpopulation when a riot breaks out and his attempts to escape are thwarted by both government and rebel forces using psychogenic drugs. It says something about Farsi's world view that he thinks nothing of investing in an Israeli director's project just after working with a Palestinian director. "Nothing changes without dialogue," he says. "We need to be willing to talk and be open with each other. It makes no sense if it's only one side taking the step forward. We need to move towards each other." Farsi is also developing Mohsin Hamed's best-selling novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist with director Mira Nair. The book tells the story of a Pakistani Muslim from a once wealthy family in Lahore and his journey from a Princeton scholarship and high-flying financial job on Wall Street to a life of fundamentalism. Farsi and his family have done much to combat poverty and extremism through their philanthropic works. He has carried on his father's charitable works through the Mohammed Said Farsi Foundation. In Cambodia, for example, the organisation built two schools, a health centre and a bridge connecting three villages, as well as restoring ancient sites across the country. "We always believed as a family that philanthropy should be exercised regardless of ethnic or religious background and focus on health, education and community," he says.