Arab cinema gives Dubai Film Festival a sparkle
December 22 2015 11:38 PM
A scene from 3000 Nights.
A scene from 3000 Nights.

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

One of the most fascinating aspects about the Dubai International Film Festival is its Arab cinema, and the recently concluded 12th edition had some gems from the region.
Lebanese director Jihane Chouaib’s Go Home starts with one marvellous plus point. It has Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani playing the lead, Nada, who returns to her battle-battered Lebanese village to try and find out what happened to her favourite grandfather — who just vanished. And as she enters what was once her beautiful home, she sees it in ruins, and written on one of the walls is an angry message, Go Home! But Nada cannot really go home, can she? No, certainly not before she gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing granddad.
In a way, Chouaib’s story is also Nada’s. Like many, many others, the director too had returned to her native home, a home she had had to flee as a child when the Lebanese civil war broke out. As Nada tries to unearth the strange disappearance of her grandfather, Suleyman, we begin to see a parallel between the real and the fictitious.
Nada’s investigations veer into dangerous territory — when she starts to question Suleyman’s friends (who may well be his enemies). All that Nada can rely on is a childhood memory about an incident in her garden. Was the old man murdered? Or, was he a civil war martyr?
When her brother joins her in this search, there is more to arrive. She wants to rebuild the house, he wants to sell it, but even during their fiercest disagreement, they remain connected. Finally, when the truth is revealed, it is time for them to go home.
Unfortunately, Farahani — who can really bring alive a character (examples being The Patience Stone and The Two Friends) — has not been given a role that justifies her immense potential.
The question now is, will India’s Anup Singh do this honours? He is now shooting The Song of Scorpion Singers in which the ravishingly beautiful Iranian actor is playing a traditional Rajasthani healer, and the equally brilliant Irrfan Khan will be her screen lover. It is a tale of revenge and redemption, love and disappointment.
Legend has it that there is an extremely poisonous variety of this insect in the deserts of Rajasthan whose venom has but just one anti-dote. The song of a conventional scorpion singer, whose melody has this magical power to draw the toxin out of a body! Singh’s work has all the ingredients of cinematic thrill.


Documentary director Mai Masri’s first feature, 3000 Nights, is a heart-rending tale of a Palestinian woman’s incarceration in an Israeli jail who is falsely accused of helping a revolutionary. The movie is a brutal look at the way Palestinian prisoners are treated by Israelis. Never sensational though, 3000 Nights looks and feels real, and takes care of details. But of course it is, in the end, a prison drama, albeit set in a female ward.
Masri, a Palestinian who was educated in California and whose documentaries include Beirut Dairies, infuses her film with a certain sophistication that can only come from one who has spent time in the West. Crisply edited in the Hollywood style and tautly narrated, 3000 Nights begins in 1980 at Nablus in the occupied West Bank where one night a newly married schoolteacher, Layal, is arrested. She is accused of helping a young boy who is said to have attacked a military check post.
Layal refuses to tell the court — in spite of being asked to by her husband and a kind Israeli defence counsel — that the boy threatened her. She says she helped him, a total stranger, only because he was wounded. The court sentences her to eight years in jail, where she even gives birth to a son.
In a powerful symbolism that is such an integral part of the movie, Layal refuses to terminate her pregnancy, much to the chagrin of her husband, and raises the child all by herself. It may seem like defiance, but actually it tells us about the importance of life — a belief that in the first place stops her from falsely accusing the wounded boy.
In line with this, we also see an unbelievable change in some of the hardened prison inmates — whose attitude towards Layal softens considerably once her child arrives. Everybody wants to play mother to the baby, and their maternal instincts push away all thoughts of bitterness and enmity.


Another woman centric work at the festival was Danielle Arbid’s Parisienne, which follows an 18-year-old woman who arrives in Paris from Beirut in 1993. Her struggle to fit into a French way of life makes for a gripping narrative.
Lina is a lovely young woman, who starts her life with her uncle and aunt, but when the man tries to force himself on her, she flees. This is the beginning of her travails. Friendless and homeless, Lina somehow manages to get a bed for herself with the help of a mate at college, where she enrols herself to study economics. But she soon finds that she is cut out for architecture and with the help of a kind professor, Lina switches streams.
And Lina then begins to run into a different set of problems. She starts to attract the wrong kind of men: a rich cad who abandons her on her birthday, a musician who tries getting her into drugs, and a rebel student leader. However, all these men help Lina finally find her footing in Paris, her sexual experiences merely enriching her life, not destroying it — as it happens sometimes.
Arbid’s work turns out to be a breezy fare, not one of monotonous sorrow. Paris plays a romantic background to Lina’s adventures, and the camera captures all this with gleeful gusto.

Another engrossing film at the Festival was Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang. It tells a Turkish story and is set in a Turkish village, but describes and denounces abuse of women. It is provocative with a liberal touch of Western sensibility.
Mustang — which is also in the semi-final list of nine titles shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar — is a tale of five sisters living in a remote Black Sea village whose galloping sexuality is brutally censored by their unfeeling uncle, who becomes the girls’ guardian after the death of their parents.
The movie loses no time in taking us straight to the point. School is over and the sisters join their male classmates in some innocent fun and frolic on the beach. While their grandmother admonishes them for pleasuring themselves on the shoulders of the boys, the uncle beats them up. He calls the bewildered girls whores.
More humiliation follows, and the girls are locked up in the house after a being subjected to a demeaning virginity test.
However, such idiotic incarceration will merely lead to rebellion, and the youngest sister finds a way for the rest to attend an all-women spectator soccer match. After this, windows are shuttered and the height of the boundary walls raised. The girls are really prisoners of a society that celebrates female subjugation and ideas as medieval as chastity and virginity.
Then comes the ritual of getting the girls married. The eldest sister is lucky, for she is allowed to wed her boyfriend.
But the other girls are not so lucky. One of them is forced to marry a dullard. Another sister accepts the arrangement with a guy she does not care for with stoic resignation — till tragedy strikes the family, and two of the youngest sisters flee to freedom.
Erguven said during an interview that she had made Mustang as a kind of battle against rising religious conservatism in Turkey — a nation which was once proudly secular. There is one scene in the film where we see a politician in a television broadcast saying that women shouldn’t smile, shouldn’t laugh, should look down ... rules that are “supposedly conservative” Ergüven says, but are actually “obsessive about sexuality.”


In some ways, director Halkawt Mustafa’s El Classico — straddling between Kurdistan and Spain — is Bollywoodish in feel and texture. It is the story of two dwarfs — real dwarfs and not like the one which was portrayed by Kamal Hassan in his 1989 Apoorva Sagodharargal — whose peaceful existence goes for a toss when one of them wants to marry his childhood sweetheart, Gona. But her father will not let her — who is of normal height — marry Alan, the little man who runs a tea shop in Kurdistan.
Interwoven into this love story is the craze for football. Kurdish locals are passionate about the game, taking noisy sides between Real Madrid and Barcelona FC, known as El Classico. Gona’s father is a Ronaldo supporter and being a cobbler by profession, makes a pair of shoes for his football hero that he hopes to present some day.
Alan sees this as a great chance to prove his worth to the stubborn old man. Alan steals the shoes one night — and along with his brother, Shirwan, also a dwarf, who agrees to play Cupid —embarks on a motorbike trip to Madrid, where Ronaldo lives. The journey is illegal, the brothers have no valid papers, and is fraught with adventure of the most dangerous kind.
Half way through the trip, Shirwan calls it quits, and Alan is left to fend for himself, and while Gona pines for him, her little man presses on.
El Classico, despite its fairytale feel, is a sincere attempt to narrate a love story that is unequal. While Gona is beautiful and a normal woman, she loves Alan, a dwarf who is often the butt of ridicule.


Another love story one saw at the Festival was Fares Naanaa’s Borders of Heaven that underlines how a tragedy shakes the very foundation of a Tunisian couple’s relationship. Sami and Sara are in their thirties and appear content and happy till a tragedy befalls them.
When their little daughter drowns, the parents are wracked by guilt and despair — and find their bond growing weaker by the day. The man takes to drinking, while the woman, fed up with such negativism, walks out of the marriage.
But Borders of Heaven — again one of those movies that appears to have been influenced by Indian cinema — cannot let its viewers go home unhappy. Can it?

♦ Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent Dubai International Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]

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