This could be a bit dull.. no pictures, no fun just three serious and long reviews of three serious documentaries. I got a sneaky press pass to the Film Fest so I realise that I should have tried to snog George Clooney or put my hand up Sharon Stone's skirt or whatever real journalists do but I'm not a real journalist!
So here we go.... mujahadeen, taxi drivers and hizbullah!
Jordan, USA, Germany & Netherlands/2007/Dir: Mahmoud al Massad
“This is our reality, you can’t deny it can you?”
Recycle tells the story or a former mujahadeen soldier Abu Ammar who is now collecting cardboard for recycling from the streets of Zarqa in Jordan. This job cannot sustain him, his two wives and eight children and a book he is writing about Islam doesn’t get anywhere. The only option seems to be to emigrate. The documentary reveals his struggle over this move and how the action of his own government ultimately forces him to make the decision.
Zarqa is also the home town of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (Al Qaeda in Iraq) a fact that opens up some fascinating social and theological comment from Abu Ammar and his small group of friends. In one discussion the group try to find reasons for Zarqawi’s behaviour and point out that he led a life of drink, drugs and women in his 20s and was never seen in the mosque. They initially conclude that a dissolute life overturned by a personal religious re-evaluation with its accompanying zeal is the deadliest factor. However they also consider that radicals are more likely in a situation where men are unable to express themselves freely especially in an overlooked provincial town with few jobs or prospects.
Although this was certainly a critique of Jordanian government policy (or lack of it) this documentary was a vehicle for criticising more than national government. It was a critique of its neighbours (i.e Iraq), of US policy in the region and of the local unscrupulous making money out of the local unfortunate! Most interestingly it was a critique of radical Islam from the point of view of a conservative Muslim. In another discussion they essentially damn Bin Ladin for his arrogance in taking a decision like 9/11 without any theological basis or blessing and making life much more difficult for Muslims as a consequence.
This is interesting because it is the liberal Muslims who are most often heard public rejecting Islamic radicalism especially in the West. Arguably it is the conservatives rejecting the radical creed that will have a much greater effect on hearts and minds. In the eyes of many conservative Muslims the liberals have already gone way too far to have any credibility anyway!
In the Q and A at the end the director said that part of the reason he made this film was to demonstrate to a western audience that not all Muslims are terrorists. However, I don’t think it can work on this level for an average western audience. To understand much of this documentary you already need some prior knowledge of Islam, the region and its recent history. Furthermore, some of the ‘normal’ conservative Muslim sentiments expressed are already too far removed from what western ears want to hear. A good example of this is when Abu Ammar is truly struggling with his conscience as he considers the need to live in the land of the ‘infidel’ in order to provide for his family.
This move is forced upon him when the deadly bomb attacks on a Jordanian hotel in 2005 result in his arrest. On his release he concludes he will henceforth be one of the ‘usual suspects’ in the event of any further local terror attacks and it this which makes him leave. At the end of the documentary we see him heading to the US but in the Q and A the Director said that he was refused entry. He ended up in Venezuela along with many Iraqi refugees who have also been refused entry by the US. So perhaps Hugo Chavez does have foreign policy options other than Cuban buttlicking and insulting the Spanish!
Six Ordinary Stories
France & Syria/2007/Dir: Meyar Al Roumi
This documentary consisted of six short stories each based on a different Syrian taxi driver. Although each driver had a different story common themes started to emerge very quickly, one of which seems to be the parlous state of Syria’s economy. As a consequence more and more people are becoming taxi drivers often as a second job, in order to earn enough money to survive. The percentage drivers take is low which means that very long days are the norm and it is still difficult to support a family.
The first driver had been in the army for most of his life where he was responsible for vehicle battery maintenance. He was now driving because there seemed to be no such thing as an army pension although that was not exactly clear. Nevertheless his main criticism was that his health was deteriorating because of the toxic fumes and materials he came into contact with while in the army. He said that there were never any protective measure taken despite the fact that he was always asking his generals for gloves, masks and other safety equipment for those in the army that handled toxic substances.
The second taxi driver spent much of his screentime calculating the amounts he was earning that never added up to enough to support him and his family. He said it was impossible to get out of poor housing and accompanying health problems because landlords charge several months rent in advance which he can never hope to make. The very real fear of one of his children becoming sick, having to find hospital bills and then deal with the economic repercussions on the life of his family was also very clear. This expectation of having to pay for everything was made quite stark by another driver who was also a fireman. He said that there are countless times they have put out a fire or cut out someone from a car and been approached by an anxious family asking how much they need to pay. They don’t actually realise or expect that this service is free. He also made a comment about ‘civil servants’ who not only get paid a living wage but stop work at 2.00 in the afternoon as well. To him it was a crime that firemen and others who save lives and work all hours do not get paid a lot more but that is one of life's great mysteries wherever you live.
Another driver stood up very straight, stared intently into the camera and addressed his complaints directly to the ministry of transport. He went through a litany of accidents that could have been avoided simply by painting white lines on the roads, putting in cats eyes and just by some decent maintenance. He also talked about how Damascus had changed beyond recognition owing to intense construction. He said that there used to be many trees and green spaces that were the heart of the city but now the heart had been ripped out and replaced by concrete.
“The apricots of Damascus, we can’t find them anymore. There’s no control. It’s negligence”
Words in the Wake of War
Tunisia/2007/Dir: Anouar Brahem
Words in the Wake of War is the first documentary film directed by Tunisian musician Anour Brahem and consists of interviews with Lebanese artists and intellectuals about the impact of the Israel-Lebanon war of summer 2006. Most of the interviewees are friends of Anouar and in revealing how they had been affected personally, they also reveal much about the inner life of Lebanon. The interviews were spaced between different images, many of which were from the war itself with others used for historical or contextual reference. Other shots focussed on the stillness of the landscape or the ocean and accompanied by Brahems music, they provided short interludes of removal from the situation.
The necessity to disconnect from the situation was a theme that came up several times in the interviews. A singer and a dancer both said they assumed they would leave Lebanon in the event of another war but when the time came they could not actually bring themselves to do it. When the evacuation of foreigners was the main story on all the new programmes, one said she felt as if the Lebanese were being abandoned and left to die and for this reason alone she had to stay. The other concluded that having lived through war for most of her life she should be tough enough to live through another one.
Footage from 2006 of people wandering in rubble unable to identify where they were because no landmarks remained, led to a wider discussion of Beirut. One architect talked about Beirut’s history and identity and how much of both was shattered by the Lebanese civil war from 1975. For him a huge mistake was made after that war by focussing so much on rebuilding the city based on a past that could never be recaptured. Beirut was not the natural centre of Lebanon and was rebuilt at the expense of other parts of the country, the South in particular. In his view, this exacerbated the divide and made some of what has followed a historical inevitability.
One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary was how political allegiances shifted for many during the summer of 2006 and the consequences that remain. Some, whose intellectual and secular sensibilities put them in lifelong opposition to Hizbullah, found themselves on their side but via a shared cultural outrage. After the war some said that this feeling had made them stronger and more sure of their own singular identity as Lebanese. Others felt rather different with a sense that an internal contradiction had been created. There was almost a sense of being used with one poet saying that after the event when the connection ends you realise that “Hizbullah wants nothing from Lebanon. It will pursue its own revolution”.
Some were vehemently opposed to Hizbullah, blamed them and Iran completely and were in support of Israel throughout. However, after the event they too were left disturbed and disconnected because the degree of destruction wrought by Israel was so unjustifiable.
The documentary conveyed a sense that both the internal and external splits remain. There is also a sense of fear expressed disturbingly by one writer who said: “We must be ready for the resumption of war at any time”. An artist talked about how options were declining and that the 2006 war had not allowed for any third way resulting in new divisions often between friends that have also not recovered. In reference to wider issues one poet said: “The culture of death has taken over. Its like being in an ideological coma with no connection to the world. This struggle can only lead to a repeated cycle of trivial consequences.”
Rather than end on a grim Middle Eastern note let me say that the most innovative, positive and beautiful piece of filmmaking I have seen in millennia was Surya … makes me happy just thinking about it! I realise that this is a film festival in the Middle East and therefore Middle East filmmakers have to be promoted but Surya got my Gold Muhr Award! Haven’t had time to write about it yet but watch this space. Also to come ALL the Emirati voices!