Behind the Bombs

A volatile region is better understood through some valuable films.

THOUGH WE'RE bombarded with endless CNN footage of car bombs, funeral processions, and anti-American protests in the Middle East, it's fair to say that the Arab-speaking world remains the most misunderstood region in the world today. Thanks to robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity, we'll likely soon know more about Mars than we do about the so-called Arab Street.

Fortunately, some revealing images are being sent to us by way of the sixth annual Seattle Arab & Iranian Film Festival. It opens with the acclaimed Rana's Wedding (7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6), which makes the Israeli-occupied territories the backdrop to a young woman's urgent quest to find a boyfriend and get married in just one day. The problem: She's got to navigate dozens of (literal) roadblocks to find him in Ramallah. Despite intransigent politicians (on both sides) and razor wire, the life force will not be denied. (The film returns for a one-week engagement at the Grand Illusion beginning Friday, Feb. 20.) Similar barriers and absurdities are found in the comic but subtly political Divine Intervention (2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7), which ran in Seattle last February and made my 10-best list for 2003. In both films, despair isn't quite turned into laughter, but laughter hints at the causes of that despair.

Among other titles returning to Seattle, Abbas Kiarostami's Ten (9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11) is a bit like HBO's Taxicab Confessions series, as a woman drives and listens to a succession of complaining passengers around Tehran. Some of the conversations are fascinating, while others are tedious. The Tunisian Satin Rouge (9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10) has a young widow emerge from mourning and discover a new life through the unlikely medium of belly dancing.

Other films are playing Seattle for the first time. The documentary Forget Baghdad (7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7) tells the story of Iraq's once-sizable Jewish population, using old British newsreels, interviews with aged former Iraqi Communists now living in Israel, and vintage movie clips. The latter include some wonderful Busby Berkeley–style Egyptian musicals and the Oscar-nominated 1964 Sallah Shabati, about the difficulties of Iraqi "Mizrahim" settling in Israel during the '50s (which made a star of Fiddler on the Roof's Topol). The forced exodus was not a happy one, as one of the old radicals recalls: Overnight, they went from being "good Arabs" to "bad Jews." Featured as a source in the film, NYU cinema studies professor Ella Shohat, the daughter of Mizrahim, is expected to be a guest during the fest.

Even as the movement toward postcolonial Arab independence caused upheaval in Iraq (the effects of which we're still feeling today), that nascent nationalism has a very different treatment in the 1961 drama A Man in Our House (2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8). Set before Egypt's King Farouk was deposed in 1952, the movie stars Omar Sharif as a rebel leader who takes refuge in the home of an apolitical Cairo family after he assassinates a corrupt official. The clan warms to the fugitive student ("He's become family," the matriarch declares), and naturally, one of the daughters falls in love with him—this is Omar Sharif we're talking about. The family stands for complacent Egypt about to be roused to revolution, but the movie is also interesting in how Sharif and all the younger generation are so generally Western in their dress and opinions (his keepsake copy of the Koran feels like a sop to censors). After two and one half hours, House does end on an optimistic note: "Did you ever see an educated nation enslaved?" the father rhetorically asks. Sadly, such postcolonial promise looks very different four decades later.

To wit, the Iranian Exam (7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12) shows how tenuous and precious education remains in the region— particularly for women. Here, a cross section of Tehran society gathers before a crucial, life-determining precollege exam; these young women nervously while away 80 minutes by gossiping, studying, arguing, admiring babies, scorning outcasts, and making eyes at boys. It's kind of like a distaff version of The Breakfast Club in Farsi that's structured like Slacker: One character bumps into the next, and one conversation leads to the next. There's talk of nose jobs, domestic violence, and arranged marriages. Boyfriends, fathers, and husbands cluster outside the all-female school courtyard, creating further tensions. Inside, a mother amusingly hunts for a bride for her son. Parts are dull, but there's a great final coda—accomplished only with sound—under the final credits.

Also, the related mini-festival Framed! The Corporate Media at War runs Friday, Feb. 13–Sunday, Feb. 15. We'll preview that next week.

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