Arab Cinemas: War and Peace, Violence and Problems of Identity By Mahmoud Jemni

in 5th Dubai International Film Festival

by Mahmoud Jemni

A dispassionate reading of the eleven Arab feature films competing for the Muhr awards at DIFF threw up some recurring themes — war, violence and Islam. War took the lion’s part. We saw five movies — Mostefa Ben Boulaid by Algerian director Ahmed Rachedi, Salt of the Sea by Annemarie Jacir from Palestine, Dawn of the World by Abbas Fadel from Iraq, I Want to See made by two Lebanese directors, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and Days of Boredom by the Syrian director Abdellatif Abdelhamid.

These films may share the same theme but in each case war was differently presented. Ahmed Rashidi, who has grown up with the independent struggle in Algeria, returned with movies on the violent skirmishes and conflicts between the occupying French and the Algerian freedom fighters, the atrocity inflected on the civilian population. Rashidi brings to the screen the life of Mostefa Ben Boulaid, a charismatic man and one of the early and leading militants in the struggle, but in doing so he revisits a theme and a style that were handled over and over again by Algerian filmmakers in the decade following the country’s independence in 1962.

War may not have a direct presence in the other films, but it’s never entirely eclipsed. The French occupier is replaced by a neighboring aggressor or an internal enemy as in Dawn of the World. In this film the omnipresence of war is visible through the debris of Iranian missiles, through militated bodies and the return of a survivor. The sound was used as a makeover, allowing us to witness the war without ever seeing actual combat. The comings and goings of the soldiers of the regime — enemies from within — strongly evokes an ambiance of war in a zone where the belligerents ceaselessly change — the Iraqis, the Iranians and the Americans. But the result is always the same — it’s the civilians who pay the highest price.

The three other films point their fingers at Israel — the aggressor and the occupier. In Days of Boredom by Abdellatif Abderrahim, troop movements, military communiqués and the return of a wounded soldier evoke the atmosphere of war. The Israeli occupier reappears in Salt of the Sea depicting the many checkpoints, soldiers armed to their teeth, often sporting sunglasses as if they didn’t dare look in the face of their enemy — the occupied people. War is not shown directly in Annemarie Jacir’s film; what takes us to the heart of war is the effect on the people whose exodus, the curb on the freedom movement inside their own land and the despoliation of goods, take us to the heart of war.

It’s a theme that is deeply touched upon in I Want to See where no enemy soldier is seen or any sound of a shell heard. Only the gaze of actress Catherine Deneuve stands as a heartfelt witness to the ferocity of the Israeli army. Through their camera, the two Lebanese directors cast an incisive look on the landscape, on every road and every house. How much rubble or how many buildings ends up strewn on the share as if to contain a possible violence coming this time from the waves. Here, the war has destroyed not just buildings, but all that which stands witness to life, memory itself.

In Casanegra, Moroccan filmmaker Nour Eddine Lakhmari, handles extensively both physical and verbal violence, Française by Souad El Bouheli (Morocco), Do you remember Adli? by Mohamed Zineddine (also Morocco) and Le dernier maquis by Rabeh Ameur — Zaimeche pose the crucial problem of identity and, more basically, of Islam and its perception by Muslims themselves and by Europeans.

This palette of films demonstrates how wholly aware a filmmaker is of the problems that surround him, problems that demand that several and real questions to be asked.