Dancing to the Tune of Politics. Arab Films at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

in 7th Abu Dhabi Film Festival

by Vicky Habib

A number of Arab films featured at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year were made with the intent of raising alarm bells, by exposing their societies and attacking some of their deep-seated ailments. These films concoct extremely bleak stories about suspended dreams that are not far from the reality of those societies that stumble between poverty, ignorance, and extremism, regardless of which city and which oppressors are the antagonists: from Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops (Es-Stouh), to Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al Daradji’s In the Sands of Babylon, and Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Aballah’s Rags and Tatters (Farsh wa ghata).

It is nothing new for Merzak Allouache, who is haunted by the issues of his native Algeria despite his Parisian exile, to draw close to the social and political minefields of his country. But this time, his new film The Rooftops, which had its first international debut in Venice, goes very far. Small wonder then that his film was deliberately ignored in his home country, as Allouache deploys all weapons in his arsenal in his war against religious extremism. The result: a film that conveys Algerian reality in a cinematic language that focuses on people more than anything else.

The Rooftops is a film about the despondent and the marginalized, people whose dismal conditions after independence led them to squat on rooftops, forever changing the face of the beautiful Mediterranean capital, and turning it into a ticking time bomb ready to explode at any moment.

Allouache’s lens follows five rooftops in five Algerian neighborhoods over the span of one full day. Set across the five different Muslim prayers, the film exposes the pretenses of a society that appears religious from the outside, but has nothing to do with Islam on the inside, as crimes, various turpitudes, and intrigues are all hatched in parallel with prayer times.

The society Allouache exposes is one that believes in superstitions, and one that is controlled by impostors who use religion as an excuse to commit the most heinous acts, while the citizens either helplessly cave in, or rebel against their reality, but to no avail, given the absence of any real possibility for change.

The Rooftops is an enchanting film that not only looks on a city in decline, but digs deeper, perforating with its honesty those who withhold on telling their tales. It is a film about people made of flesh and blood, who are hostages to a fate hanging somewhere between a gloomy present and a hopeless future.

The bleak future also underlies Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al Daradji’s In the Sands of Babylon, which goes back to 1991 in Iraq with an approach that combines the documentary and drama genres. The film is a sequel to Daradji’s Son of Babylon, which he made four years earlier. While the first film tracked Umm Ibrahim’s journey as she looked for her missing son following the Iraqi army’s withdrawal from Kuwait, the second part focuses on the story of Ibrahim and the torture he suffered after being arrested by the Military Police. Ibrahim would be subjected to all kinds of abuse in Saddam’s prisons that knew no mercy or compassion, until his premeditated murder at the hands of Saddam’s henchmen, and his burial in a mass grave along with hundreds of detainees from the tyrant’s prisons. 

Saddam stole our uprising, a character proclaims in the film, which is keen to hint that the “Arab Spring” had started in Baghdad in 1991, before deals were made and the country drowned in quagmires with no way out.

The protagonist of Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Aballah’s Rags and Tatters has to wander in another quagmire, after he escapes from prison following the mass breakouts in the chaos that engulfed prisons in Egypt in the aftermath of the January 25th revolution (Arab Spring).

There are no ornate dialogues or hands raised up in Abdallah’s third film after Heliopolis and Microphone, but just deafening silence, seizing the moment to convey a lot about the country of the Nile and its people.

Living on the outskirts of mountains of garbage and between the dead is enough to expose many things about the country and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, the blind violence begotten by the revolution leaves no room for a rosy future. But the protagonist (Asser Yassin) tries to survive or at least withstand the storm. 

We do not know any details about him or why he was incarcerated, but this does not seem relevant in the context of the dramatic events. All we know is that he hails from one of the slums that were conceived in cruelty while being deprived of all joys of life. For this reason, his random death at the end of the film is very expressive, and says a lot about people who live on the sidelines and die on the sidelines.

Rags and Tatters, which borrows its name from the title of a Sufi chant, does not preoccupy itself with trying to beautify the image of the millions who rose up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square before dreams were lost and they collided with the harshness of reality. Instead, it centers on the millions who live on the edge of life. This is precisely where the film’s strength lies, even if its attempt to mix drama with documentary elements is somewhat labored.

Edited by Carmen Gray