Reflections from Another World

in 14th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey

East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the late 60’s. A young boy and an old man, standing on the bank of a river. Patiently, the man shows the boy how to brush his teeth with a soft wooden stick. Behind them, the impressive facade of a madrasah, an Islamic School, its walls eroded by years and humidity, rises in the luxurious environs, evoking the splendor of a bygone era. Anu had been sent by his father to this strict Islamic universe, far away from the colorful– and joyful– Hindu celebrations of his own village . His father, educated by the British, had become a fervent Muslim. But soon, the sounds of the religious, ethnic and national tensions resonating from far away all the way to this remote village lost in the middle of the innumerable waterways of the delta, will overwhelm the magnificent, mystical song of the « Claybird », a song redolent of the desire to leave the imprisoned body and to fly away. This Sufi message, conveying an Islam of tolerance, is also the message of one of Anu’s teachers, opposing the violence proclaimed by the director of the school. But Anu and his family will be drawn into the maelstrom of civil war and the resulting secession of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the late 60’s, during which more than 3 million people were killed and another 10 million refugees were driven across the new border into India. The image of the father, standing amidst the ruins of his house, motionless, bewildered, holding in his hands the burnt remains of a book, leaves a deep imprint.

Another madrasah, hidden in the brushlands of Chad at the borders of the Sahara: a tiny village with flat ochre buildings, swarming with children of all ages. Tahir and his little brother Amin had been sent to the madrasah by their mother, who cannot take care of them any longer since their father had abandoned his family. All they dream of is to escape this exile that has been imposed on them, far away from their home and the city where they used to stroll freely wherever they wished. But only after the death of his little brother does Tahir succeed in liberating himself and creating a kind of family reconciliation.

It is these slowly moving images, bathed in pastel colors and underscored by the enchanting guitar music of Ali Farka Touré, which evoke the same tenderness and melancholy that haunt the impressive building on the riverbank in the «Claybird,» the diffused memories of childhood, mixed with fear and happiness, love and the loss of love.

Rachida is a teacher, just a little older than her students in a school in Algiers. One day she is shot by an ex-student because she had refused to place a bomb in her own schoolyard. Deeply traumatized, she flees with her mother to a remote village, far away from the capital, and tries to learn how to live again. But how can she live in a country where fear and violence are everywhere? …. There is nothing left but hope beyond reason. It’s the day after a massacre. While the villagers mourn their dead at the cemetery, children appear from the woods, one by one, with their schoolbags over their shoulders. After stepping over the debris and quietly taking place in their wrecked classroom, they turn their eyes to Rachida. Dumbfounded, she takes the chalk from the hand of one of the children – and writes on the blackboard : Assignment for the day.

Whether it is «The Claybird» by Bangladeshi director Tareque Masud, or «Abouna» by Chad’s Mahlhmed Saleh Haroun; be it Yamina Bachir Chouikh’s film »Rachida,» or «I am Taraneh» by Rassoul Sadre Ameli from Iran, «The Magic Box» by Tunisian director Ridha Bedi, «9 Nine» by Ünit Ünal from Turkey– or even the bizarre nationalistic Indonesian epopee «Ca Bau Can»– all of these films, from countries with large Muslim populations, testify to a complex reality largely unknown to the West.

These candidates for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film reflect the many facets of the Islamic world at a highly explosive moment in history, a moment when the American public, paralyzed by fear, tends to narrow its perception of the Other, reducing him (or her) to an indistinct adversary.

The senior citizens of the rather well-to-do and conservative community of Palm Springs, California, who constitute the majority of the festival public, turned out to be astonishingly curious and open-minded about the world at large. They were literally fighting for seats in the often sold-out theaters. Most of the above mentioned films are certainly marginal in the race for the Oscars. However, these films are definitely worth seeing by a larger audience in a country on the brink of war, impatient to flatten other countries, countries that they often don’t even know where to find on a map.

Barbara Lorey