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San Diego Arab Film Festival: New Entries From Egypt, Lebanon

San Diego Arab Film Festival: New Entries From Egypt, Lebanon

Credit: courtesy photo

— In a season of strong film festivals, the San Diego Arab Film Festival has brought its top game to this, its sixth year. Although the festival is a bit more stripped down this time around, the program’s focus is sharper, more diverse, and relevant to the wider themes of refugees, identity, religious extremism, and political machinations.

'Mawlana' Egypt

This year’s Arab Film Festival opened with a bold choice, a film about a Muslim cleric whose television show propels him to ever-greater influence and wealth- but at a price. Directed by veteran Egyptian director Magdi Ahmed Ali, known for his daring work about Egyptian society, “Mawlana” (“The Preacher”) is a stylish, beautifully shot critique of religious extremism, government cynicism and corruption as well as police brutality. Based on Ibrahim Eissa’s best selling book (Eissa helped write the often clever banter), and with high production values, the film is a worthy representative of the new Egyptian Cinema, rising out of the chaos that was the Arab Spring, starting in 2011.

A box office hit in Egypt, “Mawlana” has provoked conversations about the role of religion in the region, and Ali has been both praised for his approach and criticized for going too far by some and not going far enough by others in his look at religion and the State.

“Mawlana” follows the steady rise of Sheikh Hatem (played by the charismatic Amr Saad), a young Sunni cleric with a charming smile and an engaging way of explaining religious issues to a TV audience. As Hatem rises from simple meeting hall preacher to prominence as a popular TV personality in a time period shortly before the Arab Spring, so too does his standard of living, taking on an opulence that is stunning. But for all his earthly accumulation, Hatem remains surprisingly down to earth. As a scholar trained in Quranic studies at Al-Azhar, Cairo's 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning, Hatem has little tolerance for fundamentalist doctrine or literal adherence to the holy texts. His fatwas, or rulings on Islamic law, tend to go against the official line — he advises his listeners to see Islam as something that advances with the times and which requires an attention to the good of others.

In private he is even more specific — “at the mosque, you are there to please God,” he says with a twinkle, “on TV you have to please the producers and the audience.” Hatem speaks out for religious tolerance toward Egypt’s minorities such as the Christian Copts. And Hatem believes that in the end all will ultimately be judged by their deeds, including the government that colludes with clerics to manipulate the people.

As Hatem’s popularity grows, he attracts unwanted attention from a powerful quarter — the government. And it is here that the film takes a quick turn into a political thriller. Director Ali, deftly guides the film through a taut maze of government and personal intrigue that puts both Hatem’s beloved wife, Omaima (Tunisian actress Dorra Zarrouk), as well as son and his own safety at risk.

In an interesting twist, Hatem is introduced to a son of the president of Egypt (with a wife surprisingly reminiscent of Suzanne Mubarak), supposedly concerned about the rise of unbridled religious extremism, but even more concerned about an odd problem — his wife’s troubled brother, Hasan (Ahmad Magdy), has converted to Christianity. Hatem is asked to convert him back to Islam, to avoid a scandal.

Hatem finds himself caught between state intrigue and a wife whose attentions go toward their temporarily disabled son, and who feels more and more estranged from Hatem and his entanglements.

But to keep Hatem in line and on task, others help the government to put pressure on him. Hatem is asked to preach against Christians and Sufis — he refuses. A female theology student challenges his interpretation of the Quran on TV. She later drops by to “consult with him,” and attempts to seduce him. As a result, his wife leaves him. Hatem’s friend mentor, a Sufi cleric, is falsely accused by the State of favoring the Shiites of Iran, and in a horrific scene that Hatem watches on screen at the studio, a rabid crowd fire bombs the old man’s house with him and his family inside.

Hatem’s faith is further challenged when it turns out Hasan has joined the Sunni religious extremists and bombed a Coptic Church.

It is only when Hatem takes a stand at the church against religious violence against all Egyptians that he finally gets his life and his family back.

Director Magdi Ahmed Ali has assembled a strong cast of some the best actors currently working in the region, including Magdy and Zarrouk, even though her part is rather underwritten. That, coupled with excellent camera work, gives this film a tightness and polish, making it one of the most important films to come out of New Egyptian Cinema. As a result, “Mawlana” topped the Egyptian box office for several weeks after its opening and did well in the region, including Lebanon.

And its message of tolerance toward all Egyptians and a caution against state and religious collusion may be just the thing for post Arab Spring Egypt and just as timely for the U.S.

“Mawlana" is still playing the festival circuit, but will hopefully be picked up for wider distribution in the near future.

'Tramontane' Lebanon

Vatche Boulghourjian’s impressive debut feature, “Tramontane” is a lyrical, low-key look at the hidden fissures from the Lebanese Civil War lying just below in the surface of Lebanese society. The title refers both to a Mediterranean wind that blows toward Europe and the crossing of mountains.

Living in a rural village in Lebanon, Rabih (newcomer Barakat Jabbour) has always known who he is, the blind son of a loving widowed mother, and a talented musician and singer who earns a living playing music and transcribing texts in Braille. That is, until the day he needs to apply for a passport to travel to Europe, like the wind of the title, with his choir. What should be one of the most exciting days of his young life turns into a nightmare of accusations and questions as Rabih learns that everything he thought he knew about himself is false, down to his name, his parents and his birthplace.

At first, Rabih’s mother, Samar (a solid performance by Julia Kassar) claims the necessary birth certificate is lost — as were many things during the war and suggests that the well-connected Uncle Hisham, an ex-military man (played with panther-like patience by Toufic Barakat) will sort things out.

But Uncle Hisham mysteriously disappears, and Rabih soon learns his mother is not who he thought she is. It is then that Rabih finds out that he was born in the waning days of the Lebanese Civil War and brought to Samar as a baby by Hisham, a commander during the war.

Stunned and not a little thrown off-balance, Rabih decides to take matters into his own hands, and with the help of a sympathetic taxi driver, sets off to track down his origins, no small thing in a society in which family is a major part of one’s identity.

What he finds is not easy.

Is Uncle Hisham one of the architects of the murderous rampages that saw villages torched or is he the savior of an orphan about to perish? Could he be both?

As Rabih seeks to learn who he really is, Boulghourjian explores the small villages just over the mountains (the Tramontane of the title) in lovely vistas and small, but pithy human interactions. Rabih moves from village to village, pursuing half-truths and vague lies. A former soldier who served under his uncle suggests Hisham saved the boy from a burning house after an attack. In another village, the sheikh makes it clear no such thing happened there during the war. “There are no new buildings here,” he says. Yet, as Rabih leaves, we can see what he cannot — the recent cement structure that houses the sheikh’s lies.

When Rabih does find a family whose story potentially matches his — he is faced with a choice — accept their version and move on or insist and open old wounds.

What Rabih finds is are the intersecting and often conflicting stories of a country that retells its past in a way that it can survive the present.

Boulghourjian refrains from ripping open the barely healed scabs of the multiple conflicts in Lebanon and chooses, instead, to focus on small, finely lensed moments such as Rabih looking at a violin, of uncertain provenance, like himself, and unlocking a warm tone of unexpected beauty. Or when unrolling the lovely topography of the south of Lebanon — you know there is tragedy lurking just below the top of the hill — it is this mix of suffering and resignation that gives the film a sense of quiet dignity.

Newcomer Barakat Jabbour gives one of the strongest performances in the film. Blind since birth, Jabbour seems a natural, bringing a raw realness to Rabih’s frustration with his search. Like Rabih, Jabbour is a musician of unusual talent and had much to do with the shaping of the magnificent score built on both classic Arab and European style music.

And it is the music that creates the thread that counter-balances the road trips through the south.

In the end, Rabih makes a choice, one that gives new weight to the lines of the classic Arabic song he sings at the beginning of the film, now in a new arrangement: “Send me an answer…and relieve me…”

"Mawlana" and "Tramontane" screened last week. The San Diego Arab Film Festival continues this weekend at the Mission Valley AMC, with new films screening Saturday and Sunday, For more information about dates and times, please see the San Diego Arab Film Festival website.

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