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Arts & Culture

Mini Review: San Diego Arab FIlm Festival

Badia and her formidable aunts in "Villa Touma."
Courtesy Photo
Badia and her formidable aunts in "Villa Touma."

This year’s Arab Film Festival, screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park Nov. 20-22, has an interesting array of films, including several animated pieces and one feature set in an unusual family in Palestine. Here are some mini-reviews of what will be screening this weekend.

Four of the wanted cows in the hybrid documentary,"The Wanted 18."
Courtesy Photo
Four of the wanted cows in the hybrid documentary,"The Wanted 18."

“The Wanted 18”:

Somehow cows just never seem that subversive, unless, of course, they’re “Intifada cows.” “The Wanted 18” is a innovative documentary using a combination of claymation, graphic novel techniques and live action to tell the true story of 18 cows, the people of the middle class West Bank town of Beit Sahour outside of Bethlehem, and the moment when the Israeli government classified the cows as a “threat to national security.”

Told in part from the viewpoint of four of the cows, Rikva, Ruth, Lola and Goldie, this hilarious and touching documentary tells one of the strangest stories to come out of the Occupied Territories. In 1987, as part of a Palestinian boycott of Israeli goods and taxation, the residents of Beit Sahour, decided to start their own milk-producing cooperative, with the help of a sympathetic kibbutz, even though most had never dealt with cows before. According to the documentary, most of the would be dairy farmers were local intellectuals and professionals - hardly the type of people you would expect to see milking cows. However, as director/multidisciplinary artist Amer Shomali says in the film, “ they took the cow thing quite seriously.”

So seriously, in fact, that the act of creating their own milk products attracted the attention of the Israeli authorities who tried to shut the cooperative down. As a result, the 18 cows and their minders went underground, to play an unusual role in the first Intifada.

From a family originally from Beit Sahour himself, Shomali chose the story of the cows to show a different side of the Intifada, and to show how Israeli control over goods and services affect the average Palestinian living under Israeli occupation. The film itself took five years to make because of the detail involved in the stop-motion animation as well as the graphic novel-like sequences.

Like the cows, “The Wanted 18” is no stranger to controversy. When the film premiered at the New York Human Rights Festival in June. Shomali was unable to attend because he was prevented by the Israeli army from traveling to Ramallah to Jerusalem to apply for a U.S. visa. The film has also been submitted as the Palestinian entry for Best Foreign Film for the Oscars.

‘The Wanted 18 “ screens Friday, Nov. 20 at 7:30 pm. In Arabic and English, with English subtitles.

Zahra, whose disappearence causes an uproar in "The Silence of the Shepherd."
Courtesy Photo
Zahra, whose disappearence causes an uproar in "The Silence of the Shepherd."

“The Silence of the Shepard”

From Iraqi documentary director, Raad Mushatat, comes a disquieting tale of disappearance, community pride and paternal power. Shot in stunning color on the edge of the desert in Southern Iraq, the film tells the story of life in Saddam’s Iraq, pre-Gulf War I. Pretty 13-year-old Zahra is sent to fetch water and never returns. The same day, a boy from her village, Saoud, heads for Baghdad to work out his draft notice. He, too, never returns and gossip starts to fly. Will Zahra’s family be able to keep their position in the village even if their daughter is never found?

A shepherd, Saber, has also seen something. On the same day Zahra and Saoud disappear, Saber sees Saddam’s military executing scores of people. Terrified, he says nothing. However, someone in the village knows what has happened to all three. Will that person talk?

What Zahra’s aunt says may well be true, “in the desert, no one is your friend.”

The film is a brilliant, critical look at how community imposed silence, traditional mores and tribal traditions can affect a society.

“The Silence of the Shepherd” plays Sunday, Nov. 21, at 2 p.m. in Arabic with English subtitles.

Badia meets a potential suitor in "Villa Touma"
Courtesy Photo
Badia meets a potential suitor in "Villa Touma"

“Villa Touma”

Arab Cinema is not that well known in the U.S., and the little that makes it to art houses and independent theatres tends to be about Muslim Arabs. "Villa Touma,” screening Sunday, is an interesting exception to what American filmgoers may be used to thinking about Arab film.

Set in Ramallah as the Second Intifada is hitting its stride, “Villa Touma” centers on the lives of three unmarried, formerly upper class Christian Palestinian sisters and their avowed quest to find a suitable husband for their orphaned teenage niece, Badia. A complex story, "Villa Touma" nicely lays out the nexus between genre, religion and class in an a society under occupation and in flux.

Badia’s aunts, who have exiled themselves in their family’s pre-Second Intifada glory, have big plans for her - piano lessons, French lessons, deportment lessons. In turn loving and austere, they are bound and determined to have Badia linked to a suitable mate. Badia finds herself presented in funerals, weddings, social events, anywhere an acceptable suitor might be found.

At first, poor Badia complies under the watchful eyes of her aunts. After all, Badia’s slim shoulders carry the weight of her family’s social fall from grace - her late father married a Muslim woman, and her father's sisters are determined to redeem the family fortunes and end their self-imposed social exile through a “good” marriage.

Everything seems to be going along relatively well, until Badia falls in love.

Will all bets be off?

As Badia’s piano teacher tells her, “you learn the rules and then you break them. As in music, it is in life.”

“Villa Touma” is a gorgeous, well-paced piece with beautiful insights into the rarely seen world of Palestine’s Christian community. Shooting in Haifa, director Suha Arraf sets her scenes throughout the community, turning it into a minor character in itself. Arraf’s first feature is a subtle but powerful commentary on how community traditions and fidelity to past glories can impact the ability to live happily in the reality of the present. Arraf, best known for her script work on “The Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride,” has turned to stellar Arab actresses to play the three aristocratic sisters. Cherien Dabis (Antoinette Touma) should be familiar to festival goers from last year’s hit, ‘May in the Summer,” while Ula Tabari (Violet Touma). who currently lives in Paris, is known for her work in "Munich," “Inheritance” and “Chronicle of a Disappearance.” Nisreen Faour, who plays Juliette Touma, should be familiar to festivalgoers from Cherien Dabis’ film, “Amreeka.” Maria Zreik (Badia), is a relative newcomer whose work in “Villa Touma” suggests she is a talent to watch for in Arab film festivals to come.

“Villa Touma,” with its loving yet clear-eyed critique of patriarchy and the roles women are frequently relegated to, joins a growing list of excellent films produced and directed by Arab women filmmakers.

“Villa Touma” screens Sunday, Nov. 22 at 4:45 p.m. In Arabic with English subtitles.

For more information on times and tickets, please see the San Diego Arab Film Festival website.