Archive for the ‘Arabic’ Category

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10


Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Director: Eran Riklis

Writer: Sayed Kashua

Country: Israel

Runtime: 105 mins

This review reveals significant plot developments

Prior to the showing of Dancing Arabs at the London Film Festival, actor Laëtitia Eido conveyed a message from the director (Eran Riklis) to the effect that, whilst this film portrays some complex issues there is nonetheless a message of optimism within it. I have to say that, much though I thought this was a very good film, I struggled to see that it had anything positive to say about its main theme, the struggle for a peaceful existence among the Arabs and Israelis. It is interesting to note that Eran Riklis is an Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv, whereas writer Sayed Kashua – an Israeli Arab – recently left Israel for Chicago, writing in Haaretz that “the lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over. I wanted to say to my wife that this is really the end, it’s finished. That I’d lost my small war, that everything people had told me since I was a teenager was coming true before my eyes”.

Dancing Arabs is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Kashua, although there have been some substantial modifications for the screenplay. Like Kashua, the film’s protagonist, Eyad (Razi Gabareen), grows up in Tira, a mainly Arab city in Israel’s Triangle region, which is a group of Israeli Arab villages near to the Green Line. His father is Salah, played by Ali Suliman, who also played the key figure in Ziad Doueri’s excellent film about Arab-Israeli relations, The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February this year). Salah is a political activist who has spent a year in an Israeli prison without ever being charged. Eyad is highly intelligent and as he grows older Salah decides to send him to a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem, telling Eyed that he wants him to be better than his Israeli classmates.

At his new school, Eyad (played as a teenager by Tawfeek Barhom) experiences some initial teasing from his classmates, but things settle down, especially after Eyad is befriended by Naomi (Daniel Kitsis), with whom he falls in love. Nonetheless, for a long time they keep their affair a secret until, one day, Eyad makes a passionate speech in class about Arab stereotyping in one of the books they are discussing. At this point, Naomi leans over and kisses him, to the approving roars of their classmates. However, out on the streets Eyad is still bullied by other boys and hassled by soldiers. When he tries to get a job as a waiter he finds that the only Arabs in the restaurant are working in the kitchen, away from public view. One of the kitchen staff tells him that the only way to become a waiter is to die and then ask Allah if you can come back as a Jew.

Eyad’s best male friend is Yonatan (Jonathan), who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair. Tonatan (an excellent performance by Michael Moshonov) teases Eyad with stereotypes about Arabs, but clearly doesn’t mean it – with only an early death to look forward to Yonatan presumably is above classifying people according to their ethnicity or religious background. Whereas Naomi feels unable to tell her parents about her relationship with Eyad (her mother says she would rather her daughter be a lesbian than date an Arab), Yonatan’s mother Edna (beautifully played by Yaël Abecassis) is grateful for the support that Eyad gives to her son.

Despite the subject matter, early in the film there are many comic moments, some genuinely laugh-out loud funny. But as the story develops things gradually become more serious and quite dark. Realising that Yonatan’s passport photograph bears a resemblance to himself, Eyad uses it to open a bank account without encountering any questions from officialdom. Edna discovers what he is doing, but doesn’t mind. Bit by bit, Eyad assumes Yonatan’s identity, a transformation that is completed when Yonatan dies. Yonatan is buried as Eyad, in a Muslim funeral that is attended by both Eyad and Edna.

However, Eyad does not just lose his best friend. Naomi announces that she has signed up to join the Intelligence Corps. She is required to declare whether she has any professional or personal relationships with Arabs. Her silence when Eyad asks her how she answered communicates only that this is the end of their relationship. With his own identity submerged in order to fit into Israeli society, but with no close friends left, Eyad is lost. In the final scene we see him driving down the road, distraught, closing his eyes and going faster. Just as with every failure to achieve lasting peace in the region, we are left to guess what might happen next.

Rating: 9/10

TipTop (1)

Countries: Luxembourg, France, Belgium 2013

Director: Serge Bozon

Writers: Odie Barski / Serge Bozon / Axelle Ropert

Runtime: 106 mins


A police procedural-as-farce that entertains but doesn’t fire on all cylinders

At one point in Tip Top a detective reports to a senior officer on the sexual peccadilloes of two female Internal Affairs officers. “One likes to hit”, he says, “The other one peeps”. “What do you think the police are doing, then?” is the reply. Emphasising the point, we see a policeman staring in through the window, whereupon a passing copper slaps the back of his head. It is a funny moment in a film that gently amuses, but needs more such moments to really succeed.

The story revolves around the murder of Farid Benamar, a former Algerian policeman-come-refugee, who was the president of a French-Algerian friendship association – possibly engaged in shady activities – and an informant for the French police. To investigate whether the local force could have handled matters better two Internal Affairs officers are sent in. They are Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter has been demoted because of “private behaviour incompatible with police ethics” which, we discover, refers to her compulsive Peeping Tom behaviour. Esther Lafarge, on the other hand, gets her kicks from hitting, and being hit by, her violinist boyfriend Gérald (Samy Naceri).

In one early scene we see the two women in their adjoining hotel rooms. Marinelli is gently pleasuring herself as she stares at a half-naked man in an apartment across the way. Lafarge is doing likewise as she stares at images of handcuffs, hammers, and other implements of violence, sent to her mobile phone by Gérald. Meanwhile, local detective Robert Mendès (François Damiens) is trying to peek through their keyholes in order to get some information on these women who are investigating his department. This scene sums up the basic conceit of the film: everybody is watching everyone else. When a seedy reporter starts poking around Mendès accuses him of being a Peeping Tom. But when the story breaks in the media, we realise that the general public are also hanging on every salacious detail of the case.

Such sexual territory is nothing new for Isabelle Huppert, whose character in The Piano Teacher spied on lovers in parked cars. Here, though, the subject matter is played for laughs and Huppert deadpans beautifully in her role, especially as her own character’s behaviour starts to teeter out of control. Kiberlain also effortlessly conveys the gawky awkwardness of Sally Marinelli, and François Damiens amuses as a detective whose faltering attempts to speak Arabic recall Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

Unfortunately, the film’s comic potential is undermined by a weak internal logic and poor pacing. In the case of Marinelli’s character, it is not clear why anyone’s private behaviour would be worthy of police attention, let alone demotion within the force. We are also told early on that Lafarge is a highly respected officer, yet later on her own position comes into question because of her own sexual activities, which leads us to wonder how she has got so far without anyone noticing her proclivities before. Tip Top also commits the cinematic sin of placing the best scene at the very start of the film (in which a man – who is actually a police officer – storms into a bar frequented by Algerians and starts shouting racist insults). After this promising opening the rhythm of the film barely changes, apart from one scene where we see Lafarge and Gerald getting their sadomasochistic kicks.

Bearing in mind these shortcomings, I probably enjoyed this film more than it deserved, in large part because of the good performances and, especially, the magnetic screen presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Rating: 6/10

Tip Top was shown at the 2014 East End Film Festival


Palestine / Jordan / Greece 2012

Director: Annemarie Jacir

Writer: Annemarie Jacir

Runtime: 98 mins

A thoughtful meditation on a displaced people, but lacking in drama

When I Saw You is the latest directorial offering from Annemarie Jacir, the first female Palestinian director. The story explores the response of the Palestinians to Israel’s victory in the six-day war of 1967, after which refugees flooded over the borders into Jordan. However, this is not an exploration of Middle Eastern politics, but rather a more personal examination of people’s lives.

Young Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) occupies a makeshift shack with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) in a Jordanian refugee camp. Neither of them know the whereabouts of Tarek’s father, and it is slightly ambiguous as to whether his absence is connected to the war or to conflict at home. Tarek hates life in the camp and wants to go home, not understanding why they cannot just do so. His naive desire to return back where they have come from, shorn of all political understanding, effectively symbolizes the need of all people to live in the place they call home. However, despite the unpleasantness of  life in the camp, Ghaydaa believes this is the safest place for them to be. We see her trying to educate Tarek about science, though Tarek himself cannot read and is thrown out of school because he is disruptive to the other children.

When Tarek runs away to try and find his home, he is discovered by a “fedayeen”, a freedom fighter, who takes Tarek to his training camp where the boy is welcomed as one of their own. Shortly afterwards Ghaydaa tracks Tarek down. She plans to take him back to the camp, of course, but abandons this plan when she hears that napalm bombs have been dropped on the camps, as these are considered to be “recruiting grounds” for fedayeen. To his mother’s dismay, Tarek increasingly identifies with the fedayeen (which include women as well as men) and wants to be part of their fight. We never actually see any fighting, though, only training exercises led by Abu Akram (Ali Elayan), a commander who preaches class consciousness rather than religion, and who emphasizes the virtues of patience.

The film itself has an atmosphere of stillness about it. The people in the refugee camps are waiting, as are the fedayeen, all waiting – they know not how long – for the day they will reclaim their homeland. Whereas many contemporary films are filled with shaky camera action, almost all the scenes in When I Saw You are shot with a steady camera, which serves to emphasise the feeling of stillness and patience. Ultimately, though – despite a somewhat unexpected ending – the film’s meditative emphasis on a people waiting does result in a story rather lacking in drama.

Rating: 6/10


First released in 2012, The Attack is a story that addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet has been banned in most Arab countries because it was partly filmed in Israel. This is a great shame because it is a splendid film. I caught up with it this week at the BFI in London.

The film tells the story of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an eminent Palestinian surgeon who works with Jewish colleagues at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Just prior to receiving a major award, Amin’s wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), who is visiting family, rings his mobile phone, but he tells her he cannot speak at that moment and will have to call later. Upon receiving his award, Amin gives a speech that acknowledges the difficulties of being a Palestinian in Israel, but expresses optimism for the future.

The following day, whilst Amin is lunching with colleagues on the hospital terrace, the city is rocked by an explosion and shortly afterwards Amin is trying to save the lives of bloodied victims. We discover that a bomb exploded in a restaurant and most of the dead were children who had been enjoying a party. Later that night Amin is woken from sleep by a phone call and asked to come back to the hospital. Upon arrival he is asked to identify his wife’s body. She was killed in the explosion. The identification scene is truly distressing, because only the top half of Siham’s body is on the mortuary table.

Shortly afterwards Amin is arrested by the police. They tell him that his wife’s injuries are such that she must have been the bomber. Based on this they assume that he, too, must have been involved. Amin’s interrogation is brutal, involving sleep deprivation, being forced to listen to loud music in his cell, and bullying questioning from tough shaven-headed cops. However, there is no evidence to substantiate Amin’s involvement and he is released. He goes home, only to find his house has been ransacked and graffitied, but then he discovers the letter that his wife has left him and the truth is revealed. She was the bomber. He then resolves to discover the terrorist cell who had brainwashed her (he assumes). What he discovers is a world of fear and distrust among family, friends, and the religious radicals he believes to be behind acts of terror. Even his Jewish colleagues at the hospital, who he had considered friends, and who are trying to be sympathetic to his plight, are now viewed with suspicion.

Although The Attack was a story told from the perspective of a Palestinian, it seemed to me that Ziad Doueiri’s film was pretty even-handed. There was no moralising and no simple political messages. On the one hand, we can sympathise with Amin at the end of the picture when he is left wondering if he has abandoned his roots in order to pursue his personal career. The optimism he had expressed in his speech at the start now rings hollow. On the other hand, it is quite easy to sympathise with Amin’s Jewish colleagues when they watch in helpless bewilderment as the man they respect so much starts to distance himself from them. The film also leaves us with the question that features on the poster for the film: “Do you ever really know the one you love?”

Rating: 9/10

Updates: Spelling error corrected on 27.02.14