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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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The militant strain

By Hani Mustafa

The 18th round of the Carthage Film Festival (20-28 October) ended on Saturday with as many bangs as whimpers. But the atmosphere of brisk engagement surrounding both official competition and fringe screenings and discussions lived on to the end of the closing ceremony. In its unexpected display of award-giving acrobatics the closing ceremony was, in some measure, an anti-climactic comedy of errors. Yet it also reaffirmed this round's Third World-centred vision, tirelessly reiterated since the opening ceremony last Friday -- both directly and through the choice of films on offer. In the official competition alone, among the many Third World-oriented films screened eight Arab and African contributions were included, all of which co-produced by European (predominantly French) production companies.

This fact reflects what has been called "dual identity syndrome," a sometimes favourably regarded condition that besets North African cinema and other domains of the post-colonial world. The festival was indeed described by Tunisian Minister of Culture Abdel-Baqi Hermassi during the opening ceremony as "the most important space for south-south cooperation in the field of cinema today." And a tribal African dance preceded the premiere, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's biographical Lumumba. But such displays of post-colonial zeal are fully understood only in the light of a prior assumption, namely, that it is in the nature of contemporary Third World culture to suffer dual identity syndrome gladly, that the now liberated subject seems to function only by reference to his former oppressor. It remains a cheering thought that, even within that framework, Carthage has found a way to respond to the recent Intifada in the Palestinian occupied lands, in what Hermassi called "the militant strain" of this year's fare.

The closing ceremony afforded a medley of surprises. Films deemed unworthy by both critics and public like Gabonese filmmaker Imumga Ivango's Dolé, Tunisian filmmaker Naceur Ktari's Hulw wa Morr and Algerian filmmaker Karim Traida's Truth Tellers received the first, third and special jury awards, respectively, while a phenomenally popular contribution like Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayoush's Ali Zaoua, whose child protagonists are played by amateur actors, went almost unnoticed. Yet judging by the fervour of the applause, at least, the audience did second the jury's opinion on a number of occasions: Egyptian filmmaker Atef Hatata's Al-Abwab Al-Moghlaqa receiving the second award, Basem Samra receiving the best actor award for his role in Egyptian filmmaker Yusri Nasralla's Al-Madina, and Salima Belmoumen receiving the best actress award for her role in Moroccan filmmaker Jillani Ferhati's Dafair. Among those who were honoured, the highlights were Egyptian actor Ezzat El-Alaili and Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu-Rahma who filmed the Mohamed El-Dorra shooting.

Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun might be said to have had the greatest applause for the smallest prize. On the announcement of the jury's recognition of his Tayf Al-Madina, the audience's appreciation was more palpable than any award Chamoun might have collected. This is perhaps what justifies his terse response to the recognition: "It means nothing at all to me." Nor is his let-down -- an instance of the jury's failure to reflect audience feelings -- the sole reason one might want to converse with Chamoun during Carthage 2000. As a Lebanese artist with dual identity syndrome who pursues the just-ended civil war's illusive trails, his work speaks to the activist strain of the present event. It also raises the broader question of how to tackle post-colonial (Arab) realities in a contemporary (Western) idiom.

Filmmaker Yusri Nasralla with Egyptian actress Raghda at Carthage 2000 Basem Samra and Abla Kamel in Al-Madina

Tayf Al-Madina is the story of Rami who, at the age of 12, flees Israeli bombardment in southern Lebanon only to encounter the outbreak of war in Beirut, which separates him from his girlfriend. When next we meet Rami, he is a 27-year-old ambulance driver getting ready to join a militia organisation following the abduction of his father. Rami's voyage -- frequently interspersed with the memories of his post-militia companion, Siham -- becomes an increasingly inconsequential framework for revealing the horror and absurdity of war. To what extent must post-colonial film be a rendition of the nightmares of history? In sheer numbers, the war has been the most frequent, if not the only topic tackled by Lebanese filmmakers. And here as elsewhere in Lebanese film there is a sense of overpowering weight, an inescapable burden.

"I feel it is only natural for any person," Chamoun retorts. "If you lived 16 years of civil war and saw your country so divided that people began to imagine a group of statelets rather than a single future state -- if you witnessed your country going back in time, literally, by the decade, and one third of its population emigrating all at once -- you too would go on making films about the civil war for another 50 years or more. And this is not specific to Lebanon, it's true of any country that goes through the horrors of war. So it's not so much whether you deal with the war as how you do it." Speaking of which, should films uncover potentially destructive tensions or reopen barely healed wounds? "The wounds are open anyway, it makes no sense to pretend to forget them. And this is what the heroine of the film, Siham, says to the militia commander Abu Samir. Pretending to forget is not the same as forgetting. It's important to expose the mistakes so they can be avoided, particularly by the younger generation. How sectarianism eventually leads to war. And sectarianism still exists."

Post-colonial reality is constantly in the process of being reinvented. What is it like trying to recreate war-torn Beirut amid the current rebuilding and rehabilitation programmes? As a gesture against pretending to forget, this is a remarkable feat. But one can imagine the nitty-gritties of the task proving a tremendous annoyance. "There are two levels," Chamoun reflects. "The first is the present location of the scene. All I did was look for the remains of places that were destroyed during the war. They too still exist: houses that have been in ruins since then, full of barricades, piles of cement, snipers' paraphernalia and bags of sand. Sometimes we found a house in ruins, then made additions to it, parking a jeep where a wall used to stand or creating barricades to replace the ones that are no longer there. One day we started filming in a house, and the next day the construction workers came and started to rebuild it." But what about the second level? "Archival material, used in moderation, can enhance the flavour of all that."

Chamoun's many documentary scores (including his collaboration with Palestinian filmmaker Mustafa Abu Ali on Tal Al-Za'tar) testify to his abiding commitment to the post-colonial cause. His own archival material is an abiding source of pride: "At the outbreak of war, when I started working on these documentaries, I used to think there would come a day when all this footage would be used in many films. That day has come many times." However impressive the footage, though, it is Chamoun's ability to transform his understanding of complex events into an articulate parable that earns him a special place among contemporary filmmakers. This parable is simple enough to be understood instantly by everyone, and yet profound enough to stir the viewers' deepest fears. At the end Tayf Al-Madina (and the end of the civil war), the two militia commanders who had fought on opposite sides wave respectfully to each other from the ritzy car each is driving before blissfully going their separate ways.

"Those," Chamoun adds, "are the individuals who used people during the war, who destroyed so much, who put up barriers and forced people to pay before letting them through. They played the part of the state but in a terrible way, because where the state has services and institutions to offer they had only debris. And it is not untrue that members of the aristocracy committed massacres during the war. Christine Choueiri's part [Siham] is a perfectly realistic instance of the woman whose husband was abducted. She wants to submit the individuals who during the war committed such crimes against humanity to the International Court of Justice. In fact the character was inspired by a real woman who actually participated in the film's women's demonstration scenes. She came to the set with the other women whose husbands or other male members of their families were abducted." Chamoun ponders for a moment, then motions nervously with his arms. "During the demonstration scenes, they paraded actual photographs of real abducted people."

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