Shooting Film and Crying

I’ve already written about my reaction to the Israeli animated film “Waltz with Bashir.” If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis, you can check out a longer piece I have just published at MERIP. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Waltz with Bashir (2008) opens with a strange and powerful image: a pack of ferocious dogs running headlong through the streets of Tel Aviv, overturning tables and terrifying pedestrians, converging beneath a building’s window to growl at a man standing there. It turns out that this man, Boaz, is an old friend of Ari Folman, the film’s director and protagonist. Like Folman, he was a teenager in the Israeli army during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And the pack of menacing dogs is his recurring nightmare, a nightly vision he links to the many village guard dogs he shot — so they wouldn’t raise the alarm — as his platoon made its way through southern Lebanon.

The pack of growling dogs — animal Furies — is a striking embodiment of the violence of repressed memories, the fear and anger involved in confronting a shameful past. The rest of the film tries to answer the question posed by this opening nightmare — what memories is this former soldier, and by extension Israeli society, pursued by? What is he guilty of?

Waltz with Bashir

I went to see “Waltz with Bashir,” the Israeli, Oscar-nominated animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, with very mixed feelings. I’ve been curious to see the film since I first heard of it. Yet especially after the events of the last month I didn’t feel particularly inclined to give $12 to an Israeli project. And I feared the film would be an offensively self-centered view of the war, in which we are meant to sympathize with Israeli soldiers for the inhumanity they were forced to exercise and witness. But I told myself I should investigate.

Continue reading Waltz with Bashir

Salata Baladi

My profile of “Salata Baladi” director Nadia Kamel and of her film has just come out in The Review. The film is a documentary about Kamel’s family, which includes Jews, Christians and Muslims who today live in Italy, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. I see the film as fundamentally a critique of Egyptian nationalism. But it has mostly attracted attention because in it Kamel and her parents travel to Israel to visit relatives of her mother’s–this caused accusations that Kamel is “pro-normalization” with Israel. 

I think this is an extremely simplistic view of the film. In Egypt today, being “pro-normalization” has become a smear that is too often used for petty personal reasons, on the part of people whose own commitment to doing anything helpful for the Palestinians seems pretty thin. I fear that clinging to a dogmatic boycott of Israel allows one to avoid thinking about new, more efficient, creative ways of trying to support the Palestinian people (such as this rather inspiring venture). I’m not saying one should stop boycotting Israel–but it irks me to no end (as I think it irked Kamel) to have any debate over what normalization consists of or accomplishes shushed up by self-appointed guardians of the public debate. These guardians in Egypt often belong to the left, which unfortunately shows itself to be incapable of self-criticism and innovation, and as disrespectful of freedom of thought and expression as its antagonists. 

In any case, the normalization controversy has dominated the discussion of the film, but it actually is not the only or even the main point of the story. The documentary should be available in the States in the Fall from the distributor Women Who Make Movies and you can reads tons of articles about it at the Salata Baladi blog.

Final credits for Youssef Chahine

Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine passed away the day before yesterday. You can find many elegies online. Personally, I consider “Bab Al Hadeed” one of the best movies I’ve seen–on a par with classic post-war Italian neo-realist films. His documentary on Cairo–“Al Qahera munwwara bi Ahlaha” (“Cairo Illuminated by its People”) is a lovely, subtle, complex tribute to the city.  And he’s authored many classics, like “Al Ard” and others I have to admit I haven’t seen yet. But Chahine’s later career has always struck me as a story of talent somehow squandered–I’m not sure why. None of his later films are on a par with his early, brilliant work–some are positively bad. While I enjoyed “Heyya Fauda” (“Chaos”), his latest feature film, it had none of the insight, naturalism or originality of his earlier work. On the contrary, it bears all too much the mark of his protege Khaled Youssef, whose heavy-handed, sensationalistic and formally mediocre work has reaped a recent–and to me, utterly confounding–success.

Sectarianism on and off screen

Two Egyptian movie legends, Omar Sharif and Adel Imam, are starring in a new movie that addresses sectarian tensions. In “Hassan and Morcos,” Adel Imam plays a Christian and Omar Sherif a Muslim who struggle against the extremists within each of their religious communities. As incidents of sectarian violence occur at a seemingly weekly rate, this is a promising and relevant topic–although I fear the film tows the government’s tired “national unity” line, ignoring real grievances and power imbalances. The trailer does show some pretty dramatic and realistic depictions of sectarian riots. 

Of course, the film has been deemed “controversial.” Imam, a Muslim, has been criticized for playing a Christian onscreen. The Al Ahram Hebdo reports that a few geniuses have started a Facebook group entitled “Call to Muslims: Boycott the Christian Adel Imam.” 


Iran-Egypt culture wars

The naming of a Tehran street after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Eslamboli, has long been a source of diplomatic tension and the object of repeated negotiations. Now comes news of a documentary, by the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement (the Iranians always have the best committee names), celebrating Eslamboli. It’s called “The Execution of a Pharaoh.” This has not gone down well in Cairo. One Egyptian columnist has suggested erecting a statue of the Shah in a Cairo square. There’s an article on this is this week’s Al Ahram Weekly, but I can’t find a link. 


Just went to see the Egyptian movie “Cabaret” last night. Came out of it less than impressed, and with shaabi pop music ringing in my ears for hours. The movie tells the story of one night in a cabaret (an establishment that features belly dancers and singers) in Giza, and of the lives of nine characters from among the staff, the entertainers, and the customers. The movie suffers from faults common in the current crop of Egyptian films: too many characters, poor editing, over-the-top drama, “social issues” (like prostitution) shoe-horned into the plot. Then again, there are some funny scenes, some good acting, and a few plot lines which would have born great fruit if they’d been properly developed. But it’s a bit troubling how much the film titillated the audience with endless shots of female booty, joint-smoking and beer-swilling–thus making the film “edgy” and above all marketable–but swathed all this voyeurism in a thin layer of moral condemnation.