Middle East News and Opinions
Reel Casbah Peter Lagerquist with Jim Quilty
Interventions: A Middle East Report Online Feature
(Peter Lagerquist is a journalist based in Israel and the West Bank. Jim Quilty is a journalist based in Beirut. They attended the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2005.)
To live the East as film is to be in Dubai in mid-December, perched front-row in the outdoor cafés that dot the Madinat Jumeira Oriental theme park. An integrated hotel, shopping and entertainment “experience” sprawled on the city’s booming beachfront rim, the Madina and its whimsy of stucco battlements mass an Arabian fort effect plucked straight from an Indiana Jones set, and as such, the red carpets and film banners that have also come to adorn it in wintertime key a double sense of enframement. From December 11-17, 2005, the Madina hosted the second annual installment of the Dubai International Film Festival, a production whose rumored budget of $10 million has quickly distinguished it as the richest Middle Eastern event of its kind. The money already draws a bevy of Arab glitterati, led in 2005 by Egyptian screen icon ‘Adil Imam. A few Bollywood players were also in attendance, and though the Hollywood guest list remains modest, returning festival guest Morgan Freeman echoed the ambition of the week with assurances that Dubai will soon be bigger than Cannes.
As Freeman also pointed out, however, this filmfest was to be glitter with a mission. Under the banner “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” the festival has positioned itself as a venue for cross-cultural dialogue, straddling East and West, as well as North and South. Dubai is a good place to talk, argue the organizers. A regional crossroads, the city is midway between Iraq and Afghanistan, where inter-cultural encounters — they note more somberly — are currently screening to very mixed reviews. It also hosts a burgeoning media industry, the promotion of which is no small part of the festival’s agenda. The ambition is to integrate Dubai’s fast-growing Media City enclave into the global film production circuit. “Embracing the reel world,” the Media City’s director terms it. Yet in a city that itself figures as a motion picture, his slogan delivers not a double, but a triple entendre. A bridge, then, between where and where? From mock forts and silver screens, the question rebounded on a Middle East framed by ever-shifting political fantasies, and the grittier realities lived by its inhabitants.
City of Dreams
Far from the maddened Arab crowd of Western newsreels, the city-state of Dubai has sold itself over the past decade as a peculiar version of the “global village.” Unlike Iraq, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the southern Arab Gulf states have managed to steer clear of political turmoil. Record-high oil prices have shored up once creaking rentier economies and unleashed a rapid inflow of dollars in search of investment opportunities. As the most ambitious of the United Arab Emirates’ seven princedoms, Dubai has soaked up a considerable share of this windfall. An economic diversification strategy begun in the 1980s, leveraged by the massive importation of cheap Asian labor, has consecrated its place as the Gulf’s premier commercial hub and stoked even bigger ambitions. Seeking to expand its successful port management business into overseas markets, Dubai has recently run afoul of US sensibilities, popular and Congressional. But while its relatively small citizenry continue to enjoy enviable lifestyles, a leadership whose only business is business has effortlessly ducked American calls for “democratization” of the region. Lauded by the Economist as a “benign autocracy,” the city now postures as the Middle Eastern cosmopole of the future — a trans-cultural free port blending the appeal of Monaco, Hong Kong and Disneyland.
Dubai’s easygoing, cosmopolitan image has been particularly heavily promoted as part of a drive to lure tourists to the city’s growing assortment of theme-park hotels and shopping emporia. To such visitors, the city peddles a kaleidoscope of alternative realities, exotically familiar or familiarly exotic, but never clashing. For those who so desire, there are stylized Western reveries about the East, replete with camel safaris and Oriental architecture more Oriental than the Orient itself, because they assemble in one place all the features of what that place is thought to look like. For evening drinks, the city offers totemic pastiches of the cosmopolitan good life, conjured up in yacht clubs, gleaming high-rise apartment buildings and chrome-festooned mega-malls. As a destination at once hyper-Oriental and hyper-modern, Dubai on the map of the airport lounge imagination would be both in the Middle East, and not.
Being also a place where you need only see what you want to see, the city cleaves readily to the grandest imaginations of the region’s future. “It will be years before Iraq becomes a beacon of political liberty for the region,” writes one entranced American journalist. “Dubai offers another route: a model inspired not by Western democracies but by American-style enterprise — free markets, open immigration and satellite dishes.” It is appropriate that this impression was published by the high-tech crystal-ball gazers at Wired magazine, because it envisions not so much a real politics for the Middle East as a virtual one. “Dubai is the most autocratic state in the Middle East,” rejoins a locally based European political scientist, who insisted on remaining anonymous. “Even in Saudi Arabia they have consultative bodies. Here it is just one man who decides everything, which is also why things get done so quickly.” Welcome to the city of other people’s dreams.
Excursions in Dreamland
On a balmy winter afternoon in Madinat Jumeira, a Palestinian film director sipped his cappuccino with a frown. The previous week, he had swapped the West Bank’s walled vistas for the palm-studded beaches and ablaq marble of the Madinat’s Qasr Hotel. Like the score of independent Arab filmmakers who were also invited to the party, he was grateful for the opportunity. But he was also here to make a living, which meant finding distribution partners for his small film, and money for the next one. And he could not shake the feeling of being a guest on a show made for people not like himself. “They probably spent $20,000 on me personally, to keep me here,” he said. “But when you look for this kind of funds to develop a film, it’s impossible.” The director was hoping to stay on for a while after the festival, and as he would soon be evicted from paradise, he was searching in vain for an affordable hotel. “This country is so expensive,” he sighed.
Further out of frame, Rajesh chauffeured one of 50 leather-upholstered BMWs that transported filmmakers and other festival guests to outlying screening venues interspersed between the high-rise developments of Sheikh Zayed Road and an 80-tower seafront development known as the Dubai Marina. Both are currently the loci of a $225 billion construction frenzy that will, the city planners hope, cement Dubai’s reputation as a place where the world can come to work and play. For Rajesh, as with much of the world that is already here, it is all work. One of an estimated 700,000-900,000 South and East Asian guest workers who build, move and service the city, he makes about $400 a month, and sends most of it back to his family in Mumbai, whom he sees once a year. Since he makes less than a $1,000 a month, he cannot obtain visas for them, and he could at any rate hardly afford to maintain them here. “This place is very expensive,” he sighed.
Not surprisingly, Rajesh does not shop at the brand-name boutiques that line his main dropoff point, the 6.5 million-square foot Mall of the Emirates. In addition to a 12-screen cinema complex, the Gulf’s biggest metaphor for plenty houses the world’s first indoor ski slope, contained in a looming aluminum shell that vaguely evokes a moored spaceship. Inside, $75 will buy two hours in Switzerland, ski rental included. On weekends, those city residents who cannot afford to buy into the illusion cluster by the roof-to-floor viewing gallery, gazing in at the snowy dreamland. The scene well frames a city that tantalizes its upwardly mobile residents and taunts the rest, its irony crowned by a snippet of inspirational film dialogue pinned to the back of Rajesh’s seat by the festival’s promotional team: “I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see,” read the parting lines from the virtual reality blockbuster The Matrix. “A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where everything is possible.”
In its source of inspiration, Dubai’s message to visiting moviemakers cut as close to a deeper meaning as can be found in this city of glossy surfaces. As pop culture lore recounts, the alternate reality conceit that animated the Matrix franchise was loosely lifted from French cult philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his notion of “hyper-reality.” Deconstructing today’s virtual cities and virtual wars, embodied respectively by Disneyland and CNN’s 1991 Gulf war, Baudrillard posits that the contemporary circulation and replication of images has reached a level at which the real can no longer be separated from its simulation, to the extent that this distinction has in fact become meaningless. It is difficult to argue too much with this speculation in Dubai, and on the occasion of its film festival, harder still to ignore why the Middle East has provided such ready grist for Baudrillard’s mill. As the reels rolled this past December, both visiting filmmakers and anonymous stagehands could be observed negotiating fantasies and realities equally not of their own imagining.
Reflecting the Gaze
“Why do we make a film, and for whom?” In Underexposure, the fictional debut of Iraqi director Oday Rasheed, the question is posed to the audience by a disillusioned Iraqi filmmaker leading his crew on an existential trawl through post-Saddam Baghdad. Armed with expired film stock whose condition is also a ready metaphor — “We ourselves are underexposed,” muses the cameraman — the crew tries to make sense of life and art amidst the physical and human debris that is contemporary Iraq. It is a landscape strewn with burning cars and vacated political iconography, inhabited by beggars and artists begging answers, and that they do so of the camera as much as of themselves was a theme tellingly invoked by many of the festival’s Arab films. Few contemporary filmmakers can pretend ignorance of the lens’ power over its subject, least of all those so persistently pictured and bombed through the same viewfinders.
Among the festival selections that stared directly back into the aperture was Nour Eddine Lakhmari’s stylishly rendered Le Regard (The Gaze). Lakhmari’s first feature follows an award-winning French photographer who returns to Morocco to come to terms with his experience as a young army photographer during France’s 1950s counterinsurgency. Fittingly, his is a return to an image: a photo of his platoon posing over three captured resistance fighters on the eve of their execution. One set of Arab eyes hold the camera; in flashbacks of his unit’s romp through the countryside, the Frenchman is haunted by memories of the same prisoner glaring stubbornly at a soldier dealing out beatings. “Eyes down!” shouts the unnerved private. “Why are you looking at me?” Throwing back the gaze, Le Regard subtly probes the complicity of embedded image makers, past and present. In a signal scene, the protagonist sets his aperture and, commanded by his platoon, steps reluctantly into the kind of trophy photograph that has since been taken all too frequently, from Vietnam to Iraq. “I want to liberate myself from those images!” exclaims the Frenchman four decades later.
Sayed Badreya knows the feeling. In the 1980s, the actor left Egypt for Hollywood with dreams of the big screen, but found that his hulking, swarthy frame fit only into its darkest corners. After a career of being typecast as a terrorist, including an appearance in the infamously racist True Lies, he teamed up with Egyptian-American director Hesham Issawi to make T for Terrorist, a short that screened at the 2004 Dubai film festival. In this film about a film set, Badreya is yet again forced to play the incomprehensibly crazy Arab and responds by literally turning his gun on the director. Over the course of their careers, many other festival guests might have wished they could live out such fantasies. Since few Arab governments or production companies provide funds for independent films, most independent directors rely disproportionately on Western financing to realize their projects, and the checks often come with strings attached. “We have a tendency to make films that are dénonçiateur,” complained Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi in the Madina. “If we have a problem with the hijab, let’s talk about the hijab, and so on. It’s about the commissions who read us and pay for the films. So you rewrite and rewrite, because you are 25, 26 years old and you want to make a film.”
Pandering to the gallery might be a natural temptation for films about that most sensational of Middle Eastern fetishes — the suicide bomber — and to add to the suspicions of some, Dubai’s opening gala feature came laden with Western recognition. Distributed by Time Warner in over 50 countries, the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now had already taken home the 2005 Silver Bear in Berlin; over the next two months, it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for an Oscar. The feature follows two young West Bankers on their way to “martyrdom,” and, to Abu-Assad’s considerable credit, it brooks no easy exits for anyone. Yet his is also a work that resounds tellingly with proclamatory monologues. Paradise Now has to work over time to cut through the cloud of Western misconceptions that presently obscures the Palestinian predicament; consequently, there are likely to be few so understated films in which so much is also literally stated.
Occasionally, the transpositions fall incongruously on Palestinian ears. In a much replayed scene, one of the would-be bombers records a video testament which, though an admirably rigorous exegesis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sounds more like the media-speak of Western-attuned human rights campaigners like Mustafa Barghouthi than the nationalistically self-contained rhetoric of the al-Aqsa Brigades.
Like Elia Suleiman, hitherto the most celebrated contemporary Palestinian filmmaker, Abu-Assad has a keen sense for the absurd. In often trading suggestiveness for dictation, however, he is also the inverse of his insouciantly allusive compatriot. Yet if there is a critique here, it need, as Rasheed’s director-protagonist notes, also involve the audience. Literally cornered in a dark place, his conclusion to the camera could equally have come from Abu-Assad’s martyr-to-be: “I hate you. You are the reason we came to this. You. Who are you?”
In and Out of the East
As an interrogation of identity, “Who are you?” was Dubai’s other question of the week. Concluding with a gentle plea to Hollywood to dispense with stereotypes and recraft better types, T for Terrorist is a distinctly American film, but as such also prefaced the festival’s subtler probing of hyphenated belongings. This past year, the questioning was led by Being Osama, a documentary collating the tribulations of a group of eponymous Arab-Canadians. It was also the fictional stuff of Ruba Nadda’s Sabah, in which a conservative, veiled Canadian played by Arsine Khanjian finally comes home to her repressed sexuality, breaks free of but also learns to understand the sacrifices of her dominating brother, and tastes forbidden wine.
Both more polished and more irreverent, Josef Fares’ Zozo is the semi-autobiographical story of a boy making his way to Sweden after his family is killed in the Lebanese civil war. Once on the Scandinavian scene, Zozo enters the trench warfare of cultural assimilation, guns blazing. Equal parts tragedy and comedy, Fares’ film pokes bleak fun at his host country, carrying on from his breakthrough hit Yalla! Yalla!, whose commercial success conferred on the director the kind of “hip medina” immigrant aura minted over a decade ago by Cheb Khaled and Rachid Taha. Made for easy digestion, Yalla! Yalla! subsequently helped to cue the name of a Swedish yogurt beverage-on-the-go, marketed, ironically enough, by the Danish-Swedish dairy conglomerate Arla. Currently the collateral victim of a global Muslim boycott sparked by Danish cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, Arla has since learned the fine limits of cultural commodification.
Invariably, the festival’s treatments of fractured Middle Eastern identities in the West shaded into varied reconstructions of the region itself. In making Bosta (Bus), Philippe Aractingi enjoyed the privilege of reimagining contemporary Lebanon with 100 percent Lebanese financing. A vehicle for reconciling Oriental identity with modernity, Bosta ferries a troupe of Lebanese folk dancers through a campy musical version of their country. They are led by a returning expatriate, a war-wounded ex-dancer who composes updated tunes for the traditional Levantine dabka and borrows from non-Lebanese forms in the choreography. The traditionalists’ rejection of these innovations sets the scene for the troupe’s tour, projecting Lebanon’s social and political incongruities onto the screen. As such, Bosta eschews the subtler treatment of the Lebanese condition offered by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s award-winning A Perfect Day, which also screened in Dubai. The film struck a chord, however. When released, Bosta was the only Lebanese production to best Hollywood at the Beirut box office.
What audiences came to enjoy, according to Aractingi, was “an experience of movement.” “We need a different view of the Middle East than we are seeing now,” explained the director in Madinat Jumeira. “We are trying to say: after 30 years of war and occupation there are some people who are trying to move on with life.” Appropriately, Bosta’s journey concludes with a placard-waving nod to the elusive spirit of Istiqlal 2005 — the uprising that prompted Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. In this instance, however, the gesture was not without wider implications. Assisted by the global advertising house Saatchi & Saatchi, Istiqlal 2005 was one of the color-coded, brand-named revolutions that screened to global acclaim that year, and as such it points along with Bosta to the kind of future that many Lebanese are not alone in aspiring to. It points to Dubai.
Since its launch, the Dubai International Film Festival has afforded glimpses of this future both off and on the screen. Carrying on from the winter of 2004, this past season featured a series of shorts exposing the ambition and budding talents of young Emirati directors. The real spirit of the place, however, played in 2004 to more carefully coordinated publicity. A Western tourist’s guide to her city, Nayla Al Khaja’s feature-length Unveiling Dubai sought to “capture the essence of Dubai for what it is and has developed into — a buzzing, modern, cosmopolitan city — very much in tune with the rest of the developed world.” As with its subject, the film’s ambition is to showcase a Middle East aligned with Western teleologies of progress, a place where it all comes together. And how. Under the headline “How Real Can it Get?” Unveiling Dubai’s promotional packet took pride in noting that the film was jointly funded by a ministerial member of Dubai’s ruling family and local tourist enterprises. “In-movie advertising will be the next available medium for many corporates targeting their customers,” wrote al Khaja. The future is bright, was the message; the future is marketing synergy.
Staging the Orient
That Dubai’s embrace of the world-as-film is a warm hug of itself was also amply evidenced off-screen. As regional economic analysts frequently point out, much of the city’s recent growth owes to an ever expanding real estate bubble, further inflated by secondary markets in houses that have not yet been built, on land that is still in the process of being reclaimed from the ocean. As a result, a good portion of the city’s present-future exists only digitally, as finely detailed architectural models. Conjuring the national “experience of movement,” Dubai’s highways are lined with banners and block-length billboards reproducing these vistas in meticulous renderings. The impression is one of driving through a CGI dream, and appropriately so. Film industries, and Hollywood in particular, have always been in need of malleable sets, and the Dubai film festival promotes local hopes that the Middle East can continue to furnish a flexible canvas.
For over three decades, the location of preference has been Morocco. The country offers cheap labor, political stability and proximity to Europe, as well as perfectly varied and stylized landscapes. “You can ‘film’ anywhere in the Arab world, anywhere in Africa. And outer space,” mused one Arab filmmaker. As such, the country has provided the setting for such diverse fare as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and Black Hawk Down. With the US, like Britain and France before it, scripting itself into a long-term engagement in the Middle East, Hollywood’s interest in desert scenery shows no signs of abating, and Dubai is now bidding to become a high-end stage for such enactments of the familiar Elsewhere.
The fulcrum of this ambition, and also the festival’s major sponsor, is the Dubai Media City. Hosting “20,000 people working in some 850 enterprises,” including major regional networks like al-Arabiyya and MBC, the specially designated free zone is already the Middle East’s premier media hub. Most recently, it provided facilities for Warner Brothers’ Syriana, starring Matt Damon and George Clooney. “It’s becoming a competitor to Morocco for big-budget productions,” noted one Warner executive. “It’s not been exposed yet, [but] it’s got wonderful high-tech cityscapes, coastal regions and, of course, the desert, along with a First World infrastructure.” Building on the Media City’s success, Dubai has since launched an affiliate Studio City. Investors can already buy plots in the $100 million estate, though they exist so far only as digital renderings.
That Dubai’s new film interest might support a critical Arab cinema has proved a more illusory hope, however. Since the festival was launched, independent regional filmmakers have latched onto speculation that some of its lavish hospitality and promotional budget would be diverted toward the kind of patronage extended by European film funds. So far, the speculation has been just that. Currently, the festival does not bestow prizes, monetary or otherwise. Nor does it offer tie-ins to screenwriting fellowships, competitions for production grants or the kind of industry networking opportunities that ground much of the appeal of its competing Western venues. Though connections were made at the 2005 festival, therefore, it was comparatively slim pickings. “They do a better job in Europe,” observed one director. “They really work hard for us. It’s one meeting after another.” Dubai, by contrast, wants to make things work for Hollywood, and as the contrarian Syriana only highlights, the Middle East is accordingly likely to remain a region simultaneously framed and invaded through foreign scopes. As such, the most revealing entry in the 2004 Festival magazine was an advertisement for the “Night Vision: Low Light Imaging Solution” of the US optics firm Atlas Telecom: “has supported the military and law enforcement communities for years,” read the caption on a grainy, green-tinted screen shot of Marines on night patrol.
Other People’s Fantasies
What the festival’s other East-bound Americans had to offer in 2005 largely added to the sense of gloom. In the runup to the festival, much anticipation focused on a collection of features screened under the heading Operation Cultural Bridge. Billed as the week’s centerpiece, the program prominently hosted Hollywood comedian Albert Brooks and his Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Aimlessly trailing Brooks’ bungling, but well-intentioned American on a government assignment to “find out what makes Muslims laugh,” the film’s low-budget introspection was trumped only by its sense of geography. The entire film was shot in India, though it does conjure at least one heavily veiled anti-Semite as a stand-in for the country’s 200 million strong Muslim population. It also produces an Iranian exchange student to spread frowning dolor and deliver jokes like: “I was the funniest one in school. And the funniest in explosives training.” Throughout, Brooks’ purportedly “healing feat” is to smile good-naturedly at it all.
This was also the approach of Ari Sandel’s short West Bank Story. In this sendup of the Broadway musical, the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is rendered metaphorically as a squabble between neighboring fast-food outlets. The romantic interest is provided by a Palestinian waitress who signals customers with bursts from her Kalashnikov, and falls in love with an Israeli soldier manning the very pleasant-looking local checkpoint. West Bank Story was a 2005 Sundance Official Selection and merits this distinction all the less for so thinly reproducing the Israeli as an American comfort figure: handsome, thoughtful and sufficiently morally confused as to be forgiven for not following ethical misgivings to coherent conclusions. “Maybe the Wall will bring peace” was the festival’s most forgettable line.
For someone just flown in from the real West Bank, the coy glances exchanged in West Bank Story provoke more than embarrassment, and what screened outside Operation Cultural Bridge reminded audiences why. In Women in Struggle, Ramallah-based director Buthina Caanan Khoury deploys more modest production values and real stories to searing effect. The film weaves testimonies of Palestinian women arrested for their participation in military operations, and then romanced by the Israeli prison system. One describes being stripped naked by soldiers who display her, first to other male prisoners, then to her trembling father. He is instructed to have sex with his daughter; both break down in the refusal. “They brought me naked into the room,” she recounts of another experience. “Another prisoner was tortured in front of me with electric shocks… He was martyred in front of me.” Then she was raped with a stick. “[Afterwards] I was never able to function like a normal woman,” she concludes quietly.
There is a relentlessness in these testimonies that echoed through the festival week, in Djamel Sellani’s Algeriennes (Women of the Algerian War) a documentary narrated by female veterans of the anti-colonial struggle with France; in Nuit Noir: 17 Octobre 1961 (Black Night), a recreation of the night when Paris gendarmes killed and “disappeared” between 48 and 200 peaceful Algerian demonstrators; and in Massaker (Massacre), which presents testimonies by some of the Phalangist militiamen who, as the film shows, enacted but did not script the 1982 slaughter of some 2,000 people in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Not all the festival’s entries were unequivocal in their message. “There is no need for a plot,” proclaims the protagonist of Underexposure. Yet the overall impression was indelible: a pictorial staccato of Arabs being mauled, executed and herded into variously configured holding camps.
It is over such images that bridges need to be built and as such, Sandel’s ethereal offering figured paradoxically as one of the festival’s most sinister. If a Guardian critic could see “the banality of evil” at work in Paradise Now, West Bank Story flaunts its vacuous cheerfulness — not a cultural communication glitch, but a sort of political and moral autism. Pitching the rub between Israelis and Palestinians as a “2,000-year old conflict” while positing their common ground as a shared appreciation of hummus and falafel, the film makes both too much and too little of history. It would be easier to excuse these bungling, but well-intentioned Americans had their alternate realities not mirrored a bigger delusion, one partly reinforced by the Dubai film festival. If the problem were indeed a clash of civilizations or at least of cultures, then Brooks could have made a point, had he first found one. Instead, both he and Sandel confirm that to trace the sources of the Middle East’s problems, audiences may need also to look outside the region. Appropriately enough, the subject of Abu-Assad’s next film is the American dream.
As it were, Abu-Assad need not have traveled as far as Hollywood to see this dream at work. Dubai has not so much embraced the American model, as Wired infers, as it has taken it to another level. This is a level plumbed most tellingly amidst the guest worker camps that have sprouted on the city’s desert fringes, currently constituting the city’s latest boom industry. In the local business pages, one operator breezily details the healthy profits that come from squeezing 12 men into a single room. His tenants live on narrower margins: many work for as little as 15 dirhams ($4) a day, mostly in construction, and when overly ambitious contractors run into financial difficulties, as happens quite frequently, wages are not paid for months on end. Health services are scant; regularly, the papers carry reports of impromptu strikes with demands as basic as “clean water,” news of camp foremen beating up dissenting residents and murky stories of worker suicides. With labor organizing effectively prohibited in the United Arab Emirates, desperate measures are often the only leverage left. Dubai incarnates a final fantasy of the global open shop, spared the economically redundant populations that so weigh on some other capitalist societies. Those who have no productive place here are simply repatriated.
The money that can nevertheless be made here continues to lure workers from across the world. Among them are a group of Kenyans recruited for their imposing, exotic looks to work the doors at the Qasr Hotel. “I make the same salary here as an office worker makes in Nairobi,” said one with a smile. “But the office worker has to pay tax, rent and support his family. We work tax-free.” The hotel provides shared flats for accommodation, he continued, and the doormen eat for free while on the job. They get two weeks holiday per year, and after two years the hotel may pay for the flight back. The wages are offset by the rising cost of living, but the interviewee said that he usually keeps around 500 dirhams ($136) for his living expenses and sends as much as $2,500 annually to Kenya to pay for his mother’s rent, groceries and his little brother’s school fees. “I’m not living now,” explained his colleague. “Just making money.” The doormen grew circumspect when told they were talking to a journalist, one glancing nervously at a group of staring South Asian hotel staff. “If they find out we spoke to you, they’ll have us sacked,” he said. “I can’t lose this job, man. It’s my future.”
As filmfest revelers convened for sponsored evenings of music, free drinks and oyster buffets, this tightly reined, internal periphery was hard at work. Those in search of Dubai’s “buzzing,” “modern” Arab need not have looked further than Hicham, a Moroccan waiter decked out in a zebra skin toga. (That evening’s festivities were sponsored by an African travels company, which also offered guests the chance to have their pictures taken with another African decked out as a Zulu warrior. While the music played, the human window exhibit stood at attention for three hours.) Hicham graduated from hotel school in his native country and has worked Dubai for five years. “Very much in tune with the rest of the developed world,” his monthly wage would buy half a day’s stay in the Qasr Hotel’s cheapest room. He is 30 years old and not yet married. Ideally, he would like to go to Europe, where the money is better. “And you get rights there,” he said as he passed the wine. “Eventually.”
In a city of people who live for years away from their families — the child of a motherless Philippines and fatherless Pakistan — there were other reminders that Hicham may be best off never settling down, among them Yasmine Kassir’s beautifully wrought and stunningly acted Le Enfant Endormi (The Sleeping Child). Her film hovers over a small rural community in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, its vast landscapes and open skies echoing with the absence of husbands and sons who have to the last man left for Spain and France in order to support their families. What remains is a world of pregnant women and children, eking out a sparse, isolated existence in anticipation of the men’s return. The Sleeping Child sensitively paints these women’s struggles with economic survival and village “traditions” that both confine and offer succor. Yet it is foremost a story of lives and loves aborted metaphorically and literally, of endless waiting. On a different level, waiting was also the theme of Palestinian director Najwa Najjar’s short, lyrical and walled love story Yasmine’s Song and of Rashid Masharawi’s eponymous feature about Palestinian refugee filmmakers in Syria and Lebanon. It is revealing that these refugees do not figure in Bosta’s journey into the future. In a Middle East ever admonished to forget enduring injustices and embrace the globalized future, it is for directors like Masharawi, Najjar and Kassir to carry the voices of others — people and peoples — stuck in place and losing hope.
Between the diverging concerns of these contemporary Arab directors, the migrant returns of veteran Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin build a fleeting, dreamlike bridge. Littin hails partly from Chile’s 400,000-strong Palestinian community, many of whom originally emigrated from his ancestral village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. A pioneer of socially critical South American cinema, the director went into exile during the rule of the junta and, from his subsequent years as an itinerant dissident, still keeps Fidel Castro’s personal number. Now approaching the twilight of his career, he has embarked on a Palestine trilogy, the first installment of which screened in Dubai this past December. La Ultima Luna (The Last Moon) portrays a fragile moment of Jewish-Arab solidarity in a pre-Zionist past, framed by the venality and avarice of Ottoman administrators and colluding Arab landowners. Through these faint echoes of shared social inequity, and his own political trajectory, the director tenuously links a politics rooted in transnational notions of solidarity, in struggles about class and economy, to more currently fashionable concerns.
Other festival entries also tackled material inequities. Since its launch, the Dubai film festival has self-consciously addressed itself not only to East-West divisions, but also to the gap between the global South and North. In 2005, A Decent Factory accordingly asked mobile phone giant Nokia whether “a corporation can balance profit-making and social responsibility.” The fraught reality, however, need not only have been branded Made in China. At a 2004 screening of the anti-globalization documentary The Corporation, one audience member cornered the festival’s most apparent irony with a question to director Mark Achbar: “Do you know that there are sweatshops operating just half an hour from here?” Even for some of the 2005 directors, it was hard to escape the feeling that Dubai’s film festival forecloses just the kind of universal solidarities that it would call forth. “This place represents everything we are fighting against,” averred former International Solidarity Movement activist Alberto Arce, co-maker of the biopic Internationals in Palestine. “I know after having been here five days how this place works,” he said. “Just one kilometer from here and all this luxury we have slaves.” As a deferential Filipina waitress materialized by the table, he corrected himself. “No, we have them here… We learned yesterday that Medecins Sans Frontiers have been trying to establish a clinic here, but until now the government has not allowed them to.”
What’s Culture Got to Do with It?
That both Arce and the message of his low-budget overtly political intervention felt precariously out of place at the Dubai International Film Festival was broadly reflective of an event heavy on heartwarming messages and light on political engagement. “We came to present a film in solidarity with Palestine,” continued Arce. “They have been very supportive. People come to say: great work! But nobody came to talk to us about distribution or production. We are here to clear their conscience. They are doing nothing for the Palestinians and by showing our film they can continue doing nothing.” Though happy to be in attendance, some Palestinian directors could not help but draw similar conclusions. “We are here to give them credibility,” concluded one with a shrug of the shoulders. “We filmmakers have political problems and cinema problems,” elaborated Rashid Masharawi gingerly. “This isn’t the venue to air your political problems. For that, you go to Venice or Rotterdam or Cannes. At Venice, I had 20-30 television interviews that gave me a chance to talk politics.” Like Masharawi’s Waiting, many of the Palestinian entries that screened in 2004 and 2005, including Mohammed Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, drew substantial audiences, particularly from among the tens of thousands of expatriate Palestinians who live and work in the Emirates, sometimes over multiple generations, and so often sustain little contact with their home country. Yet it was also for these audiences to observe most keenly how their national plight has been reduced to a sentimental commodity for otherwise preoccupied Arab audiences.
As one of the festival’s few genuinely pop cultural Arab films, al-Sifara fi al-‘Imara (The Embassy Is in the Building) handled such packaged pathos with more than the usual care. The film features festival guest of honor ‘Adil Imam in the comic guise of an Egyptian petroleum engineer-cum-playboy, who, aptly enough, has grown wealthy and complacent in Dubai, and returns to his native land to discover that the Israeli embassy and its accoutrement of Egyptian state security has occupied his building. Imam mirrors Egyptians’ conflicted feelings about their country’s uneasy peace with Israel, their enduring sympathy for the Palestinians and their building anger over Arab impotence in the face of Palestinian travails, while always beating off the temptations of ideologically radical politics, whiskey bottle in hand. In this vein, the film’s brief scenes of halfhearted Egyptian police repression are further lightened by the revelation that demonstrations also happen to be great places to pick up girls. Incidentally, al-Sifara fi al-‘Imara was massively popular in Palestine, with Ramallah’s Kasabah cinema all but exclusively devoting its late winter schedule to the film.
Though few of the Arab directors who made it to Dubai would aspire to this kind of cinema, Imam did strike an underlying tone of sorts. Closest to the Egyptian’s comic sensibilities, and with the homemade and home-played success Bosta under his belt, Philippe Aractingi said he has given up on making films for others. “The thing is, we have a complex about Westerners,” he explains. “I was brought up speaking French better than Arabic. I was taught they were better than I was. Now I lived in France and the complex is over. But we are still trying to explain to you who we are: ‘Blease! We are not that bad!’” he intoned self-mockingly. “Forget it! Either you get it or you don’t get it.” Hany Abu-Assad concurred. “I think the West, politically speaking, will not understand us. They have no political interest in understanding us. Believe me, they can always find a reason to demonize us.” In this sense, it may be appropriate that the expression “just for show” is rendered in colloquial Levantine Arabic as hada film — “this is (just) a film.” The question is whether cinematic fiction could reshape facts, outside the city of dreams, as well as in it? Or, as the question is put to the guilt-laden photographer of French Morocco in Le Regard: “Do you think that you would change something with some pictures of prisoners and soldiers?” Fifty years after that dirty Western war ended, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo fill the headlines, and the Middle East waits for the audience to get out of their seats.