Review of Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali Nair, India, 2010

Still from Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali

Still from Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali

Kalyan Singh had to sell all his land and goats to pay for his daughter’s wedding. All he has left is one goat. Her name is Laila and she is barren. Singh, however, refuses to accept this and goes in a desperate journey to find a mating partner for his beloved goat.

Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) is much more than a simple “goat matchmaker” story though. Murali Nair uses his film to reflect the social, sexual and political challenges Indians like Singh face. The barren goat, in many ways, represents Singh and his inability to give and to move forward.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Nair uses a lot of humour, spiced up with Indian mysticism, to lighten the weight of his message. He also cuts his film into different sequences, so similar to a TV series that I was almost expecting to see an ad break. This, together with the weird characters and dreamlike scenes, makes the story distant and unreal; it is as if the filmmaker was trying to remind his viewers that Singh is just a made-up character.

The story goes far beyond him to delve into the lives of rural Indians. When Singh has to confront the fact that Laila is barren, he loses his mind. It’s a rather predictable end for such an untypical story.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film fesival 2010’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.

Review of Pink Saris By Kim Longinotto UK/India

Red might be the colour associated with revolt around the world, but in India it’s pink. Kim Longinotto follows the “Pink Gang”, a group of women who wear pink saris as a symbol of their revolt against their society. At least that’s how they introduce themselves at the beginning. But you soon find out that they are victims of domestic violence, rape and social exclusion rather than revolutionary figures.

With nowhere to go, they gather at the house of Sampat Pal. Loud and aggressive, Pal has made reconciling these women with their families, husbands and lovers her mission. She goes as far as threatening families and quarrelling with the police to set the women’s lives right, although it doesn’t always work. Not only does she fail to help the women, but she also risks her own marriage.

I don’t like where you are going! You want to be famous so be…. I like to be as small as an ant”, her angry husband murmurs while threatening to leave her. Pal does enjoy playing the role of the “messiah of women”, and constantly reminds the violated women (and the viewers) that they have no one else but her, to the extent that you are no longer able to appreciate her work.

Shot with a hand-held camera, the film moves from one violated woman’s story to another without allowing us enough intimacy to sympathize with them. As a result, the film seems more like a series of reportages wherein people are numbers rather than real humans. The intensive use of text to give background information about the women distances you even more from them. All that remains in your mind are their pink saris.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin

“Bee Panic” in Abu Dhabi city?

With American filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s film about the effects of the declining population of honey bees on human life screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached us in the Middle East. Or maybe not?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

According to Einstein (or maybe it was not him who said it after all?), if the honey bee became extinct then man would only have four years left to live. In 2002, 40% of German bee colonies died. In 2006, 50% of bees in the USA died and according to all the “bee articles” I have read it has been downhill from then on.

But is not having more honey worth all this fuss? According to bee experts, as bees pollinate our plant-life, if they are gone then 40% of our food will be gone as well. So the world freaked out; are we going to die? Ok, not the whole world – we in the Middle East have too many wars right now to worry about bees. Tens of Western filmmakers have started the trend of “bee docs” – take for example The Last Beekeeper by Jeremy Simmons, To Bee or not to Bee by David Suzuki, The Last of Honey Bees by Jeremy Simmons, Vanishing of the Bees by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein and Colony by Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn, to name a few. The latter focuses on the human rather than the scientific or environmental angle of the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or in other words the declining population of honey bees.

With Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?, screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached here. While most bee films create fear and anxiety, Siegel tries to touch the heart of viewers in his lighthearted and at some points even funny film. “Without inspiration, audiences will leave the theatre depressed and we won’t overcome the issues facing the honey bees,” the film’s co-editor and producer Jon Betz said. The film does include talking heads and lots of scientific information. Nonetheless, the animations, lively characters and hair-raising art scenes that Siegel incorporated in his film make it more accessible.

It is also clearly an activist film. That said, in spite of his obvious passion for bees, Siegel resists being too pushy and imposing solutions on how the viewers should save bees. Instead, he follows the typical American film recipe of a happy ending by presenting a cheerful image of what is being done for the “insects in distress”. Betz does hope though that their film will push the audience into action:

“It is tough to achieve change on a large scale, but by raising awareness you are actually achieving some change. If you choose not to eat pesticide-treated food, for example, that’s already a kind of activism.”

He has reason to be optimistic – in previous screenings, he has seen some of his audience members crying for the bees, and when after the screening he asked the audience his favourite question: “Now who wants to become a beekeeper?”, many hands were raised. But how many hands will be raised at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival? I doubt that people would be bothered, although according to expert consultant Gunther Hauk, they should be.

“We are seeing changes in climate but I think the Colony Collapse Disorder and the disappearance of the honey bee is a much more pressing, urgent problem to solve”, the expert says in Queen of the Sun,What are the bees telling us?.

For someone like me coming from a region that has been severely affected by climate change, this is rather shocking. Let’s face it though, with the growing political tension and economic concerns, environmental issues aren’t a priority for Arab audiences. So even if the film has a full house for its first international film premiere in Abu Dhabi, I doubt that there will be any “would-be beekeepers” crying.

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.

Download pdf version here.

Abayas, Saris and Miniskirts عباءة، ساري وتنورة قصيرة

Scrolling down the page of the Abu Dhabi 2010 team members on the festival’s website, you might find it absurd that almost half of the team (or maybe more?) are foreigners. It is actually fascinating to see this unique group of people in abayas, saris and miniskirts working together. However, with such a huge mix of nationalities involved, what is left from the local identity of the festival?…a lot!

After all, only 20% of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) population is made up of locals – or at least that is what I keep hearing since I arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport. Just like its team, the festival’s film programme greatly reflects the mosaic of nationalities that form the UAE. With a broad mix of Arab, Western, Asian Indian and Pakistani films, the festival is striving to appeal to each of its broad audience’s tastes. This also includes a big verity of genres from docs to fiction, animation, experimental and silent films.

Within this mix you can watch films from countries you don’t usually come across that often in festivals. Take Oman for example; 5 Omani shorts are screened among many other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) films in the Emirates competition. Why it is still called Emirates competition? I have no idea!

So here is a genuinely intercultural festival with a colourful collection of carefully selected films. Study its programme thoroughly. There is no doubt that you’ll find among its films something to your liking.

This editorial was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by Nisi Masa


إن تصفحت لائحة أسماء فريق عمل مهرجان أبو ظبي السينمائي قد تفاجأ بأن نصف الفريق أجنبي (أو ربما أكثر من النصف؟). من المثير، في الواقع، متابعة أعضاء الفريق المختلفين بعباءاتهم، ساريهم وتنانيرهم القصيرة  وهم يعملون جنباً إلى جنب. لكن إلى أي حد يمكن وصف مهرجان يعمل على إدارته هذا الخليط الكبير من الجنسيات المتباينة بالإماراتي؟…… إلى حد بعيد.

في نهاية المطاف، 20% فقط من سكان الإمارات هم من العرب الإماراتيين – أو على الأقل هذا ما يخبرني به، منذ لحظة وصولي إلى أبو ظبي، كل شخص يعرف بأنني قادمة من خارج الإمارات. كمثل الفريق، يعكس برنامج المهرجان هذا الموزاييك من الجنسيات المختلفة التي تشكل معاً المجتمع الإماراتي. يحاول المهرجان من خلال “تشكيلته” الواسعة من الأفلام، التي تتضمن أفلاماً عربية وغربية وآسيوية وهندية وباكستانية، إرضاء كافة أذواق جمهوره المتنوع هذا. كذلك تختلف هذه الأفلام ما بين التسجيلي والروائي والتجريبي والصامت والمتحرك أنيميشن

تتضمن هذه “التشكيلة” أفلاماً من بلدان قلما تصادفها في المهرجانات السينمائية. منها عمان مثلاً. يعرض مهرجان أبو ظبي السينمائي خمسة أفلام عمانية قصيرة وغيرها من الأفلام الخليجية ضمن مسابقة الإمارات. لكن لماذا تدعى إذاً بمسابقة الإمارات؟ لا أملك أدنى فكرة عن السبب.

إذاً ها هنا مهرجان متعدد الثقافات بجدارة ويعرض أفلاماً متنوعة ومختارة بدقة. أمعن النظر في برنامجه فما من شك بأنك ستجد ضمنه فيلماً يعجبك.

نشرت هذه المادة في مجلة نيسيمازين، وهي النشرة اليومية لمهرجان أبو ظبي السينمائي الصادرة عن شبكة نيسي ماسا للنقاد الأوروبيين.

Interview with Nidal Aldibs, director of Taming

15 years ago, Nidal Aldibs wrote a script about a young Syrian who loves a woman in defiance of her family. His fear of the family’s vengeance, however, overcomes his love and when they suffer a tragic car accident he runs away. Did she die? The young man and viewers alike start a nerve-wrecking journey to find out.  5 years ago, Aldibs witnessed his very same script happening in real life.  “Now who is going to believe me when I say my film Taming is not based on a real story?” Aldibs says with black humour.

What inspired your film?

The state of selfcensorship that we have reached today; It is no longer oppression, ideology and taboos that used to be imposed on us from the outside which are preventing us from achieving what we want. Rather, we have created our own censorship mechanism. Fear plays a big role in that.

The eagle representing freedom is only one of the many symbols and metaphors that you used in Taming. What do you think of symbolism in films?

I do not like to call it symbolism. I include in my films “things” with different connotations. This, I believe, opens new horizons for the viewers.

The style of Taming differs from that of your first feature film Under the Ceiling (2005), which goes at quite a slow pace, with little action if any. Can you describe your style in Taming?

Taming is built on tension. The film starts with one extraordinary action that triggers a question, which is not answered until the very end of the film. Other than that, there are no big actions in the film. Rather, lots of details. This is because I wanted to explore the inner side of people.

What challenges did you face in making the film?

To make a film like Taming you need an understanding producer who loves cinema. Fortunately, I could work with (Syrian producer) Haitham Hakki who is just that. Making a film with the small budget I had was challenging. I only had few days for shooting and could only work with a limited number of actors. But I enjoyed this challenge.

You mostly make fiction films. However, before Taming you directed your first documentary Black Stone (2006). Would you consider going back to documentary filmmaking or is fiction your ruling passion?

It really depends on what I have to say. A film’s message is what dictates its form. I might even end up making theatre. Why not?

Syrian drama television series are very popular in the region. The same could not be said about films. Why is that?

Because there is hardly any film production in Syria to start with. On average, only one or two Syrian films are produced per year. Ironically, these few films are better known outside Syria. This is because there are few cinema halls in Syria. Amman alone has twice as many cinemas as the whole of Syria. But even if there were more, not many people can afford going to the cinema.

Also, other Arab countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, among others, have a bigger cinema production than Syria. Consequently, there is more interest in films, including Syrian ones. Even so Syrian films are not sufficiently promoted abroad. The only solution to this is the establishment of more private film production companies in Syria.

Two Syrian films made it to Abu Dhabi film festival this year. What do you think about that?

Taking into consideration the small scale film production that we have in Syria, I believe that having two films on show is quite a good number. I think that the quality of Syrian films does not match its production scale. Syria produces some of the best films in the region.

What does it mean for you to be here at the Abu Dhabi film festival?

On a personal level, participating in the Abu Dhabi film festival is very important for me. Other than film festivals, there are not that many film screening opportunities in the region. Furthermore, this is a chance to screen my film for a new audience and meet producers and distributors. This might open a new door for collaboration in the future.

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi International film festival’s daily bulletin. Download pdf version here.

Review of The Oath by Laura Poitras / USA

Directed, produced, and shot by Laura Poitras, The Oath moves in a zigzag between the lives of two men: Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, and Abu Jandal, his bodyguard. The first ended up on his knees with a sack on his head in a solitary cell in Guantanamo. The other was arrested in Yemen, enrolled in a government re-education program for Jihadis (called the Dialogue Committee) then released and offered a taxi to make a living.

Ironically, it was Abu Jandal’s declarations during a 15-day non-violent interrogation by the US following the 9/11 bombing that changed the course of the war in Afghanistan. Salim Hamdan on the other hand, after five years of “extreme interrogation”, turned out to be not guilty. Through drawing this stark contrast between the two men’s fates, The Oath reveals that the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the US are no different than the Osama bin Laden bombings. Both often target innocent civilians, both are done under the oath of saving a nation and both failed to reach that goal.

In her film, Poitras breaks the stereotype of an Al Qaeda terrorist by inviting the viewers into the lives of both Hamdan and Abu Jandal. While it doesn’t quite reveal why a man would enrol in Al Qaeda, it does show that members are also human beings, tender fathers and light-hearted teachers. So maybe it’s time to talk to their heads instead of covering them with sacks.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010. Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by Nisi Masa

Interview with Syrian filmmaker Hazim al-Hamwi

Hazem al-Hamwi is a young Syrian who entered the world of filmmaking without any introductions or academic studies, and even without learning the “craft” from dedicated filmmakers. Working hard to “earn” his first home video camera, al-Hamwi carved out a place for himself as a documentary and experimental filmmaker in his local cinema scene. Today, nothing can hinder his steady and composed camera from crossing red lines and following his favorite theme: the place.

Hazim alHamwi


Syrian filmmakers always complain about censorship, which is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind Syria’s limited film production. Yet, like many other Syrian directors, you managed in “Tufulet Al-Makan” to cross religious as well as sectarian red lines. Do you think self-censorship has become stricter than that imposed by the government?

Fear mostly originates from past experiences related to the prior history of a person or a group. But a fearful mind is unable to produce art. This, of course, does not mean that one should be reckless, but we often hear our government making statements about development and change, so why don’t we think positively and try to test that. Even if we only achieve part of what we want, we would still be creating more productive conditions for the upcoming generations.

As for censorship being the main reason behind Syria’s limited film production, I strongly oppose this view. With this, filmmakers are only making excuses for themselves. It’s enough to look at the great accomplishment of Iranian cinema in spite of the harsh censorship regulations imposed on their cinema industry to negate this view. Not to mention that censorship is a very loose term and I personally believe that indirect social censorship can be stricter than that imposed by the government.

Few Syrian filmmakers have been working as independently as you; it was only recently that you studied filmmaking in the Arab Film Institute in Jordan and most of your films are self-financed or lack financial support. How far can independent Syrian filmmakers go?

My working independently was the result of the lack of governmental support for cinema rather than a choice or an objective. I personally regard it as a reaction to the production problems and it has, therefore, its pros and cons. The downside lies in the stress caused by my being in charge of handling all technical, operational and executive aspects of the filmmaking process.

The positive side, on the other hand, lies in developing an active and productive mentality that doesn’t resort to mere “complaining”, but which finds solutions to face up to and change the status quo. After all, the reality that I am filming is much more important than the type of camera I’m using. By adopting this mentality, I reversed the spell by transforming my problems into strengths and my struggle into a source of respect.

It is also important to highlight that independent filmmakers need to have a means for survival and continuity. The government and civil society organizations should support filmmakers. Unfortunately, we have very few such organizations in Syria and most initiatives are undertaken by individuals. They deserve a lot of respect for that.

Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh wrote (Al-Akhbar /27 January 2007) that “the main characteristic of Arab young filmmakers’ films is the ‘uprising of the ego’”… and their moving away from “nationalist concerns that marked the past decades”. Looking at your films and at the Syrian film production at large, to what extent is that true?

I think it’s true. Even though many of the old Syrian films had a highly cinematographic language, they were overloaded with ideologies. This affected the film’s intellectual as well as artistic shape. As a result, they seemed sober, obscure, and had no sense of play, so to speak. Although this does not apply to all Syrian films, generally speaking this was the main characteristic of the first Syrian films.

Back to the argument of Sweileh, the ego will have the final say. It will find its way to express itself; to play, to distress and rejoice, make mistakes and succeed… I can see that in the works of my colleagues. While this might be unprofessional, it’s definitely healthy. I personally make films for the fun of it. It gives me a special sense of pleasure. That’s why there’s a lot of experimentation in my work because I enjoy working on the unexpected. Making a film is like going on an ego trip where you discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.

You have recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2009 to produce the second part of your documentary “Tufulet Al-Makan.” Could you tell us more about the film?

“Tufulet Al-Makan” will be three parts and I will make the second and the third part with the grant funding. All three parts are depicting place, or rather the soul of the place, so to speak.

What are the Syrian, Arab or international films that had the biggest impact on you?

I was never influenced by a film as a whole. Rather, I was touched by some aspects of films. I admire, for example, the cinematography of “Kombars” by Syrian director Nabil Al-Maleh, the visual language of Osama Muhammad’s “Sunduk Al-Dunia”, the harmony in the Egyptian film “The mummy” by Shadi Abdel Salam and the rhetoric of Stanley Kubrick’s works in general.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.


Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan

I sat down with journalist Doha Hassan to discuss what motivated her to create an exhibition on drought victims at Cham Mahel art café in the Old City of Damascus.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

According to UN statistics, 60,000 families from the north-east have been forced [since 2006] by the ongoing drought to migrate to urban areas. A journalist friend from the Jazeera area suggested that I and two other journalists go and teach the children of this area to read and write. So we went. It was an individual initiative by us, so families there were sceptical at first. They didn’t allow their children near us because they thought we wanted to kidnap them and sell their organs. After going there several times and accepting cups of coffee in their tents, they finally began to trust us. We’ve been giving weekly classes to the children for four months now. They wait for us and run to greet us every week. I took a lot of photos and put them on Facebook. The owner of Cham Mahal art café saw the photos and suggested I make an exhibition in his café. My instinct was to refuse. I’m a journalist and not a professional photographer. But as we were planning to start a media campaign to raise awareness about drought victims in Syria, the exhibition seemed like an appropriate starting point.

Your exhibition, Temporary, aims to support the victims of drought and raise public awareness of the issue. Has it achieved its goal?

The exhibition attracted considerable media attention. In addition to all major Syrian media outlets, regional publications like Lebanon’s daily Al-Hayat and international ones like the BBC covered the exhibition. I sold enough photographs to cover the exhibition’s basic expenses and I will spend any profits to support the drought victims. I also printed postcards of my photos that were sold during the exhibition. I’ll continue to sell the postcards at Cham Mahal and Itana library after the exhibition.

How are you supporting the drought victims?

We are buying them basic food elements and notebooks and colors for the children. Apart from the exhibition, we also organized a facebook campaign and asked people to donate clothes. The response was huge and we got tons of second-hand clothes.

Why have you called your exhibition temporary?

Because I hope that the drought victims’ current refuge is only temporary. It simply can’t go on for long. Each of the drought affected families has 5 to 6 children. If these grow in poverty without proper education and a safe home, they’ll end up as criminals and thieves.

When attending an exhibition about drought victims stuck in the desert, you’d imagine photos that reflect the blazing sun and the hot colors of the desert. Instead you chose to print your photos in black and white giving a rather cold and old feeling to your works. Why is that?

I wanted my photos to resemble raw footage rather than art works. By that, I wanted to give a sense of documentation. I also believe that black and white brings out the details in a photo.

What is your next step?

We want to  provide greater media exposure to drought victims. We hope that the campaign will encourage more people to help. In the long run, we hope that government organisations will help us because, after all, we are only individuals. It’s not easy to achieve change alone.

How will you ensure the continuity of your campaign?

We’ve developed a moral commitment to these children. These four and five year olds run to greet us every week. They overwhelm us with affection. They haven’t seen anything in their lives other than tents, water barrels and scorpions. They regard us as their window to the world. Once you see that hope in their eyes, you simply can’t step back.

This is a modified version of the Q&A published in Syria Today magazine.