Review of How Bitter My Sweet! by Mohammed Soueid, Lebanon/UAE

A friend once told me that the Lebanese are absurd people; they all love Lebanon but hate each other. Reading the title of Lebanese filmmaker Mohamed Soueid’s film Bahibbak ya wahesh (How Bitter my Sweet!) – which literally translates into “I love you, you monster” – brought that comment back to my mind.

In his film, Soueid introduces six very colourful and varied characters from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Sudan who only have two things in common: they all live in Lebanon and none of them are particularly happy!

Through their stories, Soueid sheds light on Lebanese society, its political turmoil and relationship with its neighbours and foreign immigrants. It gives very little background information though, so unless you are familiar with Lebanon’s political and social ups and downs, How Bitter my Sweet! is likely to leave you a bit confused.

Soueid organized the content of his interviews in several thematic sections. He then randomly marked these sections with sometimes functional and at other times creative titles like Knock Knock in contrast with Neighborhood and On the Road. While this gives a reportage feel to the film, it also allows the viewers to listen to decide for themselves what they think.

While How Bitter my Sweet! offers little new information, it is a good discussion generator, so if you choose to attend its screening at the Abu Dhabi film festival make sure not to miss the Q&A session.

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

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Review of Jane’s Journey By Lorenz Knauer, Germany

Jane Goodall might be very famous in the West, but in Abu Dhabi “Jane who?” is the most common answer you get when inviting anyone to attend Lorenz Knauer’s film about the British activist. That’s why screening Jane’s Journey at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is particularly important.

The film follows the life of Goodall, her transformation from a chimpanzee expert to environmental, human and animal rights activist, and her landmark achievements in these fields. Jane’s Journey is beautifully shot, with great humour and such amazing sound recording that you almost feel the animals sitting right next to you. All the typical documentary film elements are there: old photos, home video footages, testimonies of family and friends.

The film, however, doesn’t delve into Goodall’s personality. Instead, it represents a well-polished, almost idealistic image of the United Nations Messenger of Peace. It’s probably best described as a curriculum vitae of her achievements, with a very well-done cover letter and great references. This might not be very interesting for western audiences already familiar with Goodall’s projects, but for a distant audience like that of the Middle East, this film is an entertaining, informative and efficient account of a great activist’s journey.

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

Springtime for Saudi Cinema?

from the set of Shrouq/Ghroub

 

When I finally met Abdulmuhsin Almutairi, co-founder of the Talashi Saudi Filmmakers’ group, I was on the verge of frustration. I had spent three days searching the corridors of the Emirates palace, the press office and the guests’ hotel for the young Saudi filmmaker. Coming across Saudi film screenings in international film festivals is usually not easy either. Not so at the ADFF this year: there are a total of nine short films from Saudi Arabia competing in the Emirates Competition.

The few Saudi films which make it to festivals often carry off awards. Take for example The Shoemaker by Ahd Kamel, which was recently awarded Aleph Best Short Film gold prize at the Beirut International Film Festival, Aayesh by Abdullah Al-Eyaf, which won the Gulf Film Festival award for best short and The Fabricated Crime by Tawfik al Zaidi, which was granted the best editing award from the Jeddah Film Festival.

from Aayesh by Abdullah Al-Eyaf

It is thanks to young filmmakers like Almutairi that, with some difficulty, Saudi cinema is making a place for itself on the international art scene. Saudi Arabia has no local or governmental film fund, cinema schools, academies or professional film crews. Even cinemas are very few and far between. That’s why Almutariri and eight young Saudi filmmakers decided to support themselves and establish Talashi. While the filmmakers prefer to call it a group, Talashi is in fact an independent film production company.

We don’t have a license”, the 20-something says hesitantly. “And we are not making any profit anyway”.

But they are making films good enough to be screened at international festivals like Rotterdam Film Fest and San Fransisco Film Society among others. One of their films Shrouq/Ghroub by Mohammad Aldhahri also got the Dubai International Film Festival’s FIPRISCI Best Short Film award. Talashi produced 12 short films so far, all self-funded.

None of us could afford to work alone so we decided to invest in buying film equipment that the whole group can use”, Almutairi says.

As the Talashi group includes directors, editors and cameramen who are willing to work for free, Almutairi says one film’s budget does not exceed USD 1500, which is usually paid for the actresses.

There are very few Saudi actresses, and even these few ones rarely agree to work for a bunch of young men like us who do not have a well-known film production company”, Almutairi says. “As it is very hard to find actresses, those who agree to act charge a lot.

They even tackled the difficulty of recruiting actresses in Saudi Arabia in their short film Three Men and One Woman. Other Talashi films criticized early marriages and forcing women to wear the chador, amongst other taboos.

The most important thing about our films is that they reflect reality. Some people criticize us saying that we should paint a good image of Saudi Arabia abroad and I agree with that, but that doesn’t mean not to tell the truth”, says Almutairi, who believes that there are few red lines in Saudi Arabia. He also believes that having to apply for special permission to shoot in public areas doesn’t impose any restrictions on film production in Saudi Arabia.

You get permission to shoot anywhere you want except for the areas which have a sign that readsDon’t take photos”, Almutairi says. “If you respect the law then you are fine.

Even so, according to Almutairi although some Talashi films can be critical of Saudi Arabian society, they are well-received and even supported by the ministry of culture, which screens them on public TV and in cultural centres.

Society started to accept Talashi. We were actually surprised how well they received our films”, Almutairi says. “You just have to have the guts to do it.”

For more information about Talashi log on to www.talashifilms.com

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin and in Mas y Mas monthly newsletter, both published by NISI MASA.

Download pdf version here.

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.