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October 20, 2010

Arab film fest aims to counter stereotypes

http://www.jewishjournal.com/film/article/arab_film_fest_aims_to_counter_stereotypes_20101020

Ayed Morrar, from the documentary “Budrus,” with students at a Budrus school. (Photo courtesy of Just Vision.)

Ayed Morrar, from the documentary “Budrus,” with students at a Budrus school. (Photo courtesy of Just Vision.)

Even as the Israel Film Festival that began Oct. 20 stretches over 16 days and features some 30 movies and documentaries, Los Angeles is confirming its cosmopolitan status by also hosting a more modest Arab Film Festival.

Running Oct. 22-24 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, the Arab fest will present 11 features and four documentaries.

Executive director Michel Shehadeh, a Palestinian from Bir Zeit who came to California at 18 hoping to become a screenwriter, said he is trying to reach well beyond the Arab American audience.

“We are now in our 14th year and hold our festival in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles,” he said. “Only about 20 percent of our audience is Arab, and we have had considerable interest from the Jewish community.”

A primary goal of the festival, Shehadeh said, is to counter the stereotyped images of Arabs frequently found in the American mass media.

Judging by the synopses of the film lineup, Shehadeh has steered away from Middle East conflicts and politics, focusing instead on daily life in the Arab world, often with a touch of humor.

Two documentaries are about the struggles of gay young men in Jerusalem and Tunis, while others deal with an Arab girl’s experiences in America and an Arab butcher’s life in Paris. One film focuses on inept bank robbers, another on the friendship between a Muslim and a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Tunis, and another is an Arab version of “12 Angry Men,” titled “12 Angry Lebanese.”

Apparently only one documentary, “Fragments of a Lost Palestine,” about the return of a Palestinian native son to Bethlehem, touches on the occupation.

A good example of the festival’s general tone will be seen in the opening-night presentation, the Algerian “Masquerades,” which chronicles the quest of a young gardener, or, as he puts it, “horticultural engineer,” to marry off his sister.

The young woman is very pretty, but also narcoleptic, and she falls asleep at the most inconvenient times.

“Masquerades” is a pleasant movie that makes good-humored fun of the villagers’ pretensions of importance and of a poor but devoted suitor seeking to win the sister’s hand over the objections of her brother.

Occasionally, the frustrations of daily life under the heavy hand of tradition burst out, as one character exclaims, “Nothing changes here. ... We were born outdated.”

At the same time as the Arab Film Fest, but not part of it, is “Budrus,” a documentary produced jointly by Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers and directed by Brazil’s Julia Bacha.

Budrus is a West Bank village of 1,500 adjoining the Green Line dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories. Its economy depends entirely on farming, especially the harvesting of olive trees, but the rural routine is interrupted when Israeli “bulldozrim” arrive in 2003 to build the security wall designed to keep out terrorists.

A local farmer, Ayed Morrar, organizes the villagers into a nonviolent resistance movement to foil the erection of the wall, which would run through the local cemetery and separate the farmers from their olive groves.

Morrar manages to unite the warring Fatah and Hamas factions and eventually attracts sympathetic Israeli volunteers and some Diaspora Jews. In a break with tradition, Morrar’s 15-year-old daughter mobilizes the Budrus women to join their men in the resistance movement.

Morrar’s nonviolence movement has been emulated in other West Bank villages, and the documentary credits Morrar and his followers with convincing the Israeli government to move the path of the wall to reunite the Budrus farmers with their fields.

We showed the film to my sister-in-law, visiting from Israel, and she objected to the film’s facile conclusion.

The case of Budrus was discussed at great length by the Israeli government, public and media, she said, and it took a combination of many factors to change the wall’s original route.

“Budrus” opens Oct. 22 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

For more information on the Arab Film Festival, visit arabfilmfestival.org. For additional background on “Budrus,” visit justvision.org/budrus/en.

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