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Terrorism, a war criminal and the Middle East

by Iris Mann

May 31, 2013 | 10:29 am

Reymonde Amsellem and Ali Suliman in “The Attack.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Reymonde Amsellem and Ali Suliman in “The Attack.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Foreign films abound this summer, with several that concern the Middle East in various ways.

Lebanese-American filmmaker Ziad Doueiri brings Yasmina Khadra’s novel “The Attack” to the screen, and his movie has spawned some controversy in the Arab world.

The film focuses on Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, and begins when he is receiving a distinguished medical award, the first Arab to be so honored. After his acceptance speech, events catapult. He is called to the hospital as dead and wounded children and adults are brought in after a suicide bombing. Sometime later, he is taken to the morgue to identify a body — that of his wife, who ultimately turns out to have been the suicide bomber. Never having known about her underground activities, he is horrified and spends the rest of the film searching for answers, even venturing into dangerous Palestinian enclaves. 

Although the plot rests on a terrorist act, Doueiri insisted that his film is not fundamentally a political one, but is, rather, a love story, and a story of betrayal, about a man who worships his wife and wonders how he could be married to a woman for 15 years and not see any sign of who she really was.

However, because of its narrative and the fact that the film is set in the Middle East, the politics of the region are ever present. Doueiri, who said he comes from a liberal, secular Muslim family, said the story does not favor one side or the other in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is this evenhanded approach that has caused him problems in Arab countries. The film was originally financed with funds from Qatar and Egypt, and some from France and Belgium. The director recalled that, when the film was screened in Toronto, the Qatari delegation was not comfortable with the weight given to the Israeli perspective.

“They took me to the side and said, ‘We’re sorry to tell you, but we’d like to remove our name from the film.’ And when I asked why, they said, ‘Look. This is a sensitive time for Qatar right now. We’re involved in several wars. We’re financing wars. We’re being scrutinized. We’re in a very tough position, and we do not want to open [an] unnecessary window on us right now. And your film might do that. So, we’re going to take our name off.’ ”

To make matters worse, Doueiri added, “Lebanon just banned it [from being shown] a couple of days ago. We didn’t try with Egypt yet, but Lebanon has banned it, and Lebanon was, like, the most promising place to show that film.

“Just because I show the Israeli perspective,” he continued, “just because I work with Israeli actors, just because I shot it in Israel does not mean I turn my back on the Palestinians. This is how they are seeing it. They are seeing that I have committed treason.”

Subsequently, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the Arab League has asked all of its 22 members to boycott the movie. The Times also reported that the filmmaker’s wife was told she would be arrested if she went ahead with a private screening in Beirut, so that screening was canceled. According to Doueiri, Jews have been much more supportive of his movie.

“The Attack” will be released June 21.

Abdihakin Asgar and Pilou Asbæk in “A Hijacking.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Another terrorist act occurs in “A Hijacking,” a Danish film by writer-director Tobias Lindholm, in which Somali pirates seize a cargo ship and hold the crew for ransom.

Lindholm, whose father was a seaman, commented that the film is a particularly Danish story because all Danes have at least one family member who works at sea.

“Then, with the hijacking of the Danish-owned freighters Danica White and CEC Future in 2007 and 2008, I became aware of the reality of piracy in the Indian Ocean, a reality where pirates earn millions of dollars and where seamen are held hostage for months without any influence on their own fate.”

The film centers on the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a loving family man anxious to get home to his wife and daughter; the engineer, Jan (Roland Møller); and Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company. Refusing to allow an expert to deal with the hijackers, Peter bargains with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the spokesman for the Somalis, who insists that he is there merely to translate and negotiate but is not one of the pirates. 

The original act of hijacking is never shown, but tension mounts as negotiations for the ransom go back and forth over a period of months between the company headquarters in Copenhagen and the ship, where conditions gradually deteriorate and food becomes scarce. Because everyone on board feels the effects of the siege, there is a section in which the hostages and the pirates bond over a meal after Mikkel manages to catch an extremely large fish.

The piracy has profound psychological effects on everyone involved. By the end, Mikkel is clearly suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, while there is a deep crack in the armor of the usually cool and controlled Peter.

Underneath the specifics of the story, Lindholm finds a more universal issue. “Piracy is a symbol of the conflict between rich and poor in the world today. And I believe that is a theme that the film is exploring.”

“A Hijacking” opens June 21. 

Golshifteh Farahani in “The Patience Stone.”  Photo by Benoît Peverelli, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A different form of terrorism, the often-violent oppression of women in orthodox Muslim society, is at the core of the allegorical film “The Patience Stone.” The script is adapted from the novel by Afghan expatriate Atiq Rahimi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière.

The setting is an unnamed Middle East country, which some critics have speculated is actually Afghanistan, where different factions are at war. A woman (Golshifteh Farahani), alone with her two young daughters, cares for her comatose husband, giving him sustenance through a feeding tube. 

Desperate for money, she regularly visits her aunt, a prostitute in a brothel, who gives her advice. The aunt relates the story of the patience stone, saying that if you tell your troubles to this stone, it will shatter when it is full, and it will free you.

In a monologue that stretches throughout the movie, the woman unburdens herself to her unconscious husband, making him, in effect, her patience stone. As she gives voice to her confessions, tells her secrets, her anguish, her rage and her agonizing memories, the untenable position of women in Muslim societies becomes intensely personal and palpable.

The Patience Stone” opens Aug. 16.

Cédric Kahn, left, and Pio Marmai in “Aliyah.” Photo © Carole Bethuel

The Middle East is the destination for the main character in the French film “Aliyah,” taking its title from the term for the immigration of Jews in the Diaspora to Israel. Alex (Pio Marmai), a young French Jew, makes his living dealing dope, and he is constantly called upon to help his hapless brother, Isaac (Cédric Kahn). His mother is dead, and his father (Jean-Marie Winling) is indifferent to him, so Alex feels alone and alienated. At a family Shabbat dinner, he is reunited with his cousin, Nathan (David Geselson), who has just returned from serving in the Israeli army and plans to open a restaurant in Israel. Sensing an opportunity for a fresh start in life, Alex persuades Nathan to include him in the venture. But, in order to come up with the necessary money, he has to do one more cocaine deal.

“By reading a lot about it,” director Elie Wajeman is quoted as saying in the press notes, “Making a trip to Israel, and meeting people, I understood that many people who make aliyah don’t do it because of ideology or religion, but simply to run away — from troubles, sorrows, disappointments or sometimes from the law. It’s as simple as that.”

At the end of the film, Alex is in Israel, but he doesn’t speak Hebrew and spends his time working, or alone. Again, Wajeman is quoted: “One might think that his situation is even worse than when he was alone in Paris. But I don’t see it that way. He stands by the window, his whole being open to the world.”

“Aliyah” is scheduled to open June 21.

Barbara Sukowa in “Hannah Arendt.”  Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The Holocaust hovers over the film “Hannah Arendt,” about the German-Jewish philosopher who escaped from a detention camp in France and found her way to America, where she became a college professor and writer. When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents and put on trial in Israel, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) covered the proceedings for The New Yorker magazine. German director Margarethe von Trotta focuses on this period in Arendt’s life, using news footage from the trial. She also depicts the controversy that erupted when Arendt claimed in her five-part series of articles that Jewish councils had been helpful to the Nazis and that Eichmann was a mere bureaucrat, a very ordinary man who was not motivated by personal ideology or anti-Semitism but was obeying what he thought to be lawful orders. Arendt is credited with coining the phrase “the banality of evil.” 

In telling the story, von Trotta reveals a certain sympathy for Arendt’s position.

“For me, as a German,” she explained, “the trial and her conclusion is very important, not to make these criminals innocent, really not, that was a big misunderstanding in the moment she wrote the articles, but to ‘understand,’ which has nothing to do with ‘forgiveness.’ ”

But Alan Rosenthal, a writer, film director and professor of communications at Hebrew University disagrees with Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Rosenthal cites the Sassen tapes, which contain conversation between an ex-SS officer named Willem Sassen, and Eichmann, who made this comment: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist. … I am only sorry for one thing. That I wasn’t tough enough. That I didn’t fight these interventionists. Now you see the damned results. The creation of the State of Israel and the re-emergence of the race.” 

Von Trotta said she is aware of the tapes and feels Eichmann was merely boasting. “My interpretation is: He was hiding for several years from the time he left Germany, nobody knew who he was, he lived a very humble life then, and since he has always been a careerist and proud to be part of the very important people of the Nazi movement (you have to read what he tells about the Wannsee-Konferenz, where he describes with pride that in the end he took a cognac with [Reinhard] Heydrich.) ... he was happy that there came somebody to whom he could show how important he was and what a real fanatic, because he believed that the interviewer was one, too.”

“Hannah Arendt” opens June 7.

Also of interest:

“One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das,” opening May 31, is a documentary about Jeffrey Kagel, a young Jewish man from Long Island who once sought fame as a rock ’n’ roll singer but decided instead to move to the Himalayas in search of enlightenment. After struggling with depression and addiction, he became Krishna Das, often called “yoga’s rock star,” a famous spiritual teacher, chant master and one of the best-selling singers of Indian devotional music in the world. 

From left: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Andrew Dice Clay in “Blue Jasmine.” Photo by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Dirty Wars” opening June 7, is an expose by journalist Jeremy Scahill of America’s Joint Special Operations Command, a secret military unit in charge of covert operations. According to the press notes, the unit’s activities are “unknown to the public and carried out across the globe by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress.” 

“Nicky’s Family,” opening July 19, reveals the unknown story of how Englishman Nicholas Winton spearheaded the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children, most of them Jewish, before the start of World War II. Winton is still alive and turned 104 on May 19. 

“Blue Jasmine,” opening July 26, is Woody Allen’s latest endeavor, described as “the story of the final stages of an acute crisis and a life of a fashionable New York housewife.” So far, little is known beyond that, but Allen has assembled a stellar cast, including Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and Peter Sarsgaard. 

“The Act of Killing,” opening July 26, is a difficult documentary in which director Joshua Oppenheimer films former death squad leaders in Indonesia, who proudly re-enact for the camera their murdering of suspected communists as well as ethnic Chinese and intellectuals during the right-wing military coup of 1965. 

“Wadjda,” opening Aug. 30, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first film by a Saudi woman, writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour. A 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh wants a bicycle so she can beat a neighbor boy in a race. But her mother forbids it because Saudi society preaches that bicycles are a threat to a girl’s virtue. The girl then tries to raise the money herself.

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