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Cinemayaat Arab Film Festival brings new perspectives to screen

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Saturday September 09, 2000

“I came to Casablanca for the waters,” Bogart mumbled as Rick Blaine. When Claude Raines told him there was no water, that they were in the desert, the owner of Café Americain didn’t miss a beat. “I was misinformed.” 

Indeed. The amiable clash between the subversive entrepreneur and the fallible French official made for ripping dialogue, and the hodgepodge of nationalities in that enduring Hollywood chestnut (a Swede, an Englishman, a couple of Frenchmen, an African-American on the ivories, and a whole slew of Nazis) allowed little details like geography flubs to go unnoticed.  

Casablanca, as any atlas will tell you, is on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and a comfortable distance from the Sahara. 

The producers of Casablanca were concerned about the title, fearing audiences would be confused because of its similarity to a popular Mexican beer, Carta Blanca. 

Les Casablancais (The Casablancans) is not out to right the wrongs of Hollywood, but it’s a story of three people whose lives unexpectedly cross under strained circumstances and will take the viewer on a tour of Casablanca, circa 1998. The film is screening Sunday at Berkeley’s Fine Arts Cinema as part of Cinemayaat, the fourth annual Arab Film Festival. 

The festival is spreading out around the Bay Area, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Towne Theater in San Jose. Cinemayaat is the only independent Arab film festival in America, and has set the standard for film programming to bolster community identity, and debate the nature of ethnic and religious prejudice. 

In addition to documentaries (both personal and political), features, and shorts from the wide swath of diverse Arabic cultures, Cinemayaat will bring Dr. Jack Shaheen’s presentation of Arab Screen Images to the Fine Arts Cinema on Friday, Sept. 15. The author of Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture will elucidate the messages inherent in American images of Arabs. In the U.S. film industry, he told the Al-Ahram Weekly, “it is perfectly acceptable to vilify, to demonize, whatever or whoever is Arab and Muslim.” 

In his documentary “Paying the Price – the Killing of the Children of Iraq” (Friday, Sept. 15), British journalist John Pilger uses images of dying children to different ends than does Hollywood’s patriotic blockbusters. The investigation into the effects of UN sanctions against Iraq for their noncompliance in regard to destroying chemical weapons relies on pictures from pediatric wards to garner sympathy and anger in behalf of the starving and diseased. 

John Pilger, along with Denis Halliday who resigned as Assistant Secretary-General of the UN in protest of the sanctions, explores the effects of denying citizens essential imports of food and medicine from other countries. They explain the UN has a progression of actions it imposes on aberrant nations, the final step being military action. Imposing sanctions is the preceding step before war, but the effect they have on a country is warlike. 

Pilger explains why British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook refused to be interviewed for Paying the Price. He said he didn’t want to be in a movie with pictures of dead babies. 

Pictures of a more pointedly political agenda, and less grotesquely sensational, come from the pen of Naji Al-Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist murdered in 1987. The documentary Naji Al-Ali – an Artist with Vision (Thursday, Sept. 14) portrays his newspaper panels and restless political convictions for the people of Palestine. In the film Tamar Salman, editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al Safir said Al-Ali could “simplify the most complicated ideologies…and portray the real meanings behind them in just a few lines of drawings.” 

His signature figure, a destitute child named Handahla, always drawn with its back turned, was a watcher. He would calmly watch the tumultuous national identity move from the aftermath of the Isreali invasion of 1967 to Henry Kissinger’s oil deals. 

Cinemayaat’s celebration of the diversity of Arabic identities goes beyond the often unstable political landscape. The Arabic world’s film heritage, now strengthened by Egypt’s Youseff Chahine and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, gets spotlit with a trio of musicals from Egypt’s early film industry. 

Three musicals from the 1940’s are a part of this year’s program, one of which will come to the Fine Arts. Flirtation of Girls (1949) features the bumbling comedy of Nauib el Rihani, Egypt’s once reigning everyman comedian.  

The story of a teacher (Rihani) hired to tutor the daughter of a pasha climbs heights of hijinks when the daughter is more interested in playing coy games. 

The balcony scene, a la Romeo and Juliet, gets slapstick laughs as Rihani shows he is not nearly as graceful as Romeo in climbing a vine when dogs are napping at his heels. Another Egyptian musical comedy, Love of My Life (1947), and an “epic melodrama” called Salaamah (1945) will play the Towne next week. 

Festival programs can be picked up at the Fine Arts Cinema, or browsed online at