Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Arab Film Fest Blends the Personal and the Political

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 15, 2006

For most Americans, the impact of Washington politics and policy does not intrude much on everyday life. Unless you happen to be a member of a particularly demonized minority, or have a loved one on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan, it can be all too easy to go through life blithely unaware of the consequences of public policy and legislated morality.  

The tenth annual Arab Film Festival, which comes to Berkeley’s California Theater this weekend, presents portraits of people who do not have that luxury, people who live with the unavoidable consequences of conflicts, both political and moral, that leave a indelible mark on their everyday lives.  

Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Sunday 4:15 p.m.) is the story of Dunia, a young student and bellydancer who walks a fine line in modern-day Cairo between the traditional notions of womanhood and her desire for love, beauty, sensuality and freedom. It is an engaging examination of the intersection between the personal and the political, putting a human face on the conflict between the individual and the mores of the society in which she lives.  

The film evinces much of what originally made motion pictures such a potent art form early in the last century: In the words of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, “They had faces!” The first few minutes of the film—before the characters have been established, before the plot has been articulated—the beautiful and expressive face of Hanane Turk, as Dunia, hooks the viewer with its intelligence, sensitivity, sensuality and charm. Before she has danced a step, before she has revealed a single thought or emotion, her eyes communicate all we need to know to take an interest in her plight.  

Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority (Friday, 7 p.m.) takes a different approach to that intersection, exploring the Israel-Palestine conflict from a distinctly Palestinian perspective, one not often explored in American mainstream media.  

The film is something of a polemic along the lines of the rash of left-leaning documentaries to hit American theaters over the past few years in the wake of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It does not present a quiet, measured documentation of a debated topic, but rather a case for one side. It is a film that is more likely to reinforce the viewer’s opinions rather than alter them. 

Which is not to say the film doesn’t back up its case; the filmmakers have plenty of facts, statistics, anecdotes and analysis, and they make their arguments forcefully. But the overwrought tone of the film, with its dramatic cuts, gratuitous reverb effects and ubiquitous, ominous music, unfortunately undermines much of the film’s power.  

The same themes and perspectives are portrayed more artfully in another of the festival’s documentaries, Goal Dreams.  

Goal Dreams (Friday, 9 p.m.) follows the Palestinian national soccer team as they prepare for a qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup. In just one month they will play a decisive match against Uzbekistan; if they win, they will continue to fight another day, but if they lose or draw they will be eliminated. Along the way, the team faces myriad obstacles, setting up a series of metaphors by which to examine the theme of Palestinian identity. 

For instance, the coaches have difficulty selecting players because Palestine has no professional league from which to draw. They don’t even have a home field, but must instead travel to Egypt for a suitable facility. And the best Palestinian players are scattered across the globe, setting up barriers of playing style as well as language—a problem only exacerbated by the fact that the coach is Austrian.  

And this leads to the team’s most debilitating obstacle: Once the players have been selected it proves nearly impossible to assemble them, for half of the players come from the West Bank and Gaza and cannot make it to Egypt unless the Israeli military opens the border. Five times the players travel to the border and wait for hours, only to learn they will not be allowed to pass through after all. By the time they arrive the team has only about two weeks to prepare and train.  

When the team appeals to FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, asking that the match be postponed until they’ve had time to prepare, FIFA denies the request, preferring not to get involved in “political matters.” 

But this is a region where political matters are difficult to ignore. The film doesn’t dwell on the politics or the history of the situation, but merely provides a portrait of a unique group of men forced to struggle with its everyday consequences.  

The Austrian coach puts it best when he says that he came to Palestine simply to coach soccer and did not want to get involved with the political situation. “But once you are here,” he says, “you are automatically involved.”