Making and exhibiting independent documentary in the Arab world is a challenge in several distinct ways. Pamela Cohn writes about two outstanding films from the Sheffield festival. Are they calling for a more humanist, modern approach to being a faithful Muslim?

Pamela Cohn
Originally from Los Angeles, California, Pamela now makes her home in Berlin, Germany.Currently, she is a contributing writer and editor for several publications and websites such as FILMMAKER Magazine, DOX Magazine, BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Senses of Cinema, and Desistfilm.

As part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s extensive program this year, there was a strand that focused on the Middle East, a place rife with underground work. While some of these films are certainly getting a bit of play at some of the larger Middle East fests, making and exhibiting independent documentary in the Arab world is a challenge in several distinct ways.

Even with the development of new film funds and the emergence of alternative avenues for exhibition, oftentimes filmmakers from the region have to contend with extensive political and social censorship. The success of the outcome of certain projects is up for debate, for quite a few pieces are unpolished, filled with the kind of “gaffes” of which most Western filmmakers (and audiences) are highly critical. We must also remember, however, that a lot of these important and timely stories never get the appropriate professional support needed to enhance their market-readiness. Nonetheless, it is important that these films get some play outside their own region at high-profile festivals with expansive programming, such as Sheffield.

The middle East Focus strand at Doc/Fest showcased ten films from Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iran and Tunisia. There were two feature-length films that were particularly striking, but for entirely different reasons. While Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary is exceedingly well produced and executed, Mohammad Ali Atassi’s Waiting for Abu Zayd is not.

In fact, at its conclusion, Atassi’s film seems to dwindle into what amounts to a philosophical argument between the journalist and his subject; Atassi’s frustrated offcamera voice expresses bewilderment to Zayd about the intellectual’s refusal to return to his native Egypt after 13 years of exile. It’s an unintentionally morbid conclusion to what is in effect the only extensive documentation of Zayd’s life. The two films have some palpable reverberations with one another since both say a lot about the constant struggle to create contemporary meaning out of the ancient Qur’anic traditions of Islam, and the complex social mores (and severe social restrictions) of being a good and faithful Muslim. In both cases, the films focus on these principles through their interaction with state “criminals,” society’s exiles.

«a passionate interplay between notions of innocence and guilt unravels»

Theatre director, Zeina Daccache sets up Lebanon’s first prison-based drama project in Roumieh Prison, one of the country’s most overcrowded penitentiaries. The facility, built for 1500 inmates, holds almost 4000. Over the course of a year and half, she molds a group of 45 actors plucked from the prison population and stages an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay from 1957, 12 Angry Men. The story takes place in the confines of a deliberation room with 12 jurors deciding the case of a boy who is being charged for murdering his father. There is one man who decides to buck the unanimous vote of “guilty” and a passionate interplay between notions of innocence and guilt unravels.

As the prisoners themselves analyze all of the motivations of their characters, they start to work out deeply embedded personal, familial and social issues, all guided by Daccache in a magnificent performance of her own. She vociferously stays with her charges through all of their injurious self-doubts, through intense resistance to commit to the rigors of rehearsals and the exposure of performance. We learn immediately about the crimes these men committed, but the reasons why they find themselves behind bars (some for life) always surprise. Yes, some blame their upbringing, their parents, their surroundings, but most reveal that their own personalities and foibles were the “culprits” that caused them to lose their way.

12 Angry Lebanese

The film documents Daccache’s work inside the prison, focussing for the most part on the rehearsal / therapy process. Monologue, song and dance routines that detail the prisoners’ life experiences are created and added to the core of the original play.
Seen by many influential people in Lebanese government, the play (and the film) helped bring in a law from 2000 that was never enforced, which offers reduced sentences for good behavior. Two months after the staging of the play, in which the characters talk about the need for its implementation, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began approving reduced sentences. Certainly, the existing structure of the original play, the play within the play, and the structure of Daccache’s CATHARSIS program (essentially therapy through enacting drama), has enhanced the dramaturgical work of this exhilarating documentary. But the heart of the matter resides in the ways in which the inmates interact with the camera lens, with superb shooting by Jocelyne Abi Gebrayel, and sensitive and graceful editing by Michele Tyan. It is a focused and satisfyingly contextualized effort.

Mohammed Ali Atassi

Syrian journalist, Mohammed Ali Atassi, who followed his protagonist for six years with a camera, is not as narratively successful in his portrait of Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd in Waiting for Abu Zayd. A brilliant and outspoken liberal theologian and intellectual, Zayd wrote several books challenging institutionalized interpretations of the Qur’an and Islam. Zayd was the victim of a ludicrous court battle that labeled him an apostate and resulted in his exile from his native Egypt. Atassi follows Zayd as he tours, lectures and comes face to face with a tightly controlled Middle-Eastern press. One television station at which he is interviewed is owned by Saudi Arabians; any criticism of Wahhabism (the country’s dominant faith, and an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of Qur’an) is a serious breach, and Zayd is told this several times before he appears on air. But clearly, he was a man with nothing more to lose. In 1995, he was banned from his native country, an enemy of the powers that control traditional Islamic laws and practices, and Egypt’s religious authorities divorced him from his beloved wife, Cairo University professor, Ibtihal Younes. Subsequently, he spent his time in exile writing books and raging eloquently in public debate, calling for a more humanist, modern approach to being a faithful Muslim. For the last several years of his life (he died in July 2010, two months after the film was completed), he lived in Leyden in the Netherlands, where he continued to give conferences and hold public debates on his views, which would hardly appear radical outside of the fundamentalist regime from which he came.

The film is enhanced by fiery testimonials from Younes, and Zayd’s friend, Mohammad Hakem, a leftist political activist and student leader (who has also passed away since the film was made). But films about thinkers and intellectuals, particularly one as straightforward as this, and feature-length to boot, pose enormous challenges to both filmmaker and audience. In essence, it fails as a cohesive film, awkwardly broken down as it is into aspects of a TV journalism profile, personal diary, and poetic ode to an indomitable spirit.

Atassi’s homage to Zayd captures the man’s humor and humanity, but the forays into song, bizarre montage, and other filmic “effects” throughout the piece ultimately create distance from the subject, instead of providing valuable context. More importantly, a better understanding of Zayd’s absurd journey into exile is sacrificed. Near the end of the film, knowing full well the propensity of the media (and, perhaps, Atassi) to lionize him in some grossly inaccurate way, Zayd states, “I need to be modest so that our leaders can learn modesty. The intellectual who claims ownership of the Truth is the other leg of the dictator. When an intellectual claims to own the Truth, he becomes the dictator’s servant.”

 

 


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