1. Haji Agha actore cinema / Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor (Ovanes Ohanian, 1933, Iran)
2. Avodah / Work (Helmar Lerski, 1935, Palestine)
3. Adamah / Tomorrow's a Wonderful Day (Helmar Lerski, 1947. Israel/Palestine)
4. Dananir (Ahmed Badrakhan, 1940, Egypt)
5. Afrita hanem / Lady Afrita / Little Miss Devil (Henry Barakat, 1949, Egypt)
6. Darb al-mahabil / Fool's Alley
(Tewfik Saleh, 1955, Egypt
My first exposure to the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naghib Mahfouz was through the 1995 Mexican film El callejón de los milagros
(Jorge Fons) which I remember now mostly for Salma Hayek; it's an adaptation of the same novel, "Midaq Alley" in translation. The novel is apparently a large slice-of-the-lives of many residences of the eponymous street, and dim memory suggests that the much longer Fons film gets at that teeming dense city atmosphere better, but of course this film coming from the same language/country/culture as that of the writer works to some benefit. And it's a solid piece of work, even if it does focus mostly on the lovestruck couple trying to get married, and dispenses with the tougher issues like homosexuality. The issue of the lottery, and the central obsession with money that everybody shares is potently depicted, and the ironic ending works if it makes you smile and despair at once. It did such for me.
7. Zi'ab la ta'kol al lahm / Kuwait Connection
(Samir E. Khouri, 1973, Egypt
It opens with something like a romantic piano concerto playing, as we look through the barrel of a rifle, aimed at somebody on the street. It's fired by a guy wearing a tux on a nearby roooftop, and gun is painted gold. Then the credits start and over them a funky beat, reminiscent of something like Isaac Hayes' opening wah-wah Shaft
theme...the illusion doesn't last as the song sounds more like early ABBA overall than anything else. Next we have a car chase, a pretty intense one, that ends in the desert, and the man being chased hides a briefcase full of jewels, and then makes his way, wounded, through a pouring rain, to a large and wealthy house where people seem to be performing some strange ritual; he's taken in, the lady of the house knows him, and then we're into flashback territory and...all of this is just in the first few minutes. This is one wacky, weird crime-action film, with more nudity than I've seen in any other film from the region probably, and more violence than in most. The blaxploitation feel recurs a few times but it probably has more in common overall with some of the cheaper and nastier Eurospy flicks. There are lots of really cool moments but sadly also some bits of tedium, like the early conversation between what turn out to be our main characters that goes on way too long. Still this is loads of fun and if there are more Egyptian exploitation films in this vein I think I've got to find them.
8. Giv'a 24 Eina Ona / Hill 24 Doesn't Answer
(Thorold Dickinson, 1955, Israel
Supposedly the first film produced by an independent Israel but interestingly enough made by an English director (and his last feature, to boot). Not really surprising though as a lot of countries that had formerly been colonies/protectorates etc got their starts in film production through outside means - the early Indian films of Osten are other examples. Anyway this is another film told mostly (almost entirely) in flashbacks; that seems to be my theme this week though it wasn't intentional. Here we find four Israeli soldiers of diverse backgrounds, dead on the eponymous hill in the first scene, and the rest of the films shows us how and why they got there. It's' reasonably well done, and unlike some viewers I didn't find the propaganda elements that strong or offensive - mostly we just hear of the Arabs as "the enemy" which reminded me of the way some of the better British and American WWII films referred to the Germans or Japanese, and the war is generally referred to more as a war of survival rather than as God's plan or anything like that. The best part for me was the story of James Finnegan, the Irishman who was assigned to Palestine during the British administration and fell in love; his pursuit of Miriam is really well put together, exciting and romantic. The rest is fine, but overall I don't feel like there's much here that really stands out; worth seeing for students of the history and the country's cinema definitely but not to my mind really memorable.
9. Two short films from 1983 38+28=66 minutes
a) The Great Sadness of Zohara
(Nina Menkes, 1983, Israel
Apart from some background voices, and a beginning quote from Job, this is a wordless portrait of a striking blue-haired young woman (played by the director's sister and frequent muse Tinka Menkes) moving about in Jerusalem, sad, alone, plaintive, questing; as the one IMDb review suggests, it's clearly a very personal work of spiritual meaning that is probably going to be almost opaque to most people, but the visuals and the way the director layers sounds and music (mostly from Luciano Berio) are beautiful, and there's a stretch where the woman walks through a door in the city and into an outdoor, different terrain that was very odd and fascinating. I don't know that I "liked" it overall but it's certainly not like much else and it makes me curious to see more from Menkes, and to re-watch the director's The Bloody Child
which I remember provoked a lot of arguments among the small group of us who saw it back in the 90s.
b)Harb Aala el Harb
(Maroun Bagdadi, 1983, Lebanon
Short documentary about the war - the Lebanese Civil War at any rate, I'm unclear how much of this had to do with the Israeli invasion of 1982, narrated in a fairly poetic style in Arabic with visuals mostly of the physical damage - and occasionally the human damage, so be warned - to the country, and in particular Beirut, with statistics about what it would take to bring Lebanon back up in the world. Moving and informative for sure though I wish it had ranged a little wider than Beirut, and gotten into the causes of the war a little.
10. Sukka banat / Caramel
(Nadine Labaki, 2007, France/Lebanon
(I presume a chunk of the money for this came from France, but it's all shot in Lebanon with a Lebanese writer/director/star and mostly Lebanese cast/crew). Nadine Labaki's first film as director/writer is in many ways as impressive as her second, Et maintenant on va où?
(2011) though on the surface it's "light" romantic comedy focus might seem less serious or weighty. Labaki plays Layale, the owner of a hair salon in Beirut who despite being in her 30s and a (somewhat) successful businesswoman is still unmarried and living with her parents and much younger sibling. She's in love with a married man, unfortunately, and as the film develops she's still nourishing the hope that he'll leave his wife and...well, suffice it to say that this is a rom-com-dram of dashed or fleeting hopes, though it certainly keeps those up, and never descends into tragedy. Her three employees - a young woman in her twenties about to marry, a lesbian in her 30s or 40s, and a slightly older woman dreaming of returning to a moribund acting career - and the two older women who live next door to the shop are the other main characters, and between them they provide a wide range of views into the difficulties of living in a society that is still patriarchal even if it tries to sometimes put on the face of progressivism and diversity. Really beautifully shot in lots of warm browns and golds.
11. Three shorts, 25+15+20= 60 minutes, all from Iran
a) P mesle Pelican / P is for Pelican
(Parviz Kimiavi, 1972)
Remarkable film about an old man living in a deserted, ancient, ruinous city, who teaches young boys who come to visit him the alphabet but is met by scorn and derision in return until one of the boys tells him that P stands not only for "puppy" (Pedarsag, also according to the translation, "bastard" which the boys yell back at the man) but "pelican", an amazing bird that exists in the city, which he will show to the old man if he comes with him. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this but the striking visuals - there's a shot of the spokes of a carriage in movement that really stood out, and the final sequence as well - and the interaction between the one "nice" boy and the old man, were really wonderful. This is the 4th Kimiavi film I've seen and three have been terrific (and the fourth at least interesting). There were a lot of great Iranian directors born in the late 30s - early 40s, and only Kiarostami and Mehrjui have really attained prominence, but Kimiavi is certainly one of those who deserves to be better known.
b) Malek Khorshid / The Sun King
(Ali Akbar Sadeghi, 1975)
Mysterious animated short in which an old man and younger man wander through a strange museum-like mansion, only to have the young man fly off into a series of fantastic adventures to win, or save, or protect a beautiful young woman from a portrait, who might be the daughter of the older man? It's unclear, and the animation is rather primitive, but as a pure flight of fancy this is pretty cool.
c) Jaam-e Hasanlou / The Hassanlou Chalice
(Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1964)
All three of these shorts were wonderful in their own ways, and all of them rather challenging - in large part because of my cultural ignorance. This was probably the most difficult to comprehend: over shots that are mostly extreme close-ups of scenes and writing and reliefs on the chalice in question, and also occasionally closeups of a man's face, we have narration describing events and stories seemingly unrelated, eventually focusing on Halladj, a Christlike figure, all while a variety of also seemingly unrelated sounds (car horns, machinery, cries and shouts of both terror and pleasure) inhabit the soundtrack. Like the previous two shorts, very watchable and fascinating but also a bit impenetrable.
(Yavuz Turgul, 1996, Turkey
Is there anything more exciting than FINALLY watching a Turkish masterpiece that has been crowned with the ultimate honor of a placement on the IMDb Top 250? Can you even imagine the paroxysms of delight that I experienced? Well....OK, the good things first - this starts off reasonably interesting, as an old man just out of jail goes back to his hometown, finds it drowned by a lake, and then decides to go to Istanbul to look up some people from his past. He meets a young petty hood and forms a friendship, and has trouble navigating the huge city. It's fairly nicely shot, though the color is bordering on over-saturated - still, better than the alternate in so many films these days. Unfortunately, after about the first 40 minutes it all starts to go downhill and becomes a very standard sort of revenge film with a certain mawkishness to it that made it hard to take. All in all I didn't think it was *terrible* but it wasn't good either and it's just another example of the laughable nature of lists like the IMDb which are completely open to trolls and vote-stuffing. Easily the weakest of the admittedly very few Turkish films I've seen so far.