Eye on Islam
The popular press continues to praise the work of embedded reporters. While I don't deny there's a dramatic "you are there" element to reports given by dust-covered, flak-jacketed reporters, in the end, I feel that I don't know any more about Iraq or the Middle East than I did before the war began. Alternative news sources on the Internet and elsewhere are good sources of information. But I also think the products of popular culture and arts are useful. That's why I am intrigued by a film festival on the Sundance Channel titled "Portraits of Islam," which airs later this month. Now, I have no idea if the featured films are fair representations of Islamic culture or under what circumstances the films were made (and if they were made with or without state support or approval). What I do know, from viewing many of the films, is that the Sundance Channel has assembled a wide range of films that offers a glimpse at contemporary life from several Islamic cultures rarely, if ever, seen in Western media.
Launching the festival is a trio of documentaries by U.S.-born filmmaker Taran Davies. His fascination with Islamic cultures of post-Soviet Central Asia took him to the region to understand the complex history that fuels life and conflict in that part of the world. The first of his films is Mountain Men and Holy Wars, an intriguing study of Islamic separatists in Chechnya and Daghestan, starting with the story of Imam Shamil, a 19th-century leader who led a holy war against Russia, keeping that country at bay for nearly 40 years. Davies and his crew take their lives into their own hands as they retrace Shamil's travels through some of the world's most troubled and least understood regions.
In Afghan Stories, Davies focuses his attention on three Afghan families weeks after the attacks of 9/11. While each has fond memories of their nation before wartime, their hopes for the future of Afghanistan range from hopeful to something much less so, as the wife of an exiled member of the royal family states, "They should drop a nuclear bomb on [Afghanistan] and start over."
In Land Beyond the River, Davies had hoped to capture the legendary 1,200-mile horseback marathon and festival in Turkmenistan, but his plans were thwarted, sending him (and viewers) into an unexpected adventure along the ancient Silk Road. Following the trail of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, Davies captures glimpses of everyday people living their lives in this revealing travelogue.
Mountain Men and Holy Wars airs May 19 at 8pm. Afghan Stories follows at 9pm and Land Beyond the River at 10pm.
Four narrative features by critically acclaimed Muslim filmmakers such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami complete the festival. Makhmalbaf's strangely humorous Blackboards follows the adventures of two itinerant schoolteachers in search of students. Carrying blackboards through the rough and dangerous terrain between Iran and Iraq, each makes good use of their seemingly worthless tool of their trade, while at the same time never giving up their enthusiasm for what an education can provide. Airs May 20 at 8pm.
Youssef Chahine's screwball comedy Silence ... We're Rolling features the divine Egyptian singer Latifa as a celebrity and diva whose husband leaves her for her best friend. Despondent, she accepts the advances of a wannabe actor who has eyes on fame -- and her fortune. Add to the mix unrequited love, love across classes, parental meddling, and physical comedy worthy of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson picture, and Chahine's film is a gooey confection of the highest quality. Airs May 20 at 9:30pm.
Mr. Badii (Homayon Ershadi) wants to commit suicide in A Taste of Cherry, Teheran-born writer/director Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 award winner. Although forbidden against Muslim law, Mr. Badii drives relentlessly about Teheran, looking for someone who will help him accomplish his mission. Tender and elegiac, the film won the 1997 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or and is considered a benchmark in Iranian filmmaking. Airs May 21 at 8pm.
Philippe Faucon's film Samia (unscreened at press time) is praised for providing a "compassionate and evenhanded portrait of Muslim immigrants in Europe" and for an "astounding performance by Lynda Benahouda" in the title role. Airs May 21 at 9:45pm.
As always, check local listings to confirm dates and airtimes.
For those still in denial about the end of BtVS, take note: Nicolas Brendon (Xander) recently signed on to film the pilot episode of The Pool at Maddy Breakers, a potential Fox sitcom. Xander, um ... I mean Brendon plays the ex of one of the lead characters.
Buffy Stuff You Need to Know
The season finale of BtVS spinoff Angel airs May 7, 8pm, on the WB. Angel (David Boreanaz) appears in the final two episodes of BtVS May 13 and May 20.
Simon & Schuster will release its final Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel on May 20.