AFS Essential Cinema: Children of Abraham/Ibrahim 6
Given the current and dicey state of geopolitics between the governments of the U.S. and Iran, the irony implicit in the Oscar nomination of Iran's A Separation should be lost on few who've been following that film. All nuclear brinkmanship aside, it's a contemporary portrait of the collateral damage from a collapsing marriage that has tuned more than a few heads and wet a few cheeks with its vivid portrait of the personal lives of young Iranian professionals. It's a counterpoint of sorts to the red state-inflamed negative notions and creeping anti-Islamism many in the U.S. adopt when it comes to viewing our Persian cousins. A Separation eloquently says, "See? They're miserable about the same things we are." Global cinema has always been to some degree about viewing our opposites, those "others," through the prism of narrative and transgressing nationalistic propaganda in favor of art that strips away the threats and gives us a taste of how these societies function day to day.
Screening as part of the Austin Film Society's sixth iteration of its Essential Cinema series Children of Abraham/Ibrahim, Bader Ben Hirsi's A New Day in Old Sana'a (2006) is the first feature film to be shot in Yemen and the first Yemeni film to screen at Cannes. While it plays around the edges of a traditional prearranged-marriage-gone-haywire subgenre, A New Day in Old Sana'a is also sweet and emotionally fulfilling, a date movie with elements of comedy, magical realism, and the startlingly beautiful cinematography of Muriel Abourrousse, which brings the ancient capital city of Yemen to center stage; indeed, Sana'a is a character unto itself, its claustrophobic red-brick streets and towering minarets echoing and amplifying the characters' fractious, lovelorn emotional states. After a series of misunderstandings that occasionally border on screwball, chaos ensues, naturally, but love conquers all.
Far from the cloistered footpaths of Sana'a, Tunisian director Nacer Khemir's hallucinatory tale Wanderers of the Desert (1986) is a colorfully chaotic depiction of life on the very outposts of civilization. The desert – serpentine, shifting, and ever unknown – casts a bewildered teacher into a secretive and possibly cursed North African township bedeviled by rumors of treasure, what might be Sinbad's boat, and enough sand-swept and susurrating mysteries to make this hypnotic film – the first part of Khemir's Desert Trilogy – well worth investigating.
And then there's the much more modernistic take on the clash of the ancient and the new in Granaz Moussavi's My Tehran for Sale (2009). Marzieh Vafamehr is Marzieh, a youthful, exuberant fashion designer in modern Tehran torn between leaving her homeland behind her to follow her lover Saman (Amir Chegini) to Australia or stay hidden in Tehran's underground arts scene, immediately identified by a rave scene that's violently broken up by Tehran's culture police. My Tehran for Sale is a heartbreaking work where nearly every option turns out to be a less than perfect one. In that regard, it may be the most honest of all the films presented here.
Director Oday Rasheed's Baghdad-set, multileveled thriller Qarantina (2010) revolves around a hired assassin (a fiercely compelling Asaad Abdul Majeed) and the various neighbors with which he shares a run-down apartment block with a variety of other Iraqis. The lack of emotional security within the home mirrors the situation on the street. It's an altogether grim portrait of life in a dead city.
After Amos Gitai's Israeli narrative/documentary hybrid Carmel (2009), the series ends on a decidedly lighter note, Algerian director Lyès Salem's Masquerades (2008). With its opening theme employing both banjos and whistling, Masquerades comes off as a broad farce in which the director, who also stars as central character Mounir, struggles to marry off his narcoleptic sister in a culture where such ritual matters are often more important than love itself. Chaos wacky and touching ensues, and there's more than a hint of old-school Preston Sturges farce to the proceedings.
Feb. 21: A New Day in Old Sana'a
Feb. 28: Wanderers of the Desert
March 6: My Tehran for Sale
March 20: Qarantina
March 27: Carmel
April 3: Masquerades
Films screens Tuesdays, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.