Middle East stories from those who know the territory

Times Staff Writer

Santa Claus stabbed on a hilltop in Nazareth. A bride from Ramallah, staring into space in her Cleveland home. A modern-day Joseph being arrested by Israeli soldiers for seeking a place for his wife to give birth. An angry young Muslim in Brooklyn pulling an elderly Orthodox Jew from his car and pounding him to the ground.

These images -- allegorical, sad, violent -- come from films about the Middle East presented in Los Angeles this week at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest 2002 and the UCLA Film and Television Archive's "Intangible Cartographies: New Arab Video" program (both end on Sunday). Over the past two years, the public has seen countless news-related images from the Middle East but has rarely experienced personal storytelling from filmmakers working there, particularly in Arab communities, programmers said.

"One of the motives is to both enrich and complicate people's idea of what the Arab world is," said David Pendleton, programmer of the UCLA event.

As the United States gears up for a possible war with Iraq, filmmakers' perspectives are more pertinent than ever, said Nancy Collet, director of programming for AFI Fest 2002. "People can see the similarities between us and people living in the Middle East but also the differences and gain an understanding of them so they will not think of them as the enemy," she said.

Filmmaking conditions vary from country to country in the Arab world, noted John Sinno, president of Seattle-based Arab Film Distribution, which distributes Arab films in the U.S. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has no film industry and few, if any, films come out of Iraq. In some countries, like Syria, the film industry is monopolized by the government. Morocco and Tunisia have had a vibrant cinema, financed and influenced by the French.

Until recent financial problems and competition from India cut into production, Egypt was a leader in film production. But the West ignored most of the films until the 1980s, when films from Iran screened at international festivals and won awards, Sinno said. Only a small fraction of films from the Middle East find their way to the United States, and less than a handful make it into general distribution.

Unlike news, films from Arab or Islamic countries offer viewers an unabridged view of the filmmakers' world, Sinno points out. "By simply watching a scene you get so much information," he said. "I've heard people say so many times, 'There are no camels. They drive cars.' "

AFI's Collet said she scoured festivals worldwide to come up with the international films from 37 countries shown in the festival, including a short film from Israel, "Boys, Girls." The films about the Arab world include:

* "Divine Intervention," a Cannes jury prize winner. In a patchwork of surreal vignettes, writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman, 42, the son of a Palestinian resistance fighter, reveals the harsh and uncertain lives of Palestinians living in Nazareth, a city with the largest Arab population in Israel. In an allegorical sequence, boys chase Santa Claus, a knife in his chest, up a hill. Motorists, routinely stopped at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Nazareth, are humiliated and robbed by armed Israeli soldiers. Neighborhood streets are peopled with lost tourists, uncooperative neighbors who throw garbage into one another's yards, and a driver who curses everyone he sees. Amid the chaos, a couple struggle in vain to keep their love alive.

* "Wedding in Ramallah," a documentary by Australian Sherine Salama, daughter of a Palestinian mother and Egyptian father. Salama follows Bassam Abed, a divorced Palestinian living in Ohio, as he returns to Ramallah in 2000 to enter into an arranged marriage with Mariam, an arrogant but sheltered young woman. When violence erupts, Bassam returns to telephone repair work in Cleveland where his co-workers confuse Palestine with Pakistan. Mariam and her girlfriend dream of moving to America for its modern kitchen appliances. But when Mariam arrives, she finds herself alone and isolated while Bassam works two jobs to make ends meet.

* "West Bank Brooklyn" a first feature by writer-director-actor Ghazi Albuliwi, 26, a stand-up comic who was born in Jordan and raised in Brooklyn by traditional immigrant parents. The film's three young protagonists, all fictionalized aspects of Albuliwi's own life, meet the crises of an arranged marriage, the death of a Palestinian uncle and a job working for a Jewish shut-in. One turns to secular American values. One becomes a fervent Muslim. One befriends his Jewish employer. Throughout, the characters are continually tuned to radio and television news from their parents' homeland. After the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, the character played by Albuliwi is so afraid to appear Arab that he starts dressing like a Puerto Rican and calling himself "Tito."

"That USS Cole scene could have been 9/11, easily," said Albuliwi, who attended the AFI festival to look for a distributor for the $100,000 film he financed with help from family. He said he still doesn't tell people of his Arab descent. "It's a fear all Arab Americans have. You don't know what's going to happen," he said.

The AFI festival also includes two films from Iran, "To Stay Alive," a film from director Dariush Mehrjoui about a poor woman medical student forced into an arranged marriage with an older, wealthier man, and "Iranian Spread," about the journey of a counterfeit bank note and the moral decisions made by the people who touch it.

The AFI fest has drawn large crowds of ethnic supporters to "Small Voices," a Filipino film about an inspiring teacher, and "Ararat," a film by Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan about the Armenian genocide. Some filmmakers, however, were not surprised that the films from and about the Middle East were less well attended by the local Arab community. The difference, they said, is Sept. 11.

"Before 9/11 when I curated programs, at least half the audience was Middle Easterners, and most Arabs of one sort or another," said Jayce Salloum, Canadian filmmaker and UCLA program coordinator for the series of short, experimental films.

The UCLA program includes "CyberPalestine," a video by Suleiman that shows a modern-day Joseph looking for shelter so his wife can give birth. When he is arrested by Israeli soldiers, Mary becomes a single mother. Many of the shorts are abstract or allegorical, Salloum said. One danger of using a traditional narrative format is that they may reinforce stereotypes, he said.

Collet said films from the Middle East can also show Americans how they are perceived abroad. As shown in "Wedding in Ramallah," media images have helped create the dream among Middle Easterners of finding a better life in the United States. "We have stereotypical images of what Palestinians, Iranians and Israelis are going through that are not accurate. It's very likely they have the same stereotypical images of us," she said.

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AFI Fest 2000; UCLA's Arab Video

The AFI Fest 2002 runs through Sunday at Arclight Hollywood, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd.

"Wedding in Ramallah" will screen today at 9:30 p.m.; "Divine Intervention" will screen Sunday at 2:30 p.m.; "Iranian Spread" will screen Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

General admission is $10; matinees are $5; students, seniors and members of qualifying organizations, $8.

Tickets: (866) AFI-FEST, www.AFI.com.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive's "Intangible Cartographies: New Arab Video" will present untitled works by Jayce Salloum Sunday at 7 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall, located at the northeast corner of the UCLA Westwood campus, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue.

Tickets are available at the theater one hour before showtime.

General admission is $7; students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members with ID, $5. Parking is available adjacent to the James Bridges Theater in Lot 3 for $7.

Information: (310) 206-FILM, www.cinema.ucla.edu.

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