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More than a single new horizon

  • Arash (Babak Hamidian) and Hamed (Mehrdad Sedighian) in "A Respectable Family."

  • Faik (Tamer Levent) and Nusrat (Reha Ozcan) in “Beyond the Hill.”

ABU DHABI: The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath have inspired no end of films.

Most of these films – ranging from docudramatic efforts to decipher the hijackers’ motives, to art house-inflected bystander accounts, to blockbuster depictions of U.S. heroism – are the work of filmmakers from outside the Middle East.

Now the world has “The Citizen,” the fictional story of a Lebanese immigrant’s struggle to live the American Dream after 9/11.

The feature film debut of Syrian-American writer-director Sam Kadi had its international premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Sunday.

It is screening in the New Horizons/Al-Jadid competition, devoted to filmmakers’ first and second features.

“The Citizen” commences in a courtroom deportation hearing, where a Waspish prosecutor (William Atherton) interrogates a flustered-looking Ibrahim Jarrah (Khaled Nabawy).

It’s a straw man start for the film, most of which is told in flashback.

Though he depicts himself as luckless, Jarrah is hardly the most desperate figure in Kadi’s cast of sympathetic characters.

“The Citizen” reopens with Ibrahim Jarrah arriving at JFK airport, a winner of the U.S. green card lottery.

This is the latest episode in Jarrah’s life of wandering.

His family fled Lebanon for Aleppo during Lebanon’s Civil War. Later, with a business degree in hand and a trade as an auto mechanic, he migrated to Kuwait, a few months before the Iraqi invasion.

Though his American adventure gets off to a rocky start, Jarrah is lucky enough to meet Diane (Agnes Bruckner), a waitress with a heart of gold and a jerkoff boyfriend flopping in the hotel room next to his.

When, on his first day in town, Jarrah comes to Diane’s aid, she volunteers to show him around New York.

They fall a little too easily into one another’s arms, but Kadi and his two co-writers concoct various obstacles to keep the couple from consummating.

It so happens that Jarrah lands in New York on Sept. 10, 2011.

News of a pair of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, in whose shadow Diane resides, affords the first of their distractions.

Another is his family name – the same as that of one Ziad Jarrah, the sole Lebanese to be involved in the World Trade Center attacks – which gets him detained without charge for six months.

“The Citizen” lovingly replicates U.S. commercial cinema conventions – from Joseph White’s mutable cinematography to the joyous pop music soundtrack. It’s a trifle too optimistic to be authentically “American,” though.

The dearth of proper villains gives the movie a flavor that may be unique to “Arabs-migrating-to-the-U.S.” movies, reminiscent of “Amreeka,” the 2009 feature debut of Palestinian-American writer-director Cherien Dabis.

Though its at times too-brisk pacing does strain credibility, the movie’s optimistic – indeed gormless – embrace of the courtroom speech-climaxing American-dream narrative moved several audience members at its Abu Dhabi premiere to applause.

New Horizons is an international competition, but as ADFF reaches its halfway mark, it’s apparent that several strong contenders have emerged from this region.

Among these is a pair of art house efforts: “Beyond the Hill,” the feature film debut of Turkey’s Emin Alper, and “A Respectable Family,” the crossover work of Iranian documentarian Massoud Bakhshi.

Bakhshi’s film, which had its premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, isn’t a movie about immigration.

It is a film noir-tinged tale of return, an indictment of the culture of greed and corruption in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Arash Saafi (Babak Hamidian) is a European-based university professor invited to teach a semester at the university in Shiraz, where his mother’s family lives.

With his time in Iran nearly at an end, Arash is stonewalled by a Shiraz bureaucracy unwilling to release his passport without a bribe.

His only option is to deal directly with the functionaries in Tehran.

While in the capital, Arash is confronted with memories of his estranged father. When Arash’s mother discovered her husband was a war-profiteering scoundrel, he had her committed to a lunatic asylum where electroshock therapy was the preferred treatment.

A lawyer informs Arash that his father, now on his deathbed and fearful of eternal damnation, has opened a bank account and deposited a fortune for Arash and his mother, neither of whom wants anything to do with the old man’s dirty money.

While in Tehran, Arash stays with his nephew Hamed (Mehrdad Sedighian), who is himself estranged from his father – Arash’s despicable half-brother Jaafar (Mehran Ahmadi).

Though there is something comic in the sleazy Jaafar and the dysfunction of the household he abandoned, Hamed’s apparently sweet nature conceals an insidious intent.

Bakhshi’s feature film debut is reminiscent of the plot-driven work of his colleague Asghar Farhadi.

“A Respectable Family” isn’t as emotionally compelling as Farhadi’s best films.

Yet, with its fondness for documentary footage and characters that include self-righteous real estate developers and kind-hearted unfortunates, Bakhshi’s film is an interesting echo of his first feature-length film – the acerbic mockumentary “Tehran Has No More Pomegranates.”

Emin Alper’s “Beyond the Hill” is as different from Bakhshi’s film as “Respectable Family” is unlike “The Citizen.” Since it premiered at the Berlinale in February, “Beyond the Hill” has been among the year’s most-lauded first films.

The film has several features in common with an older generation of Turkish art house fare – which is fond of casting existentialist tales against striking Anatolian landscapes – and opens with a hand-held shot of an anonymous figure energetically whipping at a grove of poplar saplings with a stick.

Alper’s laconic plot centers on three generations of Turkish men on holiday in rural Anatolia.

Though there are a couple of female characters here, it’s clear their function is to foil the menfolk’s foibles.

Faik (Tamer Levent) the landowning family patriarch has devoted his life to cultivating trees and keeping the place wild.

He views the land as a family trust, but he’s decided to leave his old country house to his underling, Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur) – a kindly bumpkin who now resides in the house with his wife and two kids.

Faik’s widowed son Nusret (Reha Ozcan) has no interest in the country other than its economic utility, and believes his father should sell the land.

Nusret’s childish younger son, Caner, is alternatively terrified of his surroundings and obsessed with the manly status conferred by gunplay.

The older Zafer (Berk Hakman) is a wreck of a man, medicated for the hallucinations he’s suffered since his military service.

Foiling Caner and Zafer is Mehmet’s son Sulu, a creature of the wilds who’s given to wandering through the country with his dog Pasha.

A muted generational and class conflict simmers among these men.

Blind to this, Faik is obsessed with the threat posed to his land by the others – nomads who claim ancestral rights to graze their goats on land that the old man says is his alone.

Though it moves at a glacial rate, Alper’s film does have a plot.

It turns on the threat that Faik perceives from his nomadic nemeses – one that’s invisible to the camera and complemented by Zafer’s hallucinatory conversations with a patrolling squad of soldiers.

When Faik’s feelings of existential threat grow, “Beyond the Hill” becomes pleasingly reminiscent of “The Desert of the Tartars.”

Like Alper’s film, Valerio Zurlini’s 1976 adaptation of Dino Buzzati’s novel also deploys manly delusions against a magnificent landscape.

ADFF runs through Oct. 20. For more information see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2012, on page 16.
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