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Getting under the skin of the Spring
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BEIRUT: “Top 10 lists,” as year-in-review articles are optimistically called, can have an academic air about them. They are more or less useful depending on what they’re meant to be “for.”

If a reader is interested in knowing about which artists and curators to keep an eye on over the coming year, a critic’s list of favorite art exhibitions can be useful. If you’re less keen about discovering new work (good and bad) than in saving time, then such a list is little more than a tease.

Fortunately for impatient consumers of cultural production, some forms lend themselves to commodification. A top-10 books list is great for gift-giving. The same is true of film. Between post-festival theatrical releases, repertory cinemas and sanctioned (and illegal) DVD releases, casual film buffs have a lifetime to catch up on, say, the best Arab films 2013.

Three years into the season of political ferment still termed “the Arab Spring,” there were no shortage of documentary and fiction films about these events. After the feverish explosion of work about Tunis, Egypt and points east – much of which is now derided as premature and silly – many filmmakers stepped back from this business.

Though Arab political unrest does echo through some of the year’s film production, the filmmakers who made the year’s most accomplished feature-length works have tended to gravitate to Spring-proof themes.

“Best Arab feature film”

The year’s most accessible, crowd-pleasing feature film is Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar.” Selected to debut at Cannes, Abu-Assad’s third feature takes up themes of political commitment and youthful yearning, personal loyalty, deception and betrayal among a cluster of militants, applying a thriller’s conventions to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The absorbing story is complemented by strong acting, particularly from the first-time actors, led by Adam Bakri, who dominate the cast, and veteran Waleed Zuaiter, who plays an Israeli military intelligence officer who wants to bring Bakri’s character over to the dark side. The acting and story are aided by unobtrusive production values that make genre staples like chase sequences and so on gripping and well paced.

Also in the running for the year’s “Best Arab Film” is “The Rooftops” the third feature in as many years by Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache, which premiered at Venice.

Working with a simple day-in-the-life premise, “Rooftops” subdivides Algiers by time, from dawn to evening calls to prayer, and space, the city’s five historic neighborhoods – Notre-Dame d’Afrique, Bab al-Oued, the Casbah, Telemly and Belcourt.

One rooftop from each quarter provides the location of a story, each of which is unrelated to the other except insofar as they reflect some of the diversity of experience to be found in the Algerian capital. Displaced persons and squatters, bohemian artists and criminal real estate developers reside at the confluence of last-century’s fight for secular independence and the resurgence of tradition and Islam witnessed this century.

Migration and the global capital flows being what they are, cinema is an ever-more global thing. Viewers able to see outside the box of citizenship and national borders would likely agree that the year’s most-powerful Arab-made non-Arab film is “Blue is the Warmest Colour” (aka “La Vie d’Adele”) by Tunis-born French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche.

A young woman’s coming-of-age tale, it tells the story of the love affair between Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux). The film is vintage Kechiche, immersing onlookers in the sensuality of discovery – food, art, literature, music and conversation as well as sex.

Coming in at 175 minutes, “Adele” is sure to tax fans of fast-paced movies. That said, the film caused a sensation at its Cannes debut, winning both the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI prize, and Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s performances have been universally feted, as has the writing and cinematography.

“Best feature-length Arab documentary”

Compared to those parts of the world with integrated film industries – the U.S., of course, parts of east Asia and Latin America – superb feature-length fictions are rare in the Arab world. This is one factor in the importance of feature-length documentary film in the region, and one reason docs must be included on a list like this one.

The most-influential (possibly “the best”) feature-length doc to appear in 2013 is “The Square,” by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim. Her most-ambitious work since “Control Room,” the 2004 doc about Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the new work tells the story of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime from the perspective of a group of Tahrir Square activists.

“The Square” has had an interesting career arc – debuting at Sundance in January, then relaunching at TIFF in September with the story updated to include the army’s overthrow of President Mohammad Morsi and crackdown on civil dissent.

Though some critics noted that you can make a film only so many times, it is hard to deny that in its personable characters (notably the congenially bilingual actor Khalid Abdalla) and production values – the deployment of sound design, editing and the like – “The Square” is an unrivaled effort to set a mutable story within a single frame.

“The Square” is significant for its wedding of a compelling, politically pertinent story to filmmaking expertise. The lion’s share of the region’s docs soft peddle cinematography in favor of engaging storytelling.

Take “Cairo Drive,” Egyptian-American director Sherief Elkatsha’s highly watchable feature-length doc about the driving culture of one of the world’s mega-cities. Another good example can be found in Diala Kachmar’s feature-length doc debut “Guardians of Time Lost,” which puts a sympathetic human face the street thugs that are a commonplace in Beirut street politics.

A few of the more affecting non-fiction works to appear in the region this year fall into that category that someone decided to call “creative documentary” – personal stories, lyrically told.

One strong case in point is “My Love Awaits Me by the Sea,” the debut feature-length work of Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Mais Darwazah, which premiered at the TIFF.

Darwazah conflates the work of deceased artist-poet Hasan Hourani with her first encounter with her ancestral home and interviews with a handful of highly coherent Palestinian characters – some living within historic Palestine, others not. The resulting work tells a story of resilience in the face of occupation and connectedness to place that is, by its nature, far more nuanced than works that are tied to the Arab Spring.

"Best feature-length cinematic risks"

This year witnessed three younger filmmakers from North Africa release fine feature-length fictions, all of which engage critically with documentary convention.

“They are the Dogs” (C’est eux les chiens), the sophomore feature of Moroccan writer-director Hicham Lasri follows a three-man TV crew’s collision with their country’s revolutionary patrimony. Told completely from the TV camera’s perspective, the film begins with the crew’s efforts to shoot a vox pop in response to a Casablanca street demonstration.

Between the jigs and reels of stolen cameras and pedestrians who are camera-conscious, hostile or frankly mad, the crew attempts to interview a disoriented veteran of the country’s labour activisim of the early 1980s, who’s just returned from deportation. By the time he’s done, Lasri has made an elaborate mockery of multiple facets of contemporary Morocco – from the incompetent state to compromised revolutionaries to yellowed journalists.

Kaouther Ben Hania’s apparent documentary “Tunis Slasher” (Challatt Tunis) sets off to examine the tale of the man who, nearly a decade earlier, prowled the streets of Tunis, slashing women’s rear ends with a razor blade. The filmmaker decides to make a casting call so she can put a face to the crimes, only to have a man emerge who claims to be the slasher, or challat, himself.

The resulting film has very little serious to say about the slasher, but it does stage an amusing comedy about image-consciousness and sexuality in contemporary Tunis.

“Rags and Tatters,” the third feature of Egypt’s Ahmad Abdalla, is ostensibly a film about Egypt’s revolution. It tells the story of one of Mubarak’s prisoners, who escaped from a facility outside Cairo early in the Tahrir Square protests. This figure – who utters one audible word in the entire film – has been asked to convey a mobile phone recording of police brutality upon unarmed protestors to a dying man’s family. He works to do so, and in the process takes the audience on a tour of those corners of Cairo that have gone untouched by the Tahrir Square revolution.

Like so many works that take risks, “Rags and Tatters” is flawed, yet it may prove to be one of the works to which people in this region refer when they remember Egypt’s revolution.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2013, on page 16.
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