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[whitespace] Naguib el Rihani Playing Pigeon: Naguib el Rihani stars as Mr. Pigeon in 'Flirtation of Girls.'

Musical Discovery

The Arab Film Festival adds rare Egyptian studio fare to a mix of documentaries and contemporary features

By Richard von Busack

RIGHT AFTER WWII, Egypt was full of industrialists who had made a profit from the war. These plutocrats invested in the nation's cinema, resulting in a small boom. During these postwar years, about 30 percent of the films made were musicals.

For the most part, those toiling in the narrow vineyard of Arab film studies would prefer to dismiss these musicals. On the one hand, they're escapist fluff. On the other hand, they're fairly racy. Imagine the chaos in an Egyptian movie theater today if you showed one of these 1940s movies with half-clad belly dancers and women smoking cigarettes. Egypt is currently going through a severe stage of puritanism, which makes the relics of what you might as well call the golden age of Egyptian cinema all the more unusual and piquant.

Cinemayaat, the fourth annual Arab Film Festival, playing at the Towne Theater Sept. 16-18, includes three movies shot at the Mizr Studios in Cairo during the late 1940s: one gusty comedy, one soulful musical and one historical romance, all laden with musical numbers by now-legendary figures in Egyptian popular music.

The Salaamah (Sept. 18) stars Oum Kulsum as a Bedouin girl who becomes the Caliph's favorite. Love of My Life (1947, shows Sept. 16) features the renowned Farid Al-Atrash as Hamdouh, a struggling singer tired of performing for village rowdies. He and his sextet--and his girlfriend, the chipmunk-cheeked belly dancer Tatia (Sania Gamal)--head for Cairo in the hopes of a big break.

Unfortunately, Tatia is the one who succeeds, and Hamdouh is too proud to live off her earnings, resulting in the "boy loses girl" part of the traditional three-part equation familiar to all musical lovers. Love of My Life is a picturesque, and no doubt idealized, look at cafe society during the decadent Farouk's reign.

This introduction to Al-Atrash should open the ears of Americans to the beauty of Arab music. Al-Atrash's mellow voice ornaments, or arabesques, notes with great breath control and passion. Gamal's dancing ranges from chastely clad wriggles to an authentic rendition of the dance of the seven veils.

Flirtation of Girls (1949; shows Sept. 17) is a Taming of the Shrew story, with a wealthy idiot's badly behaved daughter getting a new tutor--the woebegone, beagle-faced Mr. Pigeon ("Hamam," played by Naguib el Rihani, billed by the press notes as "Egypt's foremost comedic actor").

Even in rudimentary subtitles, you get a sense of the juicy insults that can be dropped down on a suffering head. The bad-girl daughter tells Pigeon, "I will make you see stars in daylight, I will bring devils out of your body, I will polish your soul and make you scamper away." Fluff this may be, with several musical breaks, but Flirtation of Girls is as full of implicit criticism of the rich from the perspective of the working poor as any social realist melodrama. Certainly, it's a lot more fun to watch.

The festival also features documentaries on contemporary crises in the Middle East. These include stories of the Lebanese civil war: Bahij Hojeij's Kidnapped (Sept. 17), about the 17,000 people who disappeared during the fighting; Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut (Sept. 17), Omar Naim's film about a historic theater caught between the lines; and Civilisées by Randa Chahal Sabbag (Sept. 16), a fictional work about the war still banned by the Lebanese government.

Paying the Price: The Killing of the Children of Iraq is Alan Lowery and John Pilger's analysis of the savagery of the U.S. embargo of Iraq (Sept. 16). Naji Al-Ali: An Artist With Vision (Sept. 16) tells the story of a famed Palestinian cartoonist whose death is still unsolved. Ostura (Sept. 16) documents an Arab family broken apart by the arrival of Israel.

Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival runs Sept. 16-18 at the Towne Theater in San Jose. Check www.aff.org for information; tickets are available at the Towne box office or call 408.287.1433.

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From the September 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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