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Praying for Relief: An Iraqi woman looks for some relief in the documentary 'Under the Sky of Baghdad.'

East to West

Arab Film Festival offers new perspective in eclectic programs

By Richard von Busack

RELATIONS BETWEEN the West and the lands of the Arabs are horrible. So horrible, in fact, that it's tempting to enjoy these conditions as they are now, in what will surely seem like sunny days of mutual trust and understanding, in contrast to what's coming next. In the meantime, Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival, begins its seventh installment of trying to shed some light on difference and similarities between the West and the East. This movable fest plays different venues in the Bay Area through Oct. 5. In previous years, this always superior festival has brought everything from winsome Egyptian musicals of the 1940s to an entertaining string of films from Tunisia to hard-edged documentaries about the continuing crisis in Palestine that give a different view on what the evening news presents.

The festival plays in the South Bay at the Towne Theatre Oct. 3 and 4. Previewed films include Duel in San Francisco (Oct. 4 at 4pm), which follows the 2002 campaign against Rep. Tom Lantos, a slavishly pro-war, pro-Israel congressman from the peninsula. Lantos is a shoe-in: an aged Holocaust survivor, always ready to fight today's problems with yesterday's recollections, telling a League of Women Voters audience they should get on their knees and thank God they live in a country that would pass the Patriot Act. Lantos' Libertarian, antiwar opponent is a rookie, a Palestinian-born businessman named Maad Abu-Ghazalah. The filmmakers follow Maad as he works a low-budget campaign. The slim-chance effort ends with Maad predicting (in November 2002), "I can't imagine a scenario where we won't invade Iraq."

Almost at the same time Maad was making this bitter prediction, an Italian film crew was doing man-on-the-street interviews in Baghdad. Under the Sky of Baghdad (Oct. 3 at 8:30pm) is a short documentary about the conditions there. We see weddings, street peddlers, school children being coached to say that Saddam will protect them from harm. Who knows how many of these interviewees were injured or killed in the war? We also see results of the last Gulf War: leukemia-struck children, likely poisoned by depleted uranium shells. The film tours the bomb shelter at Al-Almeriah, where 486 civilians were killed in a mistaken U.S. missile attack: wreaths wither in the heat underneath the bomb hole, and the splayed rebar looks like the petals of a macabre flower.

On a lighter note is the pretty good policier Night of Destiny (Oct. 4 at 5:45pm), featuring intrepid yet culturally sensitive Paris flic Jacques Leclerc, played by Phillipe Nultier. The title refers to the 26th night of Ramadan, celebrating the evening of Mohammed's enlightenment. Leclerc, teaming up with a brave but faith-doubting young Algerian Frenchman, searches for a ruthless assassin throughout the Arab parts of Paris--and, understandably, few there want much to do with the police.

Cinemayaat's schedule is at www.aff.org. In addition to the Towne Theatre, screenings take place at the Wheeler Auditorium in Berkeley and the Roxie Theater in San Francisco (which is located right next door to a superb lamb shwarma joint, incidentally).


Cinemayaat, The Arab Film Festival, screens Oct. 3-4 at the Towne Theatre in San Jose.


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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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