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The Arab Film Festival returns after a tumultuous year's absence

By Richard von Busack

TO SEE what is in front one's nose is a constant struggle, George Orwell wrote, and in the bleak 14 months since Sept. 11 "struggle" is too mild a word. Fortunately, portable video cameras are making it easier to see what's going on in that crucible of troubles, the Middle East. Cinemayaat: The Arab Film Festival has been one of the most indispensable of small film festivals. It has offered sweetmeats in the past: light Tunisian sex comedies and a small retrospective of Egyptian musicals of the 1940s, for instance. Cinemayaat was canceled last year, due to concerns about Sept. 11. The catastrophe is marked this year by an evening of short films.

For this installment, which runs Nov. 9-11 at the Towne Theater in San Jose, the festival has programmed Egyptian dramas and even a contemporary silent film from Sudan (it's titled Insan and shows Nov. 12 at 12:30pm). The lion's share of films, however, are about the strife between the government of Israel and the Palestinians. Key among the films is a series of documentaries by the husband/wife team of Mai Masri and Jean Chamoun, as well as raw, captured scenes of what the Palestinians have undergone.

One of the documentaries directed by Masri, Frontiers of Hopes and Fears (Nov. 11; 6:45pm), shows life in two separate refugee camps, where two young girls are growing up. They're the third generation of people stashed in human dumps. Like the dispossessed in Northern Ireland, they're living on grudges, political parades and bagpipe music.

Manar, of the Dheisha camp near Bethlehem, is a budding photojournalist who ends up cheering on the kids who throw rocks at guard towers. In Shatila, on the Lebanese border with Israel, we see the more fanciful Mona, whose lonely-girl's thoughts are full of genies and butterflies. Meanwhile, the march of Israeli settlements continues, and children sing Palestinian anthems with lyrics like "I will sacrifice my life." A toddler plays with a spent bullet ("Bullet! Bullet!" one crows), and there's a sad scene of a girl taken by her grandfather to his village, where a few stones, cactuses and a pomegranate tree are all that mark the site.

No One Need Cry (Nov. 11 at 4:30pm), by Marea Karlitzky, is a short video witnessing Israel's wrath; the director filmed four days after Israeli troops hit the Jenin refugee camp with bulldozers and tanks for the crime of harboring weapons. Subjects mutely show the deep scars from plastic handcuffs and recall the psychological torture the soldiers used. Over a fresh burial mound, an old woman tells the director, "Write down that he was going to be married next week." An old Arab man says, "No other people in the world have suffered like us." (Sound familiar?)

Some in Karlitzky's film curse Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--the general who held down Shatila camp while the Lebanese militias raped it. Some also curse the Arab leaders who have used Palestinian misery as a sideshow. At the very least, these partisan images show U.S. tax dollars at work more clearly than any ledger can do. These films reflect some of the rage and hate that no amount of weapons-building is going to relieve; they also show how the unkillable hope for peace triumphs over the all-too-explicable desire for revenge.

Cinemayaat: The Arab Film Festival plays Nov. 9-11 at the Towne Theater in San Jose. Various special events and discussions are slated; check www.aff.org for details.

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Web extra to the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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