TRAILERS: Arab films in Toronto: Tales of love, discovery and revolution

Yasmine Zohdi , Wednesday 11 Sep 2013

Films from Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria and the UAE featured in Toronto International Film Festival explore themes of political turmoil, love and survival,land journeys of self-discovery

Rags and Tatters
Still from Ahmad Abdalla's 'Rags and Tatters'

In its 38th edition, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), taking place from 5 to 15 September 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, features over 300 films from around the world, including a number of Arab world productions.

Egypt contributes with two films of its own, both dealing with the January 25 Revolution and its repercussions: Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters (Farsh w Ghata) in the Contemporary World Cinema section, and Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (Al-Midan), in the ‘TIFF Docs’ section.

Rags and Tatters, which premiered Tuesday at TIFF, follows a nameless fugitive who escapes from jail on the fateful night of 28 January 2011, wandering the tumultuous streets of the city in search of a safe place to stay. The film has also been officially selected as one of the 12 films competing in the London Film Festival set to take place 9-20 October.

The Square has already received international recognition and critical acclaim when it received the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Taking Tahrir Square as its vibrant centre, the film follows a group of revolutionaries as they battle one regime after another, moving from rebellion to euphoria to uncertainty (along with times of despair) in their fight for a just, democratic society.

One of the most remarkable things about the line-up of Arab films in this year’s TIFF is that Palestine, participating with four films, is the Arab country with the largest number of contributions.  

The first of those films is Omar, by director Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2006 film Paradise Now (about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Israel) was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Omar, which screens in TIFF’s Special Presentations section, explores themes of trust and identity through a complicated love story unfolding in the West Bank. The film received the jury’s Un Certain Regard Award in last May’s Cannes Film Festival.

The second Palestinian film showing among this year’s TIFF selections is director Rashid Masharawi’s Palestine Stereo (Falastine Stereo; co-production: Tunisia / United Arab Emirates / France / Norway / Italy / Switzerland). The events of Palestine Stereo, like Omar, take place in the West Bank. The film, part of the Contemporary World Cinema screenings, follows the attempts of two brothers rendered homeless by an Israeli airstrike to raise enough money to emigrate to Canada.

Giraffada is yet another Palestinian film (co-production: France / Germany / Italy) whose protagonists reside in the West Bank. Directed by Rani Massalha and showing in the festival’s Discovery section, the film tells the heartwarming story of Yacine, the veterinian of the only zoo remaining in the West Bank. He lives with his 10-year-old son who has a very special bond with the giraffes in the zoo. When an Israeli air raid kills the male giraffe, Yacine must find another male companion so the female will survive. His search eventually takes him to Tel Aviv.

The fourth and last Palestinian film screening in TIFF is also in the Discovery’ select. My Love Awaits Me by the Sea by Mais Darwazah (coproduction: Germany / Jordan / Qatar) is the moving story of Darwazah’s first-ever visit to her homeland and her own journey of self-discovery as she retraces the last steps of late artist Hasan Hourani to a Palestine she had never known before.

Morocco, like Egypt, joins in with two films. The first, part of the Special Presentations section, is Laïla Marrakchi’s Rock the Casbah, (coproduction: France). The comedy drama plays on the grief, secrets and confrontations of one family after the death of its head. Rasha Salti, TIFF’s international features programmer responsible for selecting films from the Middle East and Africa, considers Rock the Casbah this year’s "mainstream entry," especially because it stars a number of famous actors, like Omar Sharif and Nadine Labaki.

Morocco’s second contribution is Salvation Army, directed by Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa. The film, showing in the Discovery section and based on Taïa’s own autobiographical novel of the same title, tells the story of Abdellah’s coming of age in two parts — as an adolescent in Morocco, and then as a university student in Geneva.

Tunisia’s Bastardo (co-production: France / Qatar), described as a fascinating combination of film noir and magical realism, follows the life of Mohsen, a man who had always been discriminated against on grounds of being a bastard, until a twist of fate brings him power, as well as all the troubles that come along with it.

Along with Rags and Tatters and The Square, Syria’s Ladder to Damascus (Soullam ila Dimashq; co-production: Lebanon / Qatar) is the third film inspired by events of the Arab Spring. The film, directed by Mohamed Malas and premiering in TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema section, centres on a group of young Syrians — with a special focus on two of them: Ghalia and Fouad — who live together in a traditional courtyard house in Damascus transformed into a dorm. As romance develops between Ghalia and Fouad, revolution breaks out on the streets, forcing them away from their isolation and putting them face to face with reality and tough choices.

The United Arab Emirates leaves its mark as well, with a contribution titled Farther Than the Eye Can See in the Wavelengths section, the TIFF short videos programme. The video, by Basma Alsharif, delves into the state of "statelessness" as it portrays a mass exodus of Palestinians from Jerusalem over a crowded, slowly revolving landscape.

Since TIFF is a non-competitive festival, there is no jury and no concluding best film award. However, there is a "People’s Choice Award," given to the feature-length film with the highest ratings as voted by TIFF-goers.

The only Arab film to have won this award is Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s memorable sectarian conflict drama Where Do We Go Now? (W Hala’ La Wein?) in 2011.

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