A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘film’ Category

the lady of Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 28, 2009

This morning’s Google alert oddities included the mention of a 1965 Spanish film titled La dama de Beirut. I must confess first of all that I didn’t realize that “Beirut” is spelled the same in Spanish as in English – I had assumed that, as with French, the city’s spelling varies. And yes, as a bad Spanish speaker, my guess would have been: “Beruto”, just like Lebanon becomes “Libano”.

I’m not in the market for old Spanish films, but I couldn’t resist googling to find out a bit more. After all, what was the Spanish market for films about Lebanon in the mid-1960s?

After a bit of online research, and a bit of blushing, I have concluded that whatever Spaniards’ interest was in terms of numbers, La dama de Beirut appears not to have been intended for an auteur crowd.

This is what IMDb has to say about the plot:

Isabel is a beautiful aspiring singer with great aspirations but persistent bad luck, [who is] convicted of a crime she did not commit. Serving time in prison she is released under parole and lands a singing gig at a dive in Barcelona where she meets Sandro “The Greek” and his partner [and lover] lover Gloria.

The couple is posing as entertainment promoters but they are really running a prostitution ring based in Beirut. They offer Isabel a two-year contract to perform in “night clubs” in the Near and Mideast even after they learn that she cannot travel abroad due to her legal status.

Upon arrival in Beirut, Isabel and the other girls are sped away to a luxurious villa where they discover the real intentions of the pseudo-promoters. They are expected to sing and dance but also to engage in sexual activities with the rich clients that patronize the place. Isabel pretends to go along with the situation but she has a plan to get away.

So much to marvel over here. The wrongly imprisoned singer sounds like enough for a full movie narrative, and yet in this film, it is merely the start. A Greek procurer, a high-end Beirut brothel – which the New York Times described as a “sheik’s harem”, and a daring plan for escape – sounds like an action-packed film, full of stereotypes and titillation.

montiel[Photo courtesy of an Ebay seller.]

(For the full “plot spoiler” synopsis, which features all kinds of juicy melodrama, you can go here.)

I don’t think that this is my type of movie, but I’m sure it was a big “B” hit :).

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, film, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

translation issues

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 1, 2009

Yesterday I received the latest mailer from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a local music, film, and performing arts center based – unsurprisingly – in Brooklyn. Part of its spring film lineup includes a “Tribute to Youssef Chahine”:

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I admire Chahine’s dedication to film, and the reputation he built up over the years, but since I am deeply allergic to Egyptian accents, I haven’t seen much of his work. In fact, the only Chahine film I am certain that I saw is Alexandria … Why? which screened several years ago at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris. (I thought it presented a very lush portrait of Alexandrian life, but the friend who accompanied me found it a total yawner. “Iskandariya … leih?” indeed, he said dismissively as we left.)

What vexed me was not the tribute itself but the description of a film that BAM calls Cairo as Seen by Chahine:

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“As much a portrait of Egypt’s capital as it is of Chahine himself”, the mailer says. Well, no kidding. The film’s actual, original title is Al Qahira Menauwwara bi Ahlaha – not my favorite transliteration, but oh well.

I guess that Chahine is min ahl al-Qahira, but I think that he would have titled the film Al Qahira Menawwara bi Chahine had he wanted the focus to be exclusively on himself.

In any case, I’m holding out for a Ghassan Salhab film tribute. A Lebanese vampire film in Brooklyn? Sign me up :D.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, film, words | 1 Comment »

Fun with Lebanon’s video division

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 24, 2009

Last week a long-awaited box arrived from Lebanon, filled with those things that – at the last minute – I couldn’t manage to fit into my luggage last summer. Many thanks to H’s mother for sending it off – and for dealing with what seems to have been a nightmare of Lebanese red tape.

In addition to requiring her to present an inventory of the box’s contents (wonder what Customs thought of the one and one-half pairs of gym socks?), Customs took it upon itself to make a more thorough, secondary search that seems to have involved turning my various wallets inside out. (Hope whatever leftover bakkala change you might have found was worth the effort, gentlemen.)

When Customs finished, the Video Division seems to have taken over.  Its industrious personnel must have enjoyed The Holiday (a long-ago gift from a would-be beau), Paris Je T’Aime (ditto), clips from various news programs, and my Macbook installation CD.

When they finished, they bundled all those discs into a nice manila envelope and sealed it with several stamps, including this one:

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I hope that those of you who can read Arabic are getting as great a kick out of the date-stamp as I did. Someone was feeling nostalgic, I think: the stamp reads March 13, 2005.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, film, Lebanon, shipping | 2 Comments »

a fiction stranger than fiction: Blackline

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 27, 2009

This past weekend I spent some time hunting for videos to watch online while finishing an article that was due – well, overdue – to a very patient publisher. One of the online streams that kept me company while I wrestled with bad prose (mine) and awkward transitions (ditto) was CNN’s Inside the Middle East, which has a nice “best of 2008” trio of stories up on its website.

My favorite was a rather guilty pleasure: a piece about the “surreal” experience of filming a US action movie in Beirut. (You can watch the video segment here.) It brought back memories of a small but intense burst of news about the movie (now called Blackline: The Beirut Contract) last February, when nearby residents alarmed by the sounds of gunfire alerted the Lebanese Army to “action” that turned out to be more cinematic than real.

As you may recall, February 2008 wasn’t the least tense of times, and I remember the story inducing a few eyeball rolls among my friends. But if it was a relief in Lebanon, it proved titillating elsewhere: the story was picked up by several international news outlets, including the New York Times, which ran this piece:

Lebanon is a country on edge, with every side warning about foreign interference and the spark that could lead to factional war.

So when explosions and gunfire broke out in an abandoned building east of Beirut the other day, two Lebanese Army platoons quickly surrounded the site, guns drawn.

“Cut!” yelled a frightened American voice. The sounds of gunfire stopped abruptly.

It was a foreign film crew, not a militia. And if life sometimes imitates art, this was something stranger: The crew was making a movie about a group of armed foreigners who come to Beirut and almost set off a factional war by mistake.

(The NYT story continues here.)

I can see how tempting it would be to write a piece (or ten) about the irony of shooting a war film in Beirut, and CNN’s video clip was fairly interesting. But it featured this doozy of a quote by one of its producers, a man named Kirk Hassig:

We wanted to be the first movie to shoot in Beirut in 30 years, he said. There’s value to that. Those kind of things are added value in the way people perceive our movie.

Ugh. First of all, how could the interviewer not challenge him on his “first movie” claim? The first American movie, perhaps. But feature and documentary films were shot in Lebanon all throughout the civil war, not to mention during the past 18 years since it ended. What an ignorant claim.

As for the “added value”, I’m sure he’s right: I’m sure that this movie has already attracted disproportionate attention thanks to its on-site filming, and I’m sure that the “authentic” setting will drive ticket sales as well. But I think its rather bald of him to acknowledge this so cavalierly – and a bit disingenuous to pretend that filming a movie in Lebanon is either a pioneering act or one of bravery.

Count me in for a ticket, though. Even if all I do is fuss about the stereotypes that I am sure pepper the plotline (its about rescuing a hostage, after all), my eyes are longing for a little Lebanese scenery.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, economics, film, Lebanon, media, vanity, words | Leave a Comment »

Waltz with Bashir

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 24, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about Waltz with Bashir for the past two weeks or so, but my good intentions have gone nowhere. Thank goodness for my friend N, who had a piece about its screening at a Beirut non-profit in this past week’s Variety:

Lebanese auds have finally been able to “Waltz With Bashir” despite the fact that Israeli helmer Ari Folman’s Oscar-nommed pic is officially banned in the country.

UMAM, an org that archives Lebanon’s history and war memory through written and audiovisual materials, screened the film at its cultural center, a restored warehouse in a southern suburb of Beirut that is home to Hezbollah’s headquarters.

UMAM’s name is derived from the Arabic word for “nations.”

Banned by the censorship board of Lebanon’s Security Directorate, Ari Folman’s film also passed under the radar of Hezbollah at the semi-private Jan . 17 screening, to which 40 people were invited by the nonprofit org but about 90 attended.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

I’m not surprised that there was so much interest in the film, but I would love to have heard what viewers said about it afterwards. For me, the biggest shock was partly self-induced: I had been thinking of Waltz as a film about Lebanon. But it isn’t: its a film about Israel, in which Lebanon is merely a foil for national reflection.

Its an interesting film, although “documentary” is not the word I would have chosen for it. Folman plays with the backgrounds of the people he interviews – some are reproduced faithfully, putting them in normal contexts that suggest their professional or domestic worlds, while others are not. The ones whose backgrounds are not reproduced appear to be in prison, or perhaps a hospital – which they are not. In other words, Folman’s choice regarding what to include or exclude from the interviewee’s surroundings frames how the viewer interprets his or her words.

Nor is the history told fully accurate. For example, there is an extended sequence at the Beirut airport, which shows it occupied exclusively by Israelis. As an American, I consider this a historical injustice: when Folman was there, the U.S. Marines were very much a presence at the airport.

In another sequence, repeated several times throughout the movie, Folman “remembers” walking through a group of chadored, mourning women. This makes no sense, historically or geographically: in 1982 women in chadors were not roaming the streets of Ramlet el-Baida. His “memory” reflects his own inability to separate later fears of Iran and Hizbullah from actual history; which is fine, except that as a documentarian he should frame his narrative more carefully – i.e., more accurately.

(FYI: small spoiler alert ahead)

Those of you who have read the reviews and/or seen the movie know that it ends with actual footage of Sabra and Shatila, post-massacre. I don’t find this a terribly compelling cinematic choice: the footage is early 1980s, and as grainy and choppy as war footage of that era seems to have been. Also, it was clearly filmed after the massacre was known, so while the mourning is real, the immediacy of shock has been lost. (I’m leaving aside here my comments on the totally rubbish portrayal of the Israeli role in this, in which the massacre stops because a heroic Israel commander finally drives up to the camp and yells at the Kataeb through a bullhorn.)

The camera follows several women as they walk through the camp, crying at the loss. Palestinian women, speaking – unsurprisingly – in Arabic.

Yet my latest copy of the New Yorker notes that the film is “In Hebrew, German, and English.” When the characters speak in Hebrew, their words are subtitled in English. When they speak German (don’t ask), their words are subtitled in English. When they speak English, obviously, there are no subtitles.

And when the women speak in Arabic?

No subtitles – and no sign from any U.S. media critic that this is an injustice. But it is: the lack of translation reduces these women from mourning women to screaming animals, with meaningless noises.

What they say is actually very interesting: they speak directly to the camera, and ask: Where are the Arabs? Why is it only foreigners here? And they tell the cameraman: Film this; film all of this.

Folman makes several irresponsible decisions as a “documentarian”, but for me this is the worst of all. By choosing not to translate their words, he denies them – the victims of a massacre the Israeli Army helped perpetuate – their voice. And he confirms that this is not a film about Lebanon.

Posted in animals, art, Beirut, film, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, women | 8 Comments »

Movie Night

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 11, 2008

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Persepolis, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel version of her childhood in post-Revolution Iran. Her books are witty and warm, and the childhood Marjane’s confusion at the changes taking place around her (politically, socially, economically) put a very human face on1980s Iran.

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I’ve been looking forward to seeing Persepolis, but apparently I won’t be seeing it here: Lebanon has banned the film.

Press TV says that the film has been banned because it presents a “distorted image” of post-Revolution Iran. I think that this is a bunch of rubbish – the Lebanese government more likely banned it for fear that it might increase the political tension.

Either way, I’m missing out on a movie that I very much wanted to see.

But interestingly enough, H has been mentioning that lunch in Tripoli sounds like a wonderful spring adventure. I’ve never been to Tripoli, but I hear that its merchants offer a particularly wide variety of DVDs. I bet I can find Persepolis there.

And if not, I can always watch the Shah’s Iran: Dubai TV has been airing Soraya, the 2003 Italian mini-series based on the life of Mohammed Reza Shah’s second wife. Furs, ballgowns and limousines: no distorted images there :).

Posted in film, Iran, Lebanon, media, politics | Leave a Comment »

coming soon to a theater near … well, in a way … you

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 27, 2008

I’m dying to see Beaufort, the Israeli film that has been sweeping the European film festivals and is now up for an Oscar. Beaufort Castle is an old Crusader (and possibly earlier) era castle in southern Lebanon that dates to at least the early 12th century. During the civil war it was occupied first by Palestinian militias and then by the Israelis. (A fascinating paper on the Lebanese government’s efforts to restore the castle since the Israeli pull-out is available as a PDF here.)

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(Beaufort Castle, taken during a lovely Sunday day trip to the south last March with S, T, K, and a visiting G.)

I would love to see Beaufort … but given its language (Hebrew) and its nationality (Israeli) I doubt it will be coming to any Lebanese theaters. Hence the title of this post: Israel is near, but not in the way that most movie previews mean :).

Here’s the preview, courtesy of YouTube:

Posted in film, Israel, Lebanon | Leave a Comment »

Family entertainment? sex & severed ears on Saturday morning

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 4, 2007

Yesterday morning I went to the gym at my usual weekend time – 9:00. The bank of televisions was already on when I arrived, and I settled myself on a machine facing two of them: one showing LBC’s Saturday morning children’s show and the second showing a young Kyle MacLachlan driving a convertible around a sweetly winsome American town.

When Laura Dern appeared next to him, in a 1950s high school girl’s full skirt and cardigan, I thought: how sweet – a high school romance.

When Isabella Rossellini appeared on screen, with a full 1980s bouffant hairdo and silk dressing gown, I thought: Oh, surely not.

But it was. Star Movies’ Saturday morning broadcast was Blue Velvet.

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As in the US, Saturday morning around most of the Arab world is a weekend morning – prime time for child viewers.

As the film progressed, I found myself increasingly horrified at the thought that young children might stumble across it while channel surfing.

Here’s how Amazon describes the film:

David Lynch peeks behind the picket fences of small-town America to reveal a corrupt shadow world of malevolence, sadism, and madness. From the opening shots Lynch turns the Technicolor picture postcard images of middle class homes and tree-lined lanes into a dreamy vision on the edge of nightmare.

Sounds promising already, doesn’t it?

After his father collapses in a preternaturally eerie sequence, college boy Kyle MacLachlan returns home and stumbles across a severed human ear in a vacant lot. With the help of sweetly innocent high school girl (Laura Dern), he turns junior detective and uncovers a frightening yet darkly compelling world of voyeurism and sex.

Voyeurism and sex – two words that always say “children’s television” and “family fare” to me.

Drawn deeper into the brutal world of drug dealer and blackmailer Frank, played with raving mania by an obscenity-shouting Dennis Hopper in a career-reviving performance, he loses his innocence and his moral bearings when confronted with pure, unexplainable evil. Isabella Rossellini is terrifyingly desperate as Hopper’s sexual slave who becomes MacLachlan’s illicit lover, and Dean Stockwell purrs through his role as Hopper’s oh-so-suave buddy.

Did I mention the oral sex? The dead man with a sock stuffed in his mouth? Whoever edited this film for television – and whatever Gulf censors approved it – had a rather curious interpretation of acceptable programming. I’m an adult, and was working out in a room of other adults (most of whom, mercifully, were far from this particular television) and I was embarrassed that this movie was playing in front of us.

Amazon concludes that Blue Velvet, which it calls a “nightmarish masterpiece”,

is a disturbing film that delves into the darkest reaches of psycho-sexual brutality and simply isn’t for everyone.

I second that opinion and would like to suggest that a film that received an “R” rating  for sex and violence not be shown during primetime television house for “G” viewers.

Posted in Arab world, film, media, parenting | 2 Comments »

Lebanese grindhouse

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 30, 2007

G sent me two “movie posters” last week – French-language posters of Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” double feature doctored up to reflect Lebanon’s political situation.

Here is the first one, Planet Error (ne Terror) a “Shamhouse” production featuring Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea:

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and here is the original, English-language poster:

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I love the creativity that goes into the appropriation of these movie posters, just as I loved the “Holy Family” and other politicized holiday montages that circulated last December during the first days of the downtown sit-in. Anyone can criticize Lebanon’s political situation – but it takes skill, hard work and a sharp sense of humor to critique the country’s politics in a way that makes people laugh, not scowl.

Posted in film, humor, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

No ‘Kingdom’ in the emirates – but definitely in the republic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 12, 2007

The Kingdom – the new, reputedly Syriana-esque movie (set in the Gulf and featuring a more nuanced portrait of live there) – is out, but not everywhere. Its been banned in Kuwait and Bahrain (all the more reason for my aunt & uncle to come to Beirut next weekend!) for a “false depiction of facts”, according to the New York Times and AFP. But the UAE and Qatar are showing the film, and Saudi Arabia, for which banning is something of a non-issue since the kingdom has no cinemas, has said nothing.

Arab News, the English-language Saudi paper, published a round-up of opinions and concluded that banning the film was “counter-productive” and that Saudis should be permitted to see how other parts of the world – in this case, the US – see them.

Meanwhile, I checked the movie listings yesterday morning and saw that The Kingdom is playing here – in the ABC mall, at least (no word on whether it will find an audience in Verdun!). It probably isn’t a great movie, but I bet its great on a lazy Eid afternoon:).

(On the other hand, Jack Shaheen, who pioneered social science research on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood movies, is very critical. His review concludes with: In a time that calls for cultural understanding, we get crude antagonism. In a time that calls for nuance and clarity, we get dangerous simplifications and gross distortions. So … if you do see the film, think carefully about what you are seeing.)

Posted in Arab world, Bahrain, Beirut, film, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »