Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reel Arabs and Real Arabs At the 2011 Oscars: Revolution, Independence, and History

Two of the films nominated for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar deal with historical themes regarding the Middle East and North Africa. Both had resonance with contemporary concerns before the wave of uprisings and revolutions across the region began in December 2010; and, their nominations were independent of those current events. Nevertheless, the confluence of the 2, and the awarding of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a few hours, amplifies the resonance of both the cinematographic representations and the real life videos, audios, transcripts, images, news reports, testimonies, and cultural manifestations (posters, chants, songs) of the protests.

Whether they win or not, the exposure gained by their nomination, and the resulting desire to view them, along with the increased number of showings in more cinemas both in major and less prominent cities, already enhances the average person's ability to relate to and better understand aspects of current issues in the Middle East. They will remain a long lasting testimony to past events, and their continued ramifications, one that uses art to shape memory and memorability.

Incendies (Scorched) (Canada)

Denis Villeneuve's Quebec film is based on an acclaimed stage play by Lebanese-Canadian playright Wajdi Mouawid. Though Lebanon is not named in the film, the knowledgeable will recognize the country of origin of the heroine and the events. Leaving the country vague, beyond "a Middle Eastern" country, broadens the issues and themes beyond sectarian violence to struggles for identity, dignity, and freedom. At the same time, the highly personal focus and details of the film bring the impact of these broad events and ideals into sharp emotional relief. As a story of family secrets--on their mother's death a twin brother and sister discover that their father is alive and that they have a half brother, but there are more secrets--the film allows for wide identifications even as the details of the secrets are unique to a more collective time of social disorder.

Wajdi Mouawid is one of the real Arabs who will be at the Oscars tonight, awaiting the fate of his reel Arabs. The actress who plays the primary role, through flashbacks in the film, Lubna Abazal, and who won the Abu Dhabi Film Festival's Black Pearl Award for Best Actress, for this performance, is half Berber (Moroccan) and half Spanish, raised in Belgium. In some ways she has shared the life of the "beurs" echoed in the nominated Algerian film, Hors-la-loi.

Hors-la-loi (Outside the Law) (Algeria)

Hors-la-loi (Outside the Law), Rachid Bouchareb's third film nominated for an Oscar, was written as a follow-up to his Indigènes or Days of Glory (2006) set during WWII. Although it is independent of the that film, the same actors are found in new roles, this time with the focus on the immediate aftermath of WWII in the French colonies, specifically Algeria. The theme of occupation France's by Nazi Germany, and the colonies by the French is key and "sensitive".

The film has sparked controversy, outrage, protests, and a French government inquiry into its historical accuracy, particularly the early scenes of the Sétif massacre, but also in Algeria because it doesn't spare the Front de Libération National (FLN). It has hit a still very raw nerve in France which has never fully come to grips with the Algerian War, and how brutal, low, and vicious it was in both France and Algeria. The loss of what was considered France's southern most province (not colony), still hurts. The influx of returning French, and Algerians loyal to France during the civil/colonial war, had a major social impact at the time, and continues to mark the descendants of all parties.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the extreme right Front National, now headed by his daughter (a kinder, gentler racist), who spent the Algerian War as a lieutenant in the French Army, torturing Algerians, was able to stir more than his usual hateful controversy, by calling French soccer star Zinedine Zidane a beur, but then incited violence and forced Zidane into his only public political statement by saying that Zidane's father was an "harki"--an Algerian who fought for the French Army against Algerians in the Algerian War. The accusation was false, but tantamount to an invitation to murder, or at the very least social ostracisation.

While a fiction, and therefore in some ways more powerful, Rachid Bouchareb's film is based on 9 months of interviewing participants and reviewing historical documents. Bouchareb has a history of producing films of high cinematographic value with high social impact. His 2006 film بلديون Indigènes (Days of Glory) had a direct impact on the payment of just pensions to soldiers of the French Colonial Forces who fought in WWII (see "Remembrance Day: Muslim Soldiers in Western Cemeteries"; and especially "The Liberation of Paris: Black and White Photos, and Whitening the Troops", and the upcoming "بلديون Indigènes: le cinéma comme agent social/ Days of Glory: cinema as social agent").

Like Incendies, Hors-la-loi anchors its themes on a family story, this time of 3 brothers and the choices they make in the post-WWII era of decolonization and war. In this sense, Hors-la-loi  (which could also be translated "Outlaws") is closer to the strife of current events, and their impact on individuals--events which may be understood as an ongoing struggle for true freedom, independence, and dignity for the Arab peoples of former European colonies, or "zones of influence".

It is hard to know who to support to win the Oscar 2011's Best Foreign Language Film award, but easy to celebrate that both films, show reel Arabs and real Arabs in a better and more complex light than Hollywood depictions. As a cultural anthropologist, Dr Lawrence Michalak, wrote in his highly readable and devastating article “The Arab in American cinema: From bad to worse, or getting better?”, only when the ethnic group starts making films about itself will Hollywood stereotypes fade. Oscar buzz can help get more of those films made, as well as increasing and broadening the impact of the nominees.

Related Posts:
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part I—Western Cinema
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II—Arab Cinema(s)
Remembrance Day: Muslim Soldiers in Western Cemeteries
"The Liberation of Paris: Black and White Photos, and Whitening the Troops"
Why, even if you hate the niqab, you should hate the French "burqa ban" more
بلديون Indigènes: le cinéma comme agent social/ Days of Glory: cinema as social agent-Upcoming

Will you be watching the Oscars?
What/who are your favourite nominees?
What is your impression of these 2 films?
What is the social impact of cinema in your experience/view?
Any other thoughts, comments, impressions?

Addendum: And the winner is, Hævnen [The Revenge] (In a Better World) (Denmark)

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