Thanks to the continuing narrative creativity of Iranian cinema, several eloquent French-North African co-productions, and various supple political dramas, this year's Middle Eastern and African festival offerings are outstanding. Ali Farka Touré: Springing From the Roots is one of the finest documentaries on a musical artist I have ever seen. (Disclaimer: I served on the jury that selected it for the festival's Golden Gate Awards Grand Prize finalist list.) If you don't already worship Touré, the film is a superb introduction to the music and community status of this Malian guitarist, who skillfully articulates his relationship to the American blues tradition. Daresalam, whose village protagonists stake their lives on a revolutionary movement against a fictitious African country (spectacularly photographed in Chad), ends with a brilliant five-minute sequence weaving memory, hope, and despair. Few films have left me weeping for their beauty on a small television screen -- I can only imagine its effect in a theater.
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine is self-reflexive in the Iranian tradition, combining fictional and nonfictional elements in its account of star/director Bahman Farmanara's struggle to revive his aborted filmmaking career -- and to recover from the death of his beloved wife. Farmanara's third feature was never released because the 1979 Islamic revolution intervened, and he has not made a film since, until this one. Though the subject matter is dour and could use more humor, the film's exploration of the interstices between life and death in dreams is genuinely harrowing. (Smell of Camphor's SFIFF screening has passed, but it will open in theaters this summer.)
Some of the strongest works here contain large casts of women. Both The Harem of Mme. Ousmane (starring Carmen Maura) and The Season of Men focus on whole households of women, Algerian and Tunisian respectively, who stew in resentment and jealousy. Harem's women wait for their men to return briefly from overseas; those in Seasonstruggle in the city to surmount the intricate prohibitions of their gender. But in part as a function of their differing societies and in part as a result of the varied personalities of their matriarchs, the films are enormously different in tone: The former is shrill, awkwardly comic, and exhibitionistic, while the latter is restrained, subtle, and sardonic. Structurally more interesting as well, The Season of Men employs flashbacks without the usual signals (fade-outs, close-ups), implying that the present blends into the past with no progress made in these women's lives.
At least the women in the quasi-epic Egyptian film The Storm try to fight back. With the country poised on the eve of Desert Storm, the film manages to juggle a vibrant woman's midlife crisis, a teenage couple's Romeo-and-Juliet predicament, and Egypt's pained engagement in the conflict long before American intervention makes pawns of the neighboring countries.
If you missed last week's screening of the mysterious yet penetrating The Circle -- about the struggle of seven Iranian women prisoners to make it on the even harsher outside -- the film opens May 4 at select Bay Area theaters. Winner of the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, The Circle draws a wide net of surveillance and bureaucracy around its fearful but undaunted females, who have already transgressed against an unforgiving society and now want only to survive.
Ali Farka Touré: Springing From the Roots: Wednesday, April 25, 9:15 p.m., PFA; Friday, April 27, 9:20 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Daresalam: Thursday, May 3, 7 p.m., PFA
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine: Opens summer '01
The Harem of Mme. Ousmane: Saturday, April 28, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 29, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Season of Men: Thursday, April 26, 9:20 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 27, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 29, 9 p.m., PFA
The Storm: Saturday, April 28, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Circle: Opens May 4 at the Opera Plaza, S.F., and the Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley