Jamil, a quiet young man, returns to Tunis after years in Costa Rica and Paris in Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba's excellent film El-Kotbia (The Bookstore), part of the opening-night program of the seventh annual Arab Film Festival, aka Cinemayyat. Having seen the world, El-Kotbia's protagonist, played by Ahmed el Hafiene, comes home saddened by personal tragedy, ready to recover his bearings in the cool mustiness of a bookstore. Once there, however, he finds himself witness to a conflict between his mild-mannered but traditionalist boss and his free-spirited wife, with the added complication of a mutual attraction to his boss' widowed mother. Unable to hide from life, Jamil regenerates despite himself. While an American or European film might play up the possibility of romance between this isolate and either of the two women, Saheb-Ettaba is more interested in the subtleties of the four characters' interplay as Jamil emerges as a chaste and perfect knight.
El-Kotbia is the centerpiece of the festival's first evening, screening after a presentation on "Arabs and the Media" by Dr. Jack Shaheen. But it's hardly the only movie worth seeing. Another fest highlight is Abdelkrim Bahloul's thriller Night of Destiny. An elderly man (Gamil Ratib) sees a contract killing while on his way to his Parisian mosque. He's able to blend back into his community despite two hit men's attempts to find him, and must decide whether to come forth as both criminals and the police seek him out. Bahloul uses the thriller format to sketch in the contemporary Arab community's uneasy interaction with postmodern Paris en route to the final showdown. Night of Destinyalso works as an intelligent crime saga more thoughtful than you'll find in either Hollywood film or on television.
Admission is $9-20 or $95 for a festival pass
In their incisive portrayals of cross-cultural conflicts, both El-Kotbia and Night of Destiny should last longer than today's headlines. Given those headlines, though, it's to be expected that several Cinemayyat programs plunge into current events via polemical documentaries. Two collage films (Jack Salloum's Planet of the Arabs and Nicholas Dembowski's Lord Song in a Strange Land) repurpose Hollywood footage to demonstrate ongoing prejudices, while Allyson Luchak's Duel in San Francisco follows a naive young man's uphill congressional race against local veteran Tom Lantos. Luchak withholds Maad Abu-Ghazalah's political party (Libertarian) until well into the film, and shares his surprise that he does so poorly in the 2002 vote. Her Capra-esque protagonist is left baffled and undone, which he needn't have been -- 7 percent is pretty good for a third-party candidate. Other pictures in the series include work from Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco, and Iraq. The first evening's program also features a rap by the "Iron Sheik" (William Youmans) and a traditional Dabke step-dance performance. In a world where Arabs are demonized, Cinemayyat should open some new perspectives.