The most straightforward and harrowing of the lot is Checkpoint, a vérité record of real-life interactions between Israeli border police and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli director Yoav Shamir (whose government partially funded the documentary) doesn't hesitate to show rude and racist soldiers, but one leaves the film inclined to blame the unseen higher-ups who devise cruel, arbitrary policies rather than the grunts who enforce them.
Checkpoint allows viewers to reach their own conclusions, but the 4-1/2-hour Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel has an unambiguous agenda -- to explode the heroic myth surrounding Israel's founding. A pair of European-based filmmakers, Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan, drive the border separating the Jewish and Arab states that was approved in 1947 in U.N. Resolution 181. (War broke out a few months later, when Israel declared its statehood, and the territory it won became the actual border.) The co-directors interview mostly older people, collecting abundant testimony of Arabs displaced by Jews. Any hopes of swaying hearts and minds is undercut by the movie's length; those folks willing to make the time investment probably agree with Route 181's thesis before they walk in.
The stunning We Loved Each Other So Much carries us to Beirut, where everyone from taxi drivers to aerobics instructors takes solace in Fairuz's exquisite songs of longing and regret. A national icon beloved for expressing her country's suffering, the chanteuse supplies the soundtrack, which Dutch director Jack Janssen deftly matches to evocative shots of the skyline or interviews with, say, a doctor imprisoned in Syria for eight years. When Fairuz sings, "Love was lost/ Pain took its place," you can almost hear the entire Middle East joining in.
The features offer more chuckles than the docs, although the feminist Pakistani melodrama Silent Waters, about a mother's nightmares when her son falls in with visiting Islamic fundamentalists in 1979, aspires to high tragedy. The menace of authority is conveyed more subtly -- and with sly wit -- in the fest's lone Iranian entry, Deep Breath. The penetrating story of an aimless young man who hooks up with a verbose student provides a fascinating glimpse of the freedom and restrictions of life in Tehran.
The searing Israeli satire James' Journey to Jerusalem takes aim at the specter of Western materialism. A devout young Christian from Africa arrives in Israel on a spiritual mission, but finds himself waylaid into migrant work. Surrounded by hustlers and scammers, our hero gradually discovers a hidden entrepreneurial talent. A painfully hilarious parable of innocence corrupted, Journey (which opens on May 14) would speak to moviegoers in every capital in the Middle East -- if it could just get past the border police.
Checkpoint: Sunday, April 25, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 5:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, April 27, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel: Friday, April 23, 1:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Saturday, April 24, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki
We Loved Each Other So Much: Sunday, April 25, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Silent Waters: Thursday, April 22, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 1:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Deep Breath: Monday, April 26, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki
James' Journey to Jerusalem: Thursday, April 22, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, 4:05 p.m., Pacific Film Archive