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As always, Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival, parts the veils of misunderstanding surrounding a rich culture

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
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Myth, legend, and certain Iranian films aside, women in the Arab world are not strictly confined to medieval existences; indeed, several of the features screening in the eighth annual Cinemayaat, the Arab Film Festival star women wearing European fashions, with careers, who go so far as to have affairs with married men (as in Egypt's Sleepless Nights and Algeria's Viva Laldjerie).

This does not mean that these products of socially conservative countries don't reaffirm what could fairly be called Islamic family values. Goucem (Lubna Azabal), the protagonist of Nadir Mokneche's Viva Laldjerie, is patently unhappy with her affair with a married doctor, and the issues that divide the four upper-middle-class Cairo couples of Hani Khalifa's Sleepless Nights have largely to do with reaffirming each of the men's fragile self-respect. In most cases the female gives up something important to her (romantic illusions, a demand for fidelity) in order to get or keep her man. (The film punts, however, by leaving unresolved one of the women's desire for a career.)

Nevertheless, these movies present as givens certain social peccadilloes, such as the boozy men of Sleepless Nights' enormous capacity for hash, that wouldn't pass in an American equivalent to such yuppie melodrama. A good deal of Viva Laldjerie takes place in Algiers' gay demimonde (where Goucem's lover's son cruises). Always looming in the background is the specter of Islamic fundamentalism. Goucem's mother, a retired belly dancer, would like to reopen her Copacabana club, but it's in the "Islamicist" zone. Yamina Basir-Chouikh's excellent Rachida begins with a close-up of its heroine putting on bright red makeup, but before long this teacher has been surrounded by terrorists who want her to carry a bomb; she refuses and is shot. Taking refuge in a village, she resumes teaching school, confronting danger and prejudice along the way.

This excellent series also includes other fictional features, some excellent (such as The Kite, showing only in San Jose), plus many documentaries (including the well-known Control Room and Route 181). As always, the festival parts the veils of misunderstanding surrounding a rich culture.

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Gregg Rickman

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