The Mideast Beast

"We have become homeless because of the war and politics," says an old woman stranded near the Iran-Iraq border, fleeing the 2003 American invasion, in Ali-Reza Amini's The Riverside. It's one of several strong films reflecting the region's endless battles screening at this year's festival. In this absurdist drama, a bride who has stepped on a land mine and can't move without setting it off gradually acquires an audience of fellow wanderers, including the old woman, who's seeking the lost cow that had been her only companion; she tells a protracted story of a bride repeatedly offered nothing but dry bread and fish heads for her wedding feast as a way of advising us to accept "our fate and destiny." Other passers-by include a man carrying the corpse of his child, three men squabbling over yogurt, and a soldier hoping to sell the guns he's acquired.

Whether perpetual warfare is the "fate and destiny" of the Middle East is the burden of a number of the festival's documentaries. Iran's Bahman Kiarostami offers two as a double bill; one of them, Pilgrimage, records the same border crossings as The Riverside -- only in this case pilgrims traveling the other way, to a religious shrine in Iraq. The other, Kamancheh, is a lovely record of Iranian musicians. Fanaticism of two stripes -- Islamic extremism and American neoconservatism -- forms British filmmaker Adam Curtis' explanation for the present war on terror in The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. Curtis equates the two, positing Egypt's Sayd Cotb and Chicago's Leo Strauss as the movements' respective founders. His never-dull three-hour show employs archival footage, talking heads, clips from movies like 1940's The Thief of Bagdad, and cocktail music to present a counternarrative to official history that will win many adherents among Bay Area skeptics.

Lebanon's civil war of the early 1980s is the setting for Danielle Arbid's drama of a young girl's attempt to survive In the Battlefields-- the battlefields here being both her terrible extended family and the urban warfare that rages outside its apartment complex. Saverio Costanzo's Private is similarly limited to a single locale as it examines the never-ending struggle in Israel through a Palestinian family confined to its living room after Israeli soldiers commandeer the house. Conflicts between the equally stubborn father, mother, and older children, and between the whole family and the Israelis, make for a complex and involving drama -- and the best film I've seen at the festival so far.

The Riverside: Friday, April 29, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 1:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 9:30 p.m., Aquarius

Pilgrimage/Kamancheh: Monday, May 2, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Wednesday, May 4, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear: Saturday, April 30, 3:25 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, May 1, 2 p.m., AMC Kabuki

In the Battlefields: Thursday, April 28, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 7 p.m., Aquarius

Private: Tuesday, May 3, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

 
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