Sabah, the opening-night selection in this year's Arab Film Festival, is an intelligently made, feel-good movie about a 40-year-old virgin, the put-upon sister in a large Syrian-Canadian family, who dares to sneak out of her house to swim in a local gymnasium. While there she meets a handsome single male, Stephen. Properly marketed, Ruba Nadda's film might appeal to fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Must Love Dogs. It's not different in essence from such movies, but the difficulties of cross-cultural romance seem as real in Sabahas the barriers between lovers are contrived in the American films.
In pictures like these, the aroma of freshly cut lumber is, as always, an aphrodisiac -- similar to the John Cusack character in Must Love Dogs, Stephen is a heart-sore heartthrob who works with wood (handcrafted boats in Dogs; handcrafted furniture in Sabah). Where Sabahexceeds its models is in the fine character work of Arsinée Khanjian in the title role, emerging from her modest veil to romance her Canadian as if from a cocoon. As Sabah patiently frees herself, she helps her younger sister avoid an arranged marriage, fusses over the mother she's assigned to look after, and evades the family patriarch, her kid brother, who forces a cell phone on her to better track her movements.
As Sabah's cell phone/monitor indicates, cutting-edge technology is not always liberating to members of traditional communities. But newly available digital cameras make The Dreams of Sparrows possible, a fascinating portrait of American-occupied Baghdad made by several Iraqis provided with hand-held lenses, the results coordinated and edited by Hayder Mousa Daffar. One contributor has a photo of George W. Bush in a place of honor; another records orphaned children living in squalor. As up-to-date is the Algerian Merzak Allouache's Beb el Web. Bouzid is a working-class denizen of the Algiers community Babel-Oued. He calls himself "Matrix" and trolls the Internet from a rickety computer parlor to invite women to visit him. He's astonished when a Frenchwoman, Laurence, takes him up on the offer.
Admission is $5-15
The festival continues at locations throughout the Bay Area until Oct. 2
As a look at modern Algiers, Beb el Web is fascinating. In American dramas, gangsters want the hero to throw his boxing match, but in Beb el Web they demand that the hero's brother arrange for his pet ram to lose a butting bout with their favorite. Traces of the West, however, are everywhere: The film's comic highlight comes when a kickboxing Laurence, like Trinity in the original Matrix, takes on the gangsters. It turns out that the clash of civilizations in this year's festival has less to do with ideologies of freedom than with the conflicts between traditional cultures and the postmodern, taboo-shredding West.