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A record breaking 92 countries have submitted films to the Oscar Award category for Best Foreign Language Film. Certainly the Oscar Awards carry their degree of controversy, but many of the great films shown this year at Toronto International Film Festival have been chosen by their country to represent them on the world stage.
There were three exceptionable and rewarding Palestinian themed films at TIFF this year, and Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult has been selected to represent his home country of Lebanon. A more timely film could not have been made and selected, seeing that this film addresses most every area of conflict possible. A Lebanese Christian mechanic utters a degrading statement after pouring water on a Palestinian construction foreman. A simple insult blows into an international scandal, and the battle of male egos, Christians vs Muslims and Lebanese vs Palestinians are brought into the analytic arena. It’s a thought-provoking, intelligent moral tale, a tale of redemption and forgiveness, as the protagonists have to decide how long they want to keep the battle going. Kamel El Basha, who plays the foreman, won top honors for Best Actor at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Deeply moving performances and a touching story are reminiscent of Doueiri’s previous award-winning unforgettable film The Attack, which told the story of an Israeli-Palestinian surgeon who confronts the possibility that his wife might be a suicide bomber.
Another Oscar submission, this one from Palestine, is directed by award-winning writer/director Annemarie Jacir (When I Saw Her, Salt of the Sea) and stars the iconic Israeli-Palestinian actor/director, Mohammad Bakri (Jenin, Jenin, Private, Hannah K). Measurably lighter than The Insult, Wajib still digs deep into the culture and times of Palestinians living in Nazareth with the Occupation and its humanist script allows viewers to experience interactions between people on many levels of society. It’s traditional (wajib=duty) in Palestine to hand deliver invitations for your daughter’s wedding. Bakri plays a father who’s wife had left years ago and remarried in another country. Her current husband is very ill and she’s not planning to come to Palestine for her daughter’s wedding. Bakri has his own health issues, severely strained by incessant smoking, but he’s assisted by his estranged son who came in from Italy, played by his real-life son, Saleh Bakri. Playing off each other like in real life, they confront the endless traffic jams, long-lost relatives of all types and the limitations in their own relationship to attempt without fail to deliver all the invitations. Along the way me meet many types as they challenge each other about politics, leaving the country, smoking, heart attacks and the incessant Occupation. The love between the people, especially the innocent daughter and her loving father and brother is portrayed deeply throughout this well written and directed film. We need more films like this, that reveal the beauty and depth of Palestinian culture. It’s a lighthearted marketable film about love and the importance of family.
One third of the films screened at TIFF this year were directed by women. Jacir is becoming a prominent representative of the Palestinian diaspora, and Erika Cohn (In Football We Trust) has joined the truth-tellers with her throughly enlightening film. The third film at TIFF to address Palestinian issues is an amazing and revealing documentary that explores a subject few in the West fully understand. The Judge follows the everyday activities of the only woman Shari’a judge in the entire Arab world! Kholoud Al-Faqih is a brilliant, lovable and soft spoken Palestinian woman with a progressive loving lawyer husband. Her father played a significant role in her profession also, surely a revolutionary minded defender of women’s rights. Not only are viewers given the rare opportunity to witness the Shari’a legal system in action but also a chance to experience how women are treated in Arab countries. Her court deals only with family matters, divorce and inheritance, and her personal and fair-minded approach to her clients is a rare thing to see. Of course everything can’t go smoothly and there is one conservative Koran expert who didn’t like her being a judge and forced her to be removed from hearing cases. But she eventually returned to the job she loved when a new superior judge came in.
Al-Faqih’s surprise appearance at the screening in Toronto brought the audience to their feet with applause. She spoke graciously about TIFF and the adoring audience. “We belong to a family who were replaced in 1948. Our life is all about struggle, especially after the Israeli Occupation. I belong to a family of 12 siblings. We all got our university degrees. Always been encouraged by our parents. Our parents are not educated but care about it and consider it a weapon how we fight the world.” Addressing a question from the audience, she explained that non-Muslims also go to Sharia court for inheritance. A mosque is a public place where all can go to. It has nothing to do with worship. She added that Christian people have their own courts that follow their religion. There is cooperation between them, especially in regards to inheritance. She also noted that Palestine is well known for being a tolerant place regarding religion. Another question from the totally engrossed audience was “Does the Occupation interfere with your life and work?
Her reply, “it’s not a direct intervention but its a challenge to work and live on the land of Palestine. Sometimes the barriers do not allow us to reach our clients or schools. We have to change to routes that take much longer.” Plus she mentioned that there are different legal systems in the east and West Bank and Gaza which complicates matters, and disproportionally affects women. The film is scheduled for release on PBS next fall but hopefully will be available elsewhere before then.
[Bill Meyer is a musician, writer and producer of progressive multimedia events. He travels worldwide performing jazz with several groups. A longtime political activist and aficionado of progressive cinema, Meyer usually writes on the culture pages of the People's World and other journals, and primarily reports on film festivals.]